To any outsider visiting Bangkok for the first time, the first word they might use describe the city would probably be "chaos". From the polarity of old and modern, rich and poor, nature and synthetic, it's a lot for anyone to take in.
Never having spent his childhood in the mayhem of the City of Angels, Thai-British filmmaker Shane Bunnag attempts to understand the underlying forces that propelled Thailand from green pastures and paddy fields to the concrete decadent jungle we have today.
Inside Sukhumvit 43's Galerie Oasis is his latest photographic exhibition "Ruam Mitr Village" -- a dreamy, poetic and unprejudiced look at what Thailand is as his mind sees it.
There are dreamlike images composed of scenes from old Thai series superimposed onto images of multimillion baht luxury mansions -- some of which are completely abandoned and run down. These vivid and blurry montages are paired with peaceful shots of suburban jungles, creating a diptych that forms a poignant and haunting message of Bangkok's ever evolving and contradictory state.
Life talks to Shane about his exhibition and process.
Filmmaker and photographer Shane Bunnag at Galerie Oasis. Apipar Norapoompipat
Could you tell us how this project came to be?
I'm really interested in the underlying things -- what was here before underneath the city and what was in the delta region. You know, all the canals, the animals, the shrines, the people that used to live here before it became this massive urban centre. And because I've been living out in the suburbs and I think you see all of that in its most naked form. I was in On Nut just a few days ago and there's a little wilderness there. You don't quite really know how big it is but it shocks you. It's like this puncturing of your reality when you come face to face with that. I think you find that more in the overlooked areas around the suburbs where you see all the juxtaposition -- all the factories next to the residential zones. Things that might have been there for hundreds of years, things that might have just popped up. I was interested in this binary nature and I started thinking about doing a series that would be somewhat narrative.
How did you take these surreal dreamlike photographs?
I started the whole thing with this one photograph and it was an old house that was abandoned for about nine years. It had the last residence's belongings everywhere and it had a really strong atmosphere. I was allowed to come in to take some photographs before they started renovation and it really sparked something inside me and I wanted to continue.
I started off doing a base layer that was all medium format film. I wanted it so it would be a landscape or an object of a still life, and then something that will be performative that would counterbalance it. The performances are things that are not quite right like the guard holding a pot of plastic flowers or incongruities like a woman appearing in a funeral scene. There's something that's almost right but a little big absurd.
Not coming from a photographic background -- I come from a film background, I don't even know what the rules are. I just do things as they feel right to me, and that I also feel aren't really being done. because what's the point of doing what everyone else is doing?
The photographs are beautiful but it's quite difficult to make out what they are.
That's one of the ideas as well -- the idea of transparency and opacity between the diptychs. the montages are more opaque and harder to see what's going on but when you start to look at them at either far back or close up, they open up a possibility -- a new vista that's a combination, and that is again a sense of puncturing realty -- the porousness of reality.
This is a lot to take in.
[Laughs] Yeah it's confused things in my mind. But I think that's a part of living in the tropics. Everything is a lot to take in. It's forbidding in a way. You go out and you're bombarded by sound, the motion, the people, the colours, and that's my feeling about Thailand and it's my first Thai work, and there's a lot that's been building up in there that I needed to [let out].
So it's basically your experiences and what goes on in your head while you're living in Thailand?
Yeah. Basically it's my feeling about where we are as a society without being judgemental. Not like 'this is terrible' or 'this should be different'. No. It is like this, and there's something remarkable about that. There are things that are really kind of earthy and real and there are things that are completely artificial and plastic and they somehow meld together and they somehow work.
You said you wanted the photographs to be somewhat narrative. Do you want the audience to figure it out on their own? Or do you have a narrative you would like to tell?
I feel that people should make up their own story. It should be something that invites you to interpret it but it doesn't tell you what it should be. That is also the process of photography -- that the camera can kind of be a dividing tool, because you have these opportunities to do amazing things with it and it's not just about capturing a specific moment and proving something happened. That's something I'm really interested in is the possibilities of this medium and also what that can mean for people and how receptive we are. And I think because we're in our Instagram and on our phone all day long people are more into these ideas. I don't think it's diminishing to photography at all.
Will you continue with this project?
I started it last July and I finished everything in September including the scanning and the montage. It happened very quickly and it was a very specific moment and it's done. I'm already doing the next series and again it's quite different. I'm satisfied, and I think I said what I needed to say about this. There's a lot more I'd like to do in Thailand.
The Embarkment, left, and Peeping. Photo courtesy of Shane Bunnag