Chatchai Puipia interview: Cracking beneath the surface (1999)

Gridthiya Gaweewong, R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC 15 March 2011
This interview was first published in ART AsiaPacific, 22, pp. 68-73 in 1999.

R.J. Preece (2011): Back in the day, I thought Thai artist Chatchai Puipia was an absolute nutter. I’m still not satisfied with his lack of clarity concerning his artistic intention, and his explanation of subject matter and execution still falls flat here. But his blunt statements and media exposure about his feelings with the Thai/international art world system are easily 6-8 years ahead of me on the Art Design Publicity track. And for this, looking back, I now clearly realise, Chatchai, JOB WELL DONE!

Now onto the interview...

Throughout 1990s, 35-year-old Chatchai Puipia has frequently participated in international art shows focusing on Asian or Southeast Asian art, and has unofficially become one of Thailand’s contemporary art representatives. His work focuses on positioning himself in a variety of physical contexts, and it has facilitated interpretations that Chatchai is critiquing Thai culture and his international art world experiences. Yet the artist suggests we use our “imaginative” powers to reconsider both his work and the art systems that position the work.

Chatchai Puipia can be difficult to pin down. We interviewed the often playful and elusive Chatchai in 1997 and 1998 at his home and studio in a residential area in central Bangkok to see how much previous packaging relates to Chatchai’s intentions.

R.J. Preece & Gridthiya Gaweewong: Much has been written about your work’s subject matter as it relates to the context of living in Bangkok and to traditional Thai culture. Do you agree with these interpretations?

Chatchai Puipia: I don’t agree or disagree. Personally, I think that reflection on contemporary and traditional culture is only a small detail of my work. A deeper meaning might include dreams of society and the world. Yet since I don’t really understand it, my work functions more like “illustrations” of today’s reality, rather than raising questions or critique something. It’s something static and melancholic, like normal people living in today’s world.

Preece & Gaweewong: How do you see these readings as specifically relating to, for example, your very popular work Siamese Smile?

Chatchai Puipia: For Siamese Smile I suggest that not too much attention be placed on the title. I used a title which is familiar to almost everyone to tell a story in order to create a new kind of feeling—a funnier feeling. The viewer can easily make comparisons between this title and their own experiences and feelings.

I started this painting when I was an artist in residence at Art Tower Mito in Japan. It’s actually a sarcastic joke that deals with the more general issue about human beings encountering a dilemma. Although it’s a narrative, the content is quite ambiguous. It’s a portrait from Japan, and there’s something about Japanese characteristics that I tried to understand, to communicate.

Preece & Gaweewong: A great deal of your work focuses on your self-portrait in different contexts. Why?

Chatchai Puipia: It’s a reflection of my feelings at that moment. I see both the “art world” and the “real world” as nothing special. Communicating and participating in today’s world can lead to despair. Often, the only thing I can do in response in smile. The smile, for me, means “surrender”, and shows that we as human beings either surrender or lose.

What does losing mean? It means that to lose from our passions, from our activities, and from our knowledge that which could contribute to good causes.

P & G: What do you intend with your recent work Paradise Perhaps?

Chatchai Puipia: Paradise Perhaps reflects my sensitivity and feelings about society. The motivation is drawn from stories of our everyday life. It expresses my feelings about the nonsense of society’s ambitions, which depend on an unknown and uncontrollable structure. At some point it collapsed and it’s ridiculous. It has reinforced my belief that everything is nonsense and is absurd.

P & G: The background of Paradise Perhaps seems to recall a European tradition, with an elegant red curtain, a stage, and perhaps reference to a certain social status. The work seems rather critical of this staging in replacing people, or actors, with your monumental arse!

Chatchai Puipia: Previously, I’ve used my face and it has become like a trademark. I’d like to use other parts of my body, and the best solution is my arse! In this work, that’s right, I’m concerned with addressing this kind of history as much as with the images in the work.

P & G: Why the positioning of your arse this way?

Chatchai Puipia: When you look through your legs, if your balls are not blocking your view, you’ll get a new vision, see new things, and get new ideas. In other words, I love the form. I went through several rolls of film looking at it, and I even drove after a truck on the street which had two pigs hanging like this scene. They hold their legs, lock them, and turn them upside down.

P & G: With your move to figurative work around 1992-93, essays about your work have placed more emphasis on your subject matter, with the result that the formal aspect of your work have been ignored. How do you suggest we understand your form as it relates to your content?

Chatchai Puipia: I present it in the easiest way, and with the level of abstraction that fits for me. I ignore other artists’ styles and I don’t refer to the history of figurative art. I don’t think about “style”; I think about my individual creation.

P & G: Why did you change from non-figurative to figurative works?

Chatchai Puipia: I didn’t think seriously about changing styles, and it wasn’t a conscious decision. During that time, I quit my visiting lecturer position at the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts at Silpakorn University. During this transition I stopped thinking about the art world’s movements and the abstract tradition of Silpakorn, and I even stopped making artwork for almost a year.

