A real hero

New exhibition challenges black-and-white view of society Story: Tatat Bunnag

Discussing Thai society and its current political situation can be a highly sensitive matter. It seems there's a thin line between being labelled a hero or a villain. The same actions may be hailed by one side as patriotic and the other as treasonous.

'Planet Krypton'. Photos courtesy of WTF Gallery and Café

Local activist and former lèse-majesté prisoner, Pronthip Mankhong has teamed up with radical artist Pisitkun Kuantalaeng for a superhero-themed art exhibition titled "Planet Krypton", revisiting Pronthip 's two-year stint in prison.

"Planet Krypton", which opened last week at WTF Gallery and Cafe on Sukhumvit 51, uses interactive multimedia installations to expose the ambiguities in our attitudes and the realities that society so often tries to ignore. The hope is that the experience will challenge people's ideas about society and what is right and wrong.

"The idea was born out of the fact that I've got so many stories to tell," said Pronthip. "Especially from my years in prison, where so much happened both in my head and around me. I have also written a book, but it still wasn't enough. I needed to share these stories and let people experience them in a more direct way."

In 2014, Pronthip was convicted of insulting the monarchy following her involvement in the political play Chaosao Mapa (The Wolf Bride) along with some of her student friends. The play, which was staged in October the previous year, was part of commemorations of the student massacre of Oct 6, 1976.

After she was released from Bangkok Central Women's Correctional Institution in 2016, Pronthip became a vocal campaigner for prison reform in Thailand. She also started a support group to assist former inmates following their release. Then, at the end of last year, she approached curator Somrak Sila of WTF Gallery and Cafe with her idea for an art exhibition. Somrak suggested Pronthip collaborate with Pisitkun.

But why the superhero concept?

"Because, like in the movies, in every society, if there are villains, then there are heroes too," Pisitkun said. "When people decide to stand up and take action against injustice for the sake of society, they are heroes."

Pisitkun's art tends to focus on political and social turmoil. His work has been exhibited internationally, most recently in 2013 when he created a solo project called "Unfinished History" which was run in Tokyo and Beppu, Japan. He has also had his work exhibited in Hong Kong and Busan, South Korea.

Pisitkun Kuantalaeng. WTF Gallery and Café, WTF Gallery and Café

"We named the exhibition 'Planet Krypton' because it's about a mysterious place that not everybody will get to see: jail. We're making a connection between prison and Krypton, the planet where Superman came from," he said.

Pronthip says that each inmate is sent to prison for different reasons, but most of them are automatically judged as bad people by those on the outside. However, having actually been inside, meeting them, she has a different perspective: there are good and bad people everywhere, be they inside or outside prison.

"In the beginning, superheroes aren't aware of their abilities -- not until they've gone through some exceptional circumstances," she said.

Prior to conceptualising this delicate and complex reality into an exhibition, Pisitkun did hours of workshops with Pronthip and some of her fellow former inmates, in order to make sense of their backgrounds, make connections with their personal experiences and get a clearer idea of what it was like to be inside the women's prison. But Pisitkun made sure to add a heavy dose of humour so as to make the subject more palatable to sensitive members of the public.

"I didn't put my personal opinions into this work. My job was only to understand Pronthip and her friends and convey the messages they wanted to communicate," said Pisitkun.

The entire 2nd and 3rd floors of WTF have been transformed. The 2nd floor has been made to look like the crowded, dismal cells of the women's prison, giving audiences a closer look at what life was like for the inmates. The 3rd floor, meanwhile, is Krypton, the home of damaged superheroes. Each room on both floors is filled with games and activities to give visitors a fun, interactive experience.

Pronthip Mankhong. WTF Gallery and Café

Visitors are also given a questionnaire with a series of questions about different life situations and scenarios. The answers are processed by an AI machine that then tells them what kind of superhero they are.

"There are five different superhero costumes for visitors to put on. They can have fun taking pictures in a space with a special backdrop," said Pisitkun.

"Nobody wants to end up in prison, so it's not our aim to scare people off," Pronthip said, explaining why the exhibition has a humorous, positive feel, despite its serious subject matter. "Of course, there are many hardships and struggles when you're inside. But at the same time, I made a number of good friends during my time there. It was just another chapter of my life.

"And looking on the bright side, having been put in jail, I have come to realise what my hidden superpower is. Perhaps the reason I was put there in the first place is because the villains knew what I was really capable of, got scared and tried to silence me."

Planet Krypton Until June 2 (closed Mondays) At WTF Gallery and Cafe Sukhumvit Soi 51 Tel 02-662-6246, 089-926-5474 Facebook: WTFGalleryandCafe


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