Cutting through the noise

A group exhibition that subtly questions what society and the government tells us

'85-140 dB'. Photos courtesy of 85-140 db

Noise levels over 85 decibels begin to harm humans' auditory system. Yet the group exhibition "85-140 dB" at WTF Café and Gallery places audiences -- fictionally -- in that range between the exposure to potentially dangerous sounds and a complete loss of hearing.

This grey zone of sorts allows painter Paphonsak La-or as well as sound and multimedia artists Arnont Nongyao, Albrecht Pischel, Sompot Chidgasornpongse and Pisitakun Kuntalang to explore collective states of self-censorship.

Ironically, self-censorship does not manifest itself in the form of silence or white noise in the show, but comes through parasite noises, cryptic messages keyed by error and half-escapes.

Like the noises we're exposed to, core values, teachings and mantras are present in our daily lives in Thailand, whether we see them or not. These have the same numbing and deafening effects on society, explains curator Penwadee Nophakey Manont.

"85-140 dB" is the second chapter of a curatorial research project, "Rejecting Mantras", undertaken a couple of years ago. The first exhibition, held last year at Silpakorn University, explored nationalist agendas, perceptions of the "other" and the reclaiming of individual identities through the works of artists in Thailand's Deep South.

Attempts to achieve self-expression and cut through the surrounding noise appear in lining, rather than the direct criticism of imposed values.

As a whole, the exhibition functions as a survey of Thailand's silence and the stifling of voices.

Paphonsak La-or's Loss Of Hearing. Photo courtesy of 85-140 db.

Arnont Nongyao's sound installations, the manual doctoring of records from the 50s and 60s, open the exhibition -- plunging viewers in a half-present state. While he changes the rhythm and frequency of the recording, the audience's perception of the music itself becomes challenged, as the tune disappears to the profit of rotating noises and vibrations. After a short while, these vibrations begin affecting the heartbeat in turn, leaving visitors to explore the rest of the exhibition with a palpable sense of discomfort. Is it that the lies and fallacies have distorted the actual tune, or is the artist trying to send a code through?

Synaesthesia occurs when Arnont's sound works meet Pisitakun Kuntalang's trippy, phantomatic videos, as the background noises and images blend. With little channels to display discontent regarding the socio-political situation, Pisitakun turns to escapism -- using video game-like imagery and blurred, almost unrecognisable renditions of television programmes and real-life images.

Meanwhile, the superposition of images in Pisitakun's works contrast with German artist Albrecht Pischel's blank films -- 8mm colour films that were damaged as a result of being passed through an X-ray machine during his journey from Berlin to Bangkok. The blank images, displayed on small screens at floor levels, accidentally become metaphors for the surveillance and scrutiny imposed on individuals. The anthithesis-like reunion of sound and silence is a running thread throughout the show. Sompot Chidgasornpongse, in his melancholic 16-minute video Bangkok In The Evening, replaces the actual sound contained in the footage by piano music.

But the familiar yet bittersweet sight of Bangkokians standing still in many parts of the capital isn't lost on anyone who has witnessed the city come to a pause as the national anthem is played.

Paphonsak La-or, the only painter whose work is featured in the exhibition, also reprises his 2013 Loss Of Hearing: Piano Concerto No.5 (The "Emperor"), having incorporated into it elements of his 2017 exhibition focused on political exiles. The artist depicts himself holding a sign containing exiled academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul's erratic Facebook post, a word he keyed by mistake -- portrayed here as a message tossed into the sea.

While the exhibition challenges auditory perceptions, resorting to other senses is necessary, as the gallery is plunged into the dark, leaving visitors fumbling to see the wall texts and artwork captions -- and in some cases, the work themselves. On the gallery's 3rd floor, a message painted by Pisitakun is only half-visible, requiring audiences to turn on their phone's flashlights to view it entirely.

"It's left entirely up to the viewer's choice," says curator Penwadee. "They can either decipher it or remain in the dark."

Arnont Nongyao's sound installation. Photo courtesy of 85-140 db.

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