Enoch Cheng: Your work often questions art and aesthetics, and how art is perceived. In Blind you were inspired by interviews with blind students and their concepts of beauty. You put textured objects into a container and blindfolded viewers, who were only permitted to see the objects after experiencing them. What inspired you to make this work?
Pisithpong Siraphisut: Actually, in Blind I created ball sculptures with different textures, both inside and outside. I also added different smells to them. I was amazed by the concept of beauty held the blind students; it was completely different from my own concept as a ‘visual’ art student. The mysterious ‘beauty’ that I discovered from working with the blind students really opened up my vision in art.
In part of the interview, we talked about colours. “What is the colour of the sky?” The answer is blue. But what does ‘blue’ really mean? How do blind people know that the sea in front of them is the same colour when the sun sets and rises? They are told to believe that the sky should be blue, as we normally believe. So I tried to encourage them to discover new ‘colours’ by working together. We used different textures and smells to sculpt our colours. Blind was a part of my final art project for my sculpture course that semester; I was given the academic result of an F for that course. One of the critiques from my teachers was that “the colours of your sculptures are not beautiful".
EC: Let’s talk about one of your earliest works, Heart & Shit (1997). Can you tell us the idea behind this work?
PS: Heart & Shit was created during my first year at university. The work was installed (without permission) in front of the main exhibition room of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University, during the teachers’ annual exhibition – the night before the opening.
It was my personal criticism towards the art scene at the time. Instead of admiring and discussing art, people came to the opening to talk about themselves and others. I felt that the art opening was full of shit. It was just an excuse to hold another party. So I used a pig heart, freshly bought at midnight from a slaughterhouse, and my own manure in the early morning, to represent my personal feelings.
I studied science before enrolling in university to study art. My other classmates were from art colleges and art programmes with astonishingly practical art training. So, I felt very isolated from my peers as I couldn’t really draw or paint realistically or beautifully. What I could do was work with a more conceptual practice, which didn’t gain much support from my teachers at the time. Heart & Shit was an example of my personal study of the varieties of art practice.
EC: Your work is often concerned with the concept of ‘communication’. For example, you asked groups of participants from various communities (some deaf, others of diverse nationalities) to gather and communicate on a paper without oral speech. From your observations, what were the most urgent things that people wanted to express?
PS: Art is a communication tool. It is another language we use to express our ideas and thoughts. In Silence Party I created platforms where anyone could use their first ‘baby’ language, with body movements and their common sense to communicate with each other.
As an observer, I saw that many people started to draw circles. That could be significant to people’s territory; that other people could break and extend these circles into other images – other territories, or temporary societies. Just as when we first know someone; we often offer our private circle (ball) to people to roll around and hope that it will roll back to us again. It seemed like most people wanted to express their love – the need to love others, and the need to be loved.
EC: A number of your projects cast doubt on the education system and the art market. In Puppet, you worked with, as you described, “people outside the art world”, asking them to exchange an artwork with their personal belongings. And in My Art, you used a questionnaire to ask them about their ideas of art. When did you start to have these kinds of questions?
PS: Coming from a science background, I had dreamt that studying art at university would be a never-ending playground where I could experiment with ideas, thoughts, action, and imagination. It made me mad and very sad when I saw that a small group of powerful people could transform ‘art’ (which is very abstract) into numbers, such as the grading system. My dream playground had become a concentration camp, right at the beginning of my academic study, when we had to wear the student black and white uniforms with shaved heads and were forced to participate in the stupid, army-like junior welcoming session.
EC: Really? You had to shave your head?
PS: All first year male art students at Chiang Mai University are forced to shave their hair by their senior staff. The female students have to comb and tidy their hair neatly. They also have to wear the ‘right’ black and white uniform. They have to participate in army-like activities every evening for the whole month, or two. This activity is very common in most Thai universities: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TveBNeS8YkI&feature=related) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYh97KvWr60)
I have spent seven years moving around different art departments, trying to finish and claim my bachelor degree. During my time at university, I have seen and experienced that the art education system and its people are not charming – especially in Thailand, where art is made to satisfy the bureaucratic system, a narrow-minded hierarchy. It doesn't matter what you do, or who you are – to present your work in some museums and galleries, it's all about who you know, art politics. Art education is a package similar to those instant noodles you can buy from shopping malls. The art market always pays attention to those artists who follow the rules, who win art competitions, just like in sport. For me, art should go beyond that territory to be able to create something challenging and new.
Great artists in the past didn’t have an expensive art degree. People who painted the caves were probably also hunters. People who sculpted Buddha statues were probably also farmers. Artists were pioneers who also did other things that people nowadays don’t consider as art. Many contemporary artists are self-taught or have come from non-art backgrounds. The contemporary art world is so wide nowadays and extends to all fields. Contemporary art is modern vocabulary, which exists in some parts of the world, but not everywhere. But the idea of ‘art’ itself exists everywhere. Perhaps it just needs time to be rediscovered again.
