Vasan Sitthiket: Blacklist (1997)

Review of exhibition at Aiem Joon pub, Bangkok, 23 July - 15 August.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 9 October 2010
This review first appeared in ART AsiaPacific, 19, page 93 in 1998.

Vasan Sitthiket

Vasan Sitthiket has certainly challenged audiences with “in-your-face” subjects before. He has presented the sins and underbelly of Thailand for all to witness—be it prostitution and sexual escapades, corruption and other excesses of power, or rampant consumerism. In his recent solo exhibition, Blacklist, Vasan Sitthiket presented fifty portraits of current and former Thai government leaders. Inspired by the drafting of a new constitution in Thailand, these works document frustration with the political and economic processes that have resulted in recent crises in the region—the floating of the baht, forced closure of several finance companies, an overbuilt property market, and an uncertain political landscape. Each portrait presents one of Thailand’s “finest”, covered with bullet holes. According to the artist, the number of bullets depends on the extent of the crimes of the politician represented: more crimes, more bullets.

Quickly executed, the portraits sometimes resemble their subject, but at other times the artist opts instead to relay a certain mood through symbolic use of colour, or to depict subjects with identifiable attributes. Deputy Prime Minister Samak Suntoravej, whom Vasan Sitthiket accuses of talking too much, is painted with his mouth covered by a flip-flop, a strong insult in Thai society. A former prime minister who, Vasan Sitthiket alleges, is homosexual, is depicted wearing shocking pink lipstick— a visually symbolic outing, in unflattering heterosexist terms. Gold and silver squares are used to indicate the real thoughts on the minds of the politicians— money. Resembling dark characters in comic strips, the portraits offer a quick remedy to Thailand’s latest constitutional crisis—shoot everyone involved and roll in the next string of characters.

Unlike his previous exhibitions, the portraits in Blacklist relate more closely to the "Vasan style"— accessible yet controversial works, with somewhat shocking subject matter and drop-dead, "in-your-face" social commentary. In early 1997, Vasan Sitthiket exhibited paintings of idyllic seaside landscapes, inspired by a trip to Koh Bu Bu in the Andaman Sea, displaying an attention to detail not evident in his social works. Seemingly more controversial within the art community than his sociopolitical critiques, the landscapes were interpreted by the local press as a movement towards more saleable artworks. Meanwhile, Vasan Sitthiket claimed— unconvincingly— to be addressing environmental preservation in these paintings. In any event, his return to more "acceptable" subject matter raises questions about the artist’s choices and the expectations of the art public: can Vasan Sitthiket escape the sociopolitical label, and why is it that landscapes can produce more controversy than the work in Blacklist?

As peculiar as Vasan Sitthiket’s recent work has been, his selection of the exhibition site was even more so. Well off the beaten art track in a suburban stretch of Bangkok, Blacklist was located at a pub next to a video store and opposite a grocery. This location appears to have been selected as quickly as the portraits were painted and sold for 1000 baht each (approximately USD$30), with a portrait of the very unpopular Prime Minister Chavalit being one of the first works to be sold. The casual venue also extended to the arrangement of works in Blacklist: at the time of my viewing, the bar’s dartboard was positioned under the portrait of Chavalit.

While a certain knowledge of political personalities and the local crisis-ridden sociopolitical and economic climate makes these works highly accessible to Thai viewers, the confrontational approach and easily recognisable form of the portraits make them approachable for almost everyone. The power of Vasan Sitthiket’s work should not be underestimated in a climate in which the Thai government has issued a formal threat of crackdowns against "rumours" of possible coups and assassinations.