Monday, June 25, 2012

Image and Material

About a month ago, I was wandering through the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Amid the textiles and pottery, I came on a painting by a not terribly well-known Thai artist named Pongdej Chaiyakut.

From another angle:

In the grid, we have an unsettling group of images: crushed skulls, moon-faced generals in uniform, baby elephants that look weirdly fetal and primordial, stray dogs with their assholes open.

This is, in reality, the imagery of what people see every day in the news and on the streets, rearranged and contorted as if seen in a dream. The viewer is really seeing the lurid crime scene photos plastered across the front page of every Thai scandal sheet newspaper; the massive military parades, commandants in sunglasses saluting the tricolored flag; and the grimy curs that lurk on every street corner, mangy and sunburned, too lackadaisical and degenerate to even bark.

The farang tourists come to see a sun-drenched little kingdom by the sea, the golden Buddhas that recline amid temple bells, the heavily misted monsoon forests that tumble down the sides of the mountains; in this romanticized vision, even the peasants and urban poor are little more than pastiche images providing local color. Look underneath the freeway, and find another world entirely.

And what I love about artists like Pongdej is their unabashed willingness to confront this other world.

Ordinary people in Thailand have fought, tooth and nail, for real democracy since the fall of the absolute monarchy, against the petty despots that have so often come to power here. It's taken decades, but the country seems, shakily, in fits and starts, to be moving toward that ideal.

Yet there is the lingering taste of fascism. Its aesthetic expresses itself everywhere. At the level of "high culture," it is faux Greco-Roman concrete, and epic, three hour long nationalistic cinema in which the integrity of the kingdom is perpetually assaulted by faceless outside forces. At the level of popular culture, it is soap operas and the tabloid press. In a fascist climate, focus group-tested media becomes therapy. Intellect becomes paranoia, despondence.

What we get is a hologram. The horror and grit as well as the humanity and the beauty of daily life are trapped within a fleeting image. Inundated in reproduced image, it becomes harder and harder for us to accept what goes on under the dancing sheen of digital light.

As someone who claims to be politically and socially aware, I try to and have to keep alive the hope that someday, somewhere, people will awaken from their stupor. Marx called this principle class consciousness, Thomas Paine called it common sense. I can't say I know what an ideal society might look like. All human action is buried in obscurity and contradiction. But at the end of the day, I am trying to hold onto the same vision: that guided by some distant star, we can find out how to be less awful to each other.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Text and Solitude

The monsoons are coming in, and I've taken refuge in one of the many giant malls that dot the vast expanse of North Bangkok. I don't know where I am. It could be Lat Phrao, Huay Khwang, Din Daeng.

This coffee shop has comfortable chairs, and I'm sitting here scratching at my e-book reader. Living in this country, my typical sources for a steady supply of books are no longer available. So I've been downloading and collecting, and trying to come to terms with a magnetic screen.

For someone who holds books in such high esteem, it feels somewhat uncomfortable to transpose the experience of reading a novel to yet another session with a screen. I've always had this feeling that books were somehow different from any other medium-- I've watched lord knows how many awful movies, how many hours of trashy television, but most every book I've read has been a book written for a higher purpose, whether it be art or philosophy or science. When I engage with a screen, I expect it to be nothing more than a distraction, even if it turns out far more than that. But when I open a book, my hope for it is that it might be a sole point of light in a world I so often find to be venal and disappointing.

And this might be because reading a book is such an inherently solitary and personal experience. The act of reading is a full confrontation with oneself. I stare at the words on the page, and come face to face with my own thoughts, my own prejudices, my own hopes and fears.

This is what makes the act of opening a book so remarkable, especially at this cultural moment when there is an enormous pressure on all art forms to be maximally social. Even when we are alone in our rooms, we are plugged into a network, pressing like/dislike buttons on websites, chatting with friends, writing in comment threads, looking through our acquaintances' photos, poking into the lives of Facebook friends, gaming socially, buying socially, reading online magazines and newspapers that develop content based on its potential to go viral.

Which means that for so many of my generation, the act of reading a book is a little intimidating. I know so many people-- fiercely intelligent, curious people-- who pick up one, maybe two books over the course of a year. When one is ensconced within one's network for an entire waking day, the idea of not only being alone but radically alone can be terrifying.

It's not that people are dumber now than they were in the past. Consider that the average young American probably reads now more than ever before. With the constant access to a stream of information, we are constantly submerged in textual ephemera, in text messages, e-mails, articles, blogs, Tweets, chats, and wall posts.

But when I go into the 2 hour cycle of e-mail/Facebook/Youtube/Reddit/various blogs/various newspapers, I emerge exhausted, somehow wanting more from each site, somehow feeling insufficiently entertained. No matter how much raw text I consume online, I will never feel invigorated or fulfilled by it.

It is this textual inundation that makes the notion of a solitary, concrete text that much more therapeutic. I open a book. I read a paragraph about light and color, and it seems that every page flies out at me.

Which brings me back to the coffee shop. All around me, teenage couples split slivers of cake, expatriate men chug coffee while their Thai wives send text messages written in a script their husbands can't read, and office workers peck at their smart phones. Outside, the monsoons blow hard against the flimsy tents of the street vendors. I sit by the window, skirting the line of separation between a harsh reality and a plastic middle class fantasy. I look briefly at the words in front of me, before closing my book, and I couldn't be happier to be alone among the crowd.