EC: You have also developed projects closely with other artists, such as Twist & Twist which focused on the process of making art. Among artists and “non-art” people, what was the major difference about their concepts of art?
PS: We cannot understand all art, but we can experience it. To me, art and life share the same road. To really understand an artwork, we should also study the artist’s life. Artists are the people who know the grammar of art, and speak it well. But it doesn’t mean that anyone cannot speak the language. To me, if the artists want to really share their ideas/concepts with the public, they should make their language available to be understood.
Working with artists is always a great experience for me. I think that artists are trained to perceive the world differently. They are the people who try to create something all the time, even language. As an artist, I find it doesn’t take that long to understand each other’s language, just as musicians can read each other’s notes. What is amazing is that many times when working together with artists, we don’t need to read the scripts, but are able to create very interesting rhythms together. It is also fun to work with people outside the art circle. I really admire them, especially when they don’t really understand what they are doing, but are willing to give it a try. I have learned a lot from ordinary people. We actually learn from each other so much, just as everyday life is a learning process. The difference is that the artists and people’s languages are sometimes different. It’s wonderful to create something together and pretend to forget to name it ‘art’.
EC: In 2004 you co-founded Thailand’s first non-governmental Artist-in-Residence programme, the ComPeung Village of Creativity. Can you tell us about it and what it set out to achieve? How do you view it after these six years?
PS: ComPeung is a collaboration project between myself and Helen Michaelsen. We see ComPeung as a playground or an oasis for like-minded, creative people. In 2005, when we found the site of ComPeung, it was just an empty piece of land with nothing – just like an empty canvas. We planted the trees, built the houses, and installed the physical infrastructure (such as water, electricity, road) by ourselves with the help of local people and friends. Two years later, after we had developed the concept and transformed it to reality, ComPeung hosted the first artist in our residency programme in January 2007.
At that time, we realized that we needed an alternative space where artists and creative people could play and experiment. Artist-in-residence programmes were always linked with big governmental institutions (universities, museums and galleries) which require a headache process of application and are limited to small groups of people. So, we wanted to offer something as inclusive as possible to those who are serious about their work.
We have been hosting artists from around the world and from all disciplines for the past three years. The network has been growing organically and slowly. Some artists have been coming back, new creative people are arriving. Due to a private donation this year we have been able to give out two fully-paid grants for artists. We plan to organize the 5th Anniversary of ComPeung in 2012, when we will invite the alumni artists to come back and work together. We also plan to publish the ComPeung catalogue in that year.
EC: How about your own current projects? Can you discuss your latest project, Big Foot?
PS: Big Foot started with my dream and passion to go back to the Himalayas after my first visit 10 years ago. This time, I wanted to go beyond the limit of my mind and physical body, and also the limits of my artistic practice. Rather than expecting that I would get some stories, I decided to let Big Foot follow the flow of unexpected possibilities. I see Big Foot as an ongoing project with different kinds of art materials. After 31 days of walking in the Himalayas (most of the time alone, with no guide and porter), and two weeks working in Kathmandu and Pokhara, I had many hours of video footage, photos, sound clips, and sketches to work on.
As the key member of ComPeung, I am always the host and have to look after the guest artists and visitors all the time. Big Foot gives me an opportunity to be a guest, to focus on my individual project, and most importantly – to be completely alone. When I walked alone in the Himalayas, there were times that I felt like I wasn’t going to come back home - from getting lost, going off the main tracks, running out of drinking water, almost falling from the sharp cliff and landsides, and being ill from altitude sickness before reaching the 5,400m pass. These experiences were unexpected, but I enjoyed them so much when I found that I was still walking forward towards the unknown. One of the unexpected processes that has already been archived was the 1st Thai Film Festival in Kathmandu which I worked on with Nepalese filmmakers and journalists (the Independent Film Society, Nepal). The event was held at the Tourism Board of Nepal last June.
At the moment I am writing a book, which hopefully will be published at the end of this year. I also hope to go back to Nepal and continue Big Foot next year.
EC: In Your Message is in the Bottles you placed different website addresses related to “utopia” in each bottle for the viewer to take home and further discover. If this interview were a bottle, what five websites would you give us?
PS: Your Message in the Bottles is a journey. The viewer will find part of a quote and a number in the bottle. When they use that information to unlock my web-based page, they will find information similar to the below (the links to the websites are attached with each quote):
a. “There is nothing like dream to create the future. Utopia to-day, flesh and blood tomorrow.” Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, 1862
b. “All that we are, is the result of what we have thought.” Buddha
c. “The most pitiful among men is he who turns his dreams into silver and gold.” Kahlil Gibran
d. “You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah, 1921
e. “It hurts to find out that what you wanted doesn't match what you dreamed it would be.” Randy K. Milholland, Something Positive Comic, 2004
EC: My final question: your artwork Our Statements is really a Zen piece. The different pictures juxtaposed together, with you holding a blank artistic statement while you were traveling through different countries, really opens up the imagination. But let me ask you an obtuse question: can you estimate the worth of this piece of work?
PS: There is no limit in our imagination; therefore my answer is in your question.