Chulayarnnon Siriphol's solo exhibition is absurdly meta. Inspired by Behind The Painting, a classic Thai novel written by Sri Burapha in the 1930s after the Siamese Revolution, the show at Bangkok CityCity thrives on an impish humour and a contemporary re-evaluation of the respected book and characters.
A visual artist and filmmaker steps into the shoes of the novel's protagonist Nopphon -- a Thai studying in Japan who becomes infatuated with a married noblewoman, Kirati, during a visit to the country with her husband. Eventually falling for each other, the two are torn apart by cultural factors like age and class, ending tragically in Kirati's death.
Playing the character of Nopphon, Chulayarnnon creates an epilogue to the novel by having the character transform the gallery into the "Museum Of Kirati", a memory palace of their forbidden love displayed through a 50-minute video, watercolour paintings, moving pictures, a sculpture and a meticulously painted brooch.
On display until Jan 21, Museum Of Kirati at first could be mistaken for a real museum, its subject for a real person. There's a permanent and a temporary collection with detailed captions describing Kirati's life and accomplishments. There's Kirati-related merchandise sold at the "museum shop", and also an archive. On opening day, there was even a Buddhist blessing ceremony where monks were invited to chant at the venue. Chulayarnnon dressed up as Nopphon for the event.
However, stepping inside the dark museum space, everything seems a little off. So off, in fact, you can't help but crack up due to what you see before your eyes.
In the temporary exhibition, which consists of a 50-minute movie about Kirati's life, Chulayarnnon takes on the role as both protagonists, the aristocratic Kirati and her younger lover Nopphon. Audiences watch as the innocent-looking Nopphon falls in love with a lightly moustached Kirati. The dialogue comes straight out of the novel word for word, and each scene ends with the last shot turning into a watercolour painting seen hung around the temporary exhibition's walls.
Walking into the permanent collection, visitors come upon a number of moving portraits (think Harry Potter) of Kirati either with family members or doing activities like weaving garlands. To the side in a small window display, there is a small brooch and sculpture of her, blessed by monks on opening day. And again, it's all Chulayarnnon dressed in a well-done wig and outfit.
Chulayarnnon in character as Nopphon on the museum's opening day. Bangkok Citycity Gallery
"At the blessing ceremony, the monks understood that there's really a new museum opening and they're going there to bless it," said Chulayarnnon. "But when I took them around the exhibition, they started asking, 'Is Kirati still alive? Has she passed away? Why does she look like you?'. They were starting to get curious. I tried to have it go as far as I could," he said, laughing.
"There is humour in it, but it's humour that's not purposely done to make you laugh. My past works have always had a sense of humour to them. Maybe it's just my personality, so it comes out in the work."
But as funny and charming as the exhibition is, like the original novel it is full of profound messages and questions that can easily be missed.
"If you've read analyses [of Behind The Painting] by scholars, they say that Kirati symbolises the elite of the past -- before the [Siamese] revolution, whilst Nopphon is the new generation who has received education and is coming back to develop the country with democracy," explained Chulayarnnon. "Their love isn't meant to be. During the time of the revolution, the elites were dying off and there was a new middle class coming up. But when we look at society today, the new middle class don't feel as if there's any conflict or rejection of the elite. It's like these two classes have benefits towards each other. So I thought it's possible that Nopphon would be able to build a museum for Kirati in this era."
Chulayarnnon is known as an experimental filmmaker as well as visual artist whose brand of satire and deadpan mockery hide layers of critical messages. In his film Myth Of Modernity, he sends neon pyramids flying over a crowd of anti-Yingluck protesters. In his mock-music video, Think Kindly, an angel floats nonchalantly above the half-constructed (or half-ruined?) Democracy Monument, as Buddhist chants play in the background.
In the eight-minute Thai Contemporary Politics Quiz, he pairs a series of phoney questions with real-life, politically charged images. One shows a group of soldiers pointing guns during the deadly crackdown in May 2010. Quiz-like text about it reads: "Which traditional Thai performance best shows joy and enthusiasm?"
In Museum Of Kirati, Chulayarnnon also explores the role of the museums by creating this fictional space and touching on aspects of an unreliable narrator like Nopphon.
"I think any museum in the world -- there's a certain agenda to it," he explains.
"There's the politics of memory. The person who built the museum, they're choosing and selecting certain memories to present to the viewers. So I thought if this museum was built with Nopphon's own memories, how would he want to present Kirati to viewers? Sometimes Kirati has certain angles which she doesn't want to be seen -- angles she wishes to hide. So it's asking how much can we believe that this is the correct representation of Kirati? It speaks for other topics as well -- for example, history itself through education and schooling. There is power in the person who wants its citizens to remember history a certain way. And which part of history has been erased?
"Changing the space from a white-cube gallery into a museum, people would have to think what is the process of creating a museum? What's its goal? I'm using Behind The Painting as a platform that jumps to talk about other issues."