Afterwards, I started thinking about details in our everyday lives. Sometimes I painted my wife, myself, my dogs and cats, all without any expectations. Overall, the later work results from a feeling that I wanted to do something not “serious”, something which is not that “important”, something new, something different.

In the art world we talk about expression, new movements, new concepts, and extending the boundaries of art. How far can we go? For me, I try to think about sincerity, truth, honesty and integrity— things respected in other parts of our society, which never seem to exist in the art world. I think these values will enable our art community to contribute to society. Why is our self-indulgence, concern for advancement, activities and presentation— which we consider as avant-garde— considered to be “development”?

P & G: What is important to you?

Chatchai Puipia: I pay attention to imagination. I want to play with the boundaries of technique, fine art and painting as much as I can. I also want to stimulate other’s imaginations. Perhaps the images I create might help at a certain level. Since the rupture of the economy in Thailand, we finally realised that we don’t need another chance or new debt, we need imagination— new ideas and creative thinking. The most irritating thing is that people in the art community are the very group of people who lack imagination and creative thinking, and we hardly project anything new for society.

P & G: Do you think that is an artist’s role— that artists should take responsibility for reshaping society?

Chatchai Puipia: We need to stimulate society to seek imagination as an alternative. Usually, whenever there’s a crisis in a society, artists and writers always have important roles, and are always at the forefront. What else can we offer besides our rebellious souls? Artists should take the leading role in order to advocate people’s spirits.

P & G: It’s interesting that you don’t usually talk about your artwork in depth with Thais—that is, the tradition of portraits, your ideas and approaches, and your socio-political message. Why is that?

Chatchai Puipia: It’s hard to tell. Generally, visually literate people or those familiar with art history will get the point. But when I start to talk about these issues with Thais, it becomes ridiculous.

P & G: What do you think about the art scene in Bangkok?

Chatchai Puipia: It’s too conservative, too conventional, and still attached to some principles that control expression. It’s quite a pretentious scene, and artists often attempt too much to “become” artists. This doesn’t offer the best opportunity for creation.

Artists, especially those from Asia, who become part of the art world need to accept certain kinds of conditions.

P & G: What kind of conditions?

Chatchai Puipia: Marketing, administration, organisation and trendsetting. It’s impossible to make it without support from our own community. Unfortunately, this is derived from international administration, which sometimes has questionable objectives.

There is a big gap between local knowledge, concepts, and even information compared with international curators. From my experience, if we could spend the same amount of money to generate our own activities, create our own seminars, it would help us share within our community. Obviously, part of existing activity is a continuing search to be the centre of the world. This might not be as graceful or beautiful as our oriental dream.

P & G: In comparison to international administration, what do you think is the major reason for artists and arts professionals not receiving funding within Thailand?

Chatchai Puipia: As an artist I am not in a position to request any help from the government. Powerful leaders, both economic and political, lack artistic awareness, which results in no policy and no support. This actually results in a different kind of art, which might not be so bad. As a result, we might have a group of artist-activists who create an unconventional movement. In the current system, if we just live without trying to network with each other, then nothing happens.

The meaning and value of the artist here will always be different. The relationship of art to society will always be different. Because it is different.

P & G: Do you think these dynamics affect the number of artists working in Thailand?

Chatchai Puipia: Yes, that might be true. The problem is how we categorise artists and how we perceive artists in this country compared to other places. For example, in the past “artists” were people who won prizes in the national competition; now we are judged by our inclusion in international art shows, biennales and/or the grants we receive to travel abroad. If we use this criteria, there are few artists here. But, if we talk about people who make art, are trained in schools or self-taught, then there are many artists.

P & G: When funding becomes available from international sources and international curators come to town, you are one of the few people who benefit from it. How do you feel about this?

Chatchai Puipia: Disgusted with my own existence. It’s weird how we survive. With the limited opportunities in Thailand, it seems like we exist in an outside world, rather than in our own community. It’s rather depressing considering the opportunities we have, and I feel uncomfortable that I don’t really belong to either of the two art worlds [international and Thai].

P & G: Have the major shows you’ve participated in, such as “Traditions/Tensions” and the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennial changed your life?

Chatchai Puipia: It’s hard to tell. The fact that my paintings were selected is different from, say, an installation artist. Unlike conceptual and installation artists [for the most part], I didn’t go and install the work and have the opportunity to meet people and exchange ideas. After my works were chosen, for a while I forgot about it. Then the works returned with the catalogue of the show.

P & G: You seem to have several concerns regarding the Thai art system and the international system. Yet, with your success, you have obtained a certain amount of power. What are you doing to help make the Bangkok art scene better?

Chatchai Puipia: Power? I don’t think I have power per se. If I have power—like Andy Warhol said, fifteen minutes of fame— then my time is running out, and I wouldn’t use it like people who have power now. I will use it in a different way, a better way.

Actually, being part of this kind of art scene, I don’t feel like talking or being active. Preferably, I would like to be free from obligation to the outside world and have more freedom in my own life and control my own thoughts. Yet I still enjoy observing people around me and analysing the situation.