When the French Royal Academy established a hierarchy of genres in the mid-seventeenth century based on a distinction between imitare – art that made an intellectual effort to “render visible the universal essence of things” and ritrarre – art that merely consisted of “mechanical copying of particular appearances”, landscape painting was ranked in the fourth position, below history painting, portrait painting and genre painting. Requiring no human figure or action, landscape painting, as a portrayal of a scenic view for its own sake, is not a work of an intellectual-skillful effort of a painter.
Whereas the definition and evaluation of landscape painting was challenged across the centuries, in Thailand, landscape painting remains generally an object for decoration. In 2017, a Chiang Mai-based painter Paphonsak La-or created a series of landscape painting under the themes of political asylum and exile. The exhibition Far From Home has a title that was derived from Klai Ban (Far From Home), a compilation of travel writings of King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V, r. 1868-1910). King Chulalongkorn is the first Siamese King to travel to the “civilized” Europe (1897 and 1907). The King sent many letters and postcards, particularly those of landscapes, to his love ones. His collection of letters and postcards sent during the second Grand Tour to one of his daughter, Princess Nibhanabhatala, expresses both the King’s fascination towards the European world and his longing for home.
Unlike a happy ending at the end of the King’s journeys, those who live far away from home in La-or’s Far From Home were forced to live abroad and could not return. The Far From Home of the twentieth-first century changed the device of story-telling from letter and postcard to a postcard-like painting. La-or depicted the state of being away from home of the Thais in exile through twenty-nine acrylic paintings of mountain peaks in thirteen different countries where they have lived since the military coup in May 2014 – Cambodia, Laos, America, Japan, France, Finland, New Zealand, Spain, Australia, England, Canada, Sweden and Denmark. There was another painting of an unknown landscape with the title Somewhere since many asylum seekers were still wandering in the neighboring countries, waiting to find asylum. La-or left a pile of blank canvases at the gallery corner to represent them. Here, landscape painting became a mode of political discourse. It represented a sense of escaping trauma of home country.
Apart from the landscape paintings, La-or showed a series of portrait paintings under the title Far From Home (Them). These portraits showed faces of the political exiles that the painter has merged into one. Their portraits look like a facial composite that police mainly use in their investigation of, mostly, crimes.
Who are these political exiles and why are they perceived by the Thai state as criminals?
After the two coups d’état in 2006 and 2014, the state mechanism of censorship in Thailand, especially the lèse-majesté law (Article 112) and the Computer Crime Act, has imprisoned hundreds of people and forced many to leave the country. La-or is one of a few Thai artists who shows critical engagement with the Thai political conflict and the trauma of home country. For this project, the artist searched primary information from online newspapers such as Bangkokbiznews and Thai E-News and rechecked it with iLaw, a Thai human rights NGO that engages with various groups of civil society and the public to acknowledge and promote democracy, freedom of expression, civil and political rights as well as a fairer and more accountable system of justice in the country. He also worked closely with a group of human rights lawyers, at the same time following conversation on social media like Facebook to get the more in-depth knowledge and their current situations – as far as they allowed.
Far From Home was a result of an investigative research on lives and stories of the Thais in exile. Their stories reminded him of King Chulalongkorn’s Klai Ban, only these exiles could not return. As art project, Far From Home connected and compared the two sensations of being away from home, one of the ruling elite of the early twentieth century, another of the commoners who currently struggle to survive. A writing of an unnamed exile individual that appears on the art book Far From Home 2017 encapsulates the difficult situation in which most of them have confronted when fleeing from Thailand:
“I referred the word “walk” (not “travel”) intentionally, because on that day I spent approximately 6 hours walking up and down the hills in one of the mountains in Thailand. It was the most tired time of my life. In the end, my legs were almost too weak to stand or to walk any further…”
Far From Home by Paphonsak La-or is on view at ARTIST + RUN in Bangkok, Thailand between 17 June and 22 July 2017.
By Thanavi Chotpradit, Bangkok, September 2017