Unveiling layers of himself
Thai pioneer Pramuan Burusphat's retrospective reflects decades of his development as a person and artist
A photography show on display at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre's Studio room on the fourth floor is anything but pictorial in the traditional sense. Confronting viewers right after entering is a collage of shots arranged together, kaleidoscope-like. Nearby, four images placed together capture the photographer's motion while walking. Further inside, the photographer's self-portrait is ghostly transparent as a result of an experiment with long exposure.
Impressive? Yes. But it would have been just another experimental photography show we see too much of these days until we realised that this is a retrospective, titled "Destination: Still Unknown", of 64-year-old photographer Pramuan Burusphat. Most strikingly, these works were from the late 70s when "conceptual photography" couldn't be more foreign an idea in Thailand.
Art photography in Thailand began with Pramuan, many assert, and this includes Manit Sriwanichpoom, one of Thailand's leading photographers who co-curates the show with Zhuang Wubin.
"If anyone asked me who's had the greatest impact on my life, the answer has to be Pramuan Burusphat," said Manit. "After he just got back from the US, he taught me at Srinakharinwirot University and inspired me to become an artist."
In 1971, Pramuan was sent to the US to complete his high school studies. After studying graphic design at the University of North Texas, he did an MFA in photography at North Texas State University from 1976-1979, the period that was the beginning of his lifelong interest in experimenting with printing and photographic techniques.
The first section of the exhibition takes us back to that period. The series from 1977 capturing his foot movement is titled Walking, and this sequence of images was inspired by a lecture by Duane Michals, an American photographer known for innovative use of photo-sequences. Landscape Project from 1979 is another good example. It comprises three photographs put together to somewhat tell a single narrative, and that was very much against the old photographic tradition at the time that a subject is illustrated in a single shot.
Manit said that Pramuan was truly a pioneer at the time when photography wasn't accepted as fine art. Back then, the idea of good photography was defined by photographic clubs' standards, namely the picturesque landscape, natural beauties, or everyday scenes like monks asking for alms. Manit said that the exhibition will help viewers see the journey of Thai contemporary photography.
After teaching art history and printmaking at Srinakharinwirot University, he became a founding faculty member of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts in 1982. From 1984-1988 and 1991-1994, he headed the Department of Visual Arts. It was during this period that he pioneered the first BFA programme in photography in Thailand. In the mid-90s, he moved and settled in New Zealand, where he still remains.
Further inside the space, viewers are led to various phases of his development as an artist, and one of his key series includes the "Autobiographical Images Series". Zhuang Wubin explained that it was through working on that series that Pramuan came to realise the power of shaping materials into it has become an art object. Many of the works in these series are deeply personal, from a shot of a letter his father sent him when he was abroad to a self-portrait. What's striking about the series is not only honesty in telling his personal stories but also the techniques by which the images were printed. The strange and eerie colours reveal layer after layer of chemicals he added before the work was finished.
"The process convinced him of his competency as an artist," wrote Wubin in the exhibition guide. "In other words, his identity as an artist surfaced experientially through the making of the Autobiographical Images Series. Pramuan uses his art-making to probe the unknown, to make sense of his life and to attain aesthetic pleasure."
In this sense, then, his art is inseparable from his life. We watch black-and-white images Pramuan took of objects in his home with a sense of sad nostalgia once we learn that they were taken after he just got back from abroad and he was struck by how much things had changed.
Seeing the complete oeuvre of his works is to feel the sense of restlessness in the artist's quest to define art and photography. In his later series, like "Recycled Images" in the late 90s, for instance, he would mix old images with layers of drawings and paintings and found objects, thus asserting that art is a cross-border of mediums. For the "Eroded Memories" series (2014 to present), Pramuan manipulated damaged negatives into abstract works through the digitalisation process. Here he revisited his interest in photography as a means of recording memories and at the same time continued to question the possibility and potential of his art practice.
"Destination: Still Unknown" is on view until Feb 28 at Studio room, 4th floor, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.
Pramuan in Interior Project (Self-Portrait), 1980. PRAMUAN BURUSPHAT
Eroded Memories Project, 2014. Photos courtesy of PRAMUAN BURUSPHAT