Satirical and documentary, the visual language of former photojournalist Manit Sriwanichpoom in Phenomena and Prophecies displays a certain perspicacity in recognizing urban conflicts and decadence in contemporary Thai society. Inspired by his memories of student-driven activism of the 1970s, Sriwanichpoom’s works appear to have been produced with the intention of critiquing the overwhelming hypocrisy of political processes in Thailand and the burgeoning capitalistic mindlessness in urban cities in the 1990s.
A former photojournalist and social activist, Sriwanichpoom’s work examines the necessity of interrogating the spaces between the recording, the construction and the reconstruction of history. This Bloodless War (1997) recreates a classic series of images from the Vietnam War and the bombing of Nagasaki – significant events involving Western conflict with Asia in the 20th century – and decries the economic reality of globalization (possibly suggested to be synonymous with the influx of Western influences) and its debilitating effects on Asian cities. In an image that references Associated Press’s photographer Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a child’s desperate flight from a Napalm attack on her village, Sriwanichpoom’s angst-ridden portraits of well-dressed figures seemingly flee a similar attack of unrestrained economic development and capitalistic trappings.
But perhaps it is the ubiquitous Pink Man that is Sriwanichpoom’s most well-known tool for social criticism and commentary on the dangers of overconsumption, played in its inception to crass perfection by Thai writer and artist Sompong Thawee wheeling a supermarket trolley down Silom Road – the opulent financial district in Bangkok – in Pink Man Begins (1997). Prophetically materializing in early 1997 before the onset of the Asian economic crisis precipitated by the fall of the Thai Baht, the Pink Man responds to uncontrolled excess through stylized and extreme behavioral imitation of those he saunters past. His presence is impossible to ignore, filling the exhibition space with sheer force of color rather than with (non-existent) charisma and glamor; his allure paradoxically lies in his ridiculousness and absurdity. Many unflattering adjectives describe his entire get-up and behavior: flashy, conspicuous, mad, tasteless, expressionless, obscene, self-absorbed – probably appropriately so, seeing the immodest manner in which the Pink Man celebrates materialistic success, accompanied by a pink shopping cart that is not unlike Sylvie Fleury’s gilded Le Caddy (2000).
The reaction of the audience to the Pink Man is understandably varied but it is our speculative glances at the character’s purpose and our inability to look away from his garishness that consequently nurtures the Pink Man’s presence beyond the streets of Bangkok. Born to carry Sriwanichpoom’s discontent with the modern conscience to the masses in later exhibitions, the Pink Man razes through the hill tribe villages and rice fields of Northern Thailand (Pink Man on Tour, 1998) before journeying internationally on a European Grand Tour (Pink Man on European Tour, 2000) to wander the train stations, and pose with naked French women in Paris.
While Pink Man is, as curator Ark Fongsmut suggests, a “presenter of questions who travels to various places…appear[ing] when there is an incident of abnormal phenomenon and arri[ving] looking indifferently at his surroundings”, his indifference ceases in what could be considered the most provocative of the Pink Man series, Horror in Pink (2001). Pink Man appears once more, digitally slotted into photographs of the dramatic events of the 6 October Massacre in Thailand in 1976, where left-wing student protests were violently clamped down by the army and paramilitary forces that stormed the Thammasat University in Bangkok. Joining the lynching as a superimposed, amused spectator, Pink Man ironically builds into this reconstructed piece of history an increased, tangible sense of fractured identity, his vulgar presence heightening the disservice to justice and the instability of a political institution whose sense of democracy is at best, dysfunctional.
Manit Sriwanichpoom was born in 1961 in Bangkok, Thailand and has exhibited in shows such as the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial (2010), the 6th Gwangju Biennale (2006), the 1st Pocheon Asian Art Festival (2005) and the 50th Venice Biennale (2003). Guest-curated by Ark Fongsmut and co-organized by the Singapore Art Museum and the Singapore International Photography Festival for the 2nd Singapore International Photography Festival 2010, Phenomena and Prophecies runs at the Singapore Art Museum at 8Q until 7 November 2010.