American researcher Philip Jablon’s photographs of abandoned movie theatres in Southeast Asia is on show in Bangkok.
“Future’s Ruins”, on show at H Project Space from 28 January to 29 May 2016, draws from Philip Jablon’s photographic series “The Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project”, and looks into the remnants of Thailand’s cinema-going experience before the rise of shopping malls.
A series of photographs of stand-alone theatres in a state of dilapidation is displayed against an elegant backdrop of the colonial architecture of Bangkok’s H Project Space, a part of H Gallery. Curated by the space director and curator Brian Curtin, the exhibition entitled “Future’s Ruins”, featuring remnants of a different cinema-going experience in Thailand in the past before the rise of shopping malls, is on view until 29 May 2016.
The photographs were selected from American researcher Philip Jablon’s “The Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project”, an ongoing photographic documentation of the region’s remaining stand-alone theatres. According to the press release,
Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and essentially modern in character, Jablon’s images of these now mostly dilapidated sites capture a great sense of Southeast Asia’s conflicted relationship to the historical ideals of modernity.
For Jablon, the project began for fun. In 2007, as a graduate student of Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Social Science, he first came across this type of theatre in Thailand amidst a bustling market area in Chiang Mai province. Because of lack of knowledge on the history of city development, Jablon previously assumed that the first movie theatres of this Northern city would be in shopping malls.
Jablon was fascinated by this different kind of cultural atmosphere – the same feeling he used to have in his hometown Philadelphia where stand-alone theatres no longer exist. The 36-year-old since started searching for and photographing these rapidly disappearing theatres in the region, which are almost always in dilapidated condition. He has since travelled to many countries in the region, from Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to Singapore and other locations. Jablon reveals:
At first, I started taking pictures of these buildings to make a record of them, for future generations to see. This type of theatre stands for the community, the old and traditional market culture and the local identity.
What began as a leisurely hunt and as way to explore the country became a thesis of his graduate programme and now an ongoing project throughout the country and across Southeast Asia. With two major grants from the Jim Thompson Foundation and the Thai Film Archive, he travelled to every province in Thailand and documented roughly 250 stand-alone theatres, less than ten of which are still in use today. All the theatres featured in this exhibition are in Thailand and are no longer in use.
On the wall before entering the exhibition room, three old movie posters – Walter Hill’s 1979 The Warriors, Chana Kra-prayur’s 1982 Mae Leuk Kerd Dai and Chung Ching-Woon’s 1982 The Stunning Gambling – create a nostalgic atmosphere of going to the movies in the old days. The photographs inside, however, give a sharp contrast to that image, showing a grim reality of the current situation.
Two large photographs on vinyl displayed on the floor are as much still images as they are experiential installation objects that seem to draw viewers inside the space. They are interior shots of Mongol Rama in Kanchanaburi province and Petch Siam Theater in Sukhothai province, both of which, in a serious state of ruin, with seats fallen out, roofs broken down and covered in dust, have been closed down almost two decades ago.
Likewise, the set of 16 photographs on walls, all strictly of the same topological view of the theatres with their title signs, speaks of the vibrant history of stand-alone theatres in Thailand in the past and of their decay now. Bang Khae Rama is one and a good example of how stand-alone theatres are in rapid decline; in later days it became a porn cinema before closing down just last October 2015.
Another cinema from the set, Burapha Theatre, was an important part of not only Thai cinema history but history in general. Eleven kilometres from U-Tapao International Airport in Rayong province, Burapha Theatre flourished during the time of economic boom when the US Air Force used the airport for their military base during the Vietnam War.
On one hand, Jablon says the exhibition simply shows that, although these businesses might be dead, the buildings still exist and could be renovated for future projects. On the other, the show relates to notions of memory and a sense of nostalgia, appealing to older people because of fond memories – their first Star Wars experience or their first dates – are attached to these very sites.
Most of these theatres are constructed in the International Style of architecture, but from that alone, it may be difficult to pin down the period of time they were built. However, the same frontal shot format gives a clear view of the cinemas’ signs, from which visitors can speculate on the time they were built. Jablon explains:
It’s the evolution of theatres’ names. If the names end with “parp-pa-yon”[film in Thai], they are from about the 40s or 50s. If it’s “rama”[possibly from “cinerama”], it’s probably from the 60s to 70s. In the 80s, they usually end with “theatre” and then “cineplex” is the most recent era.
For those familiar with the photographs, the exhibition is an extension of the viewing experience provided on Jablon’s blog. The most significant aspect of “Future Ruins” is the fact that, for the first time, they are treated as an installation in an art space. Jablon told Art Radar:
As with any method of isolating a given object or subject, putting the project in an art space re-contextualizes these buildings. What might otherwise be a disparate group of run-down buildings in forgotten corners of Thailand now becomes a spectacle. The viewer can more easily read these buildings now. They become part of a narrative that had slipped from sight and memory.
For curator Brian Curtin, the colonial architecture of the art space is not only a perfect backdrop to the images but also something which creates a dialogue with the modernist designs of the cinemas. Together, they emphasise conceptual ideas about architectural style, meaning and history, rather than just the aesthetics. According to the press release,
The title, “Future Ruins”, refers to the utopian ambitions of early modernist design and here the buildings are not shells of past failures because modernity remains a desired state in the region; rather, they are signs of time that hasn’t happened or has yet to.
The contradictory intersection in the installation – graceful colonial structure with modernist buildings in gradual decay – gives visitors what Curtin calls “a sense of historical time upset”. The architecture no longer represents specific times or cultures.
For Jablon, the original intention may simply be a documentation of these rapidly disappearing theatres. Photography by itself is already an abstraction of something else. Put in an art space, the possibilities of its representation in viewers’ minds become endless. In this space, visitors are also in a way invited to look at these cinemas merely as structures, as objects rid of their original function. History through these buildings then extends its context beyond the history of movie theatres.
For Curtin, the installation is significant in a way that it intersects critical issues of art / non-art, research / practice, aesthetics / social interest and viewing / participation. Curtin tells Art Radar:
By intersecting, the installation is not one “thing” or something else, it raises questions about contemporary art, photography and what “we” think is the function of visual culture in the contemporary world.
- Mike Tsang on using photography to explore the British Born Chinese community – interview – February 2016 – documentary photographer Mike Tsang talks about his ongoing curated project “Between East and West”, which explores the heritage and identity of the British Born Chinese
- “The world is our home. A poem on abstraction”: Para Site’s Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero – interview – January 2016 – Art Radar interviews Para Site curators Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero about their new show “The world is our home. A poem on abstraction”
- Armenian diaspora artist Hrair Sarkissian on view at Fondazione Carispezia – January 2016 – Syrian-Armenian artist Hair Sarkissian’s photographs are presented for the first time in a solo show in Italy at Fondazione Carispezia in La Spezia
- “A Gradual Thaw”: Toshiya Murakoshi and the power of silence – January 2016 – Japanese photographer Toshiya Murakoshi’s silent landscapes speak the language of grief and memory
- Back from the dead: Reclusive Thai artist Chatchai Puipia returns to Bangkok – in pictures – June 2015 – Bangkok’s 100 Tonson Gallery collaborates with 100ArtistArchives.com in an exhibition chronicling 20 years of influential Thai artist Chatchai Puipia’s work and celebrating the launch of the new online archive
Subscribe to Art Radar for more art exhibitions hosted in Thailand