100 Tonson Gallery in Bangkok recently presented “L’Origine du Monde”, a solo exhibition by Thai artist Thanet Awsinsiri.
Thanet Awsinsiri examines themes of desire, the human body and the environment. Art Radar spoke to the artist on the occasion of his show, which closed on 6 May 2018.
“L’Origine du Monde” presented new installation and film works by Bangkok-based artist Thanet Awsinsiri. The show, which ran at 100 Tonson Gallery in Bangkok until 6 May, reflected Thanet’s continued interest in social interactions around the concepts of obscenity, pornography and erotica.
Thanet Awsinsiri was born in 1960 in Krabi, Thailand, and is an artist and lecturer at Bangkok University and King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in Ladkrabang, Thailand. He studied at the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Chulalongkorn University, from 1983 to 1987. He has exhibited both in Thailand and abroad, including in significant survey shows such as “Trace of Siamese Smile: Art+Faith+Politics+Love” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center in 2008. Awsinsiri regularly participates in international shows in Singapore and Malaysia.
The title of the exhibition is taken from perhaps the most notorious and explicit painting housed in a public museum. L’Origine du Monde is an 1866 oil painting by the French realist Gustave Courbet, which depicts a close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed with legs spread. Its first owner was the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey (1831-1879), and it is likely he commissioned the work. A flamboyant figure in Paris society in the 1860s, Khalil-Bey put together an ephemeral but dazzling collection devoted to the celebration of the female body, before he was ruined by his gambling debts. The provenance of the painting after Khalil-Bey’s downfall is unclear; it joined the Musée d’Orsay in 1995 from the collection of the French psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan.
Courbet regularly painted female nudes, but it is the lengths of daring and frankness that gives this painting its peculiar fascination. Rather than cloak his figure in allegory or mythology, Courbet’s almost anatomical description of the female sex organs takes realism in painting to its inevitable conclusion. Now an infamous work in the canon of western art, L’Origine du Monde has, unusually, only been on public display for the last twenty years and there is no history of its exhibition on any other occasion.
The painting has caused much controversy, as its explicit nature questions what is appropriate for the public display. Despite changing ideas and moral standards, the work holds a challenging position within the museum’s collection for its attitude to the female body and voyeuristic aspect. Interested in the layered history of the painting, in his exhibition Awsinsiri has created a phantom replica of the work, not as a painting but as a bas-relief sculpture.
The exhibition also includes the video installation The Earth (2018), which juxtaposes footage from a short film made in 1995 by the Spanish director Bigas Luna, itself part of an anthology celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s first moving film. The scene depicts a woman sitting in a freshly ploughed field, nursing her baby. This kind of earthy sexuality is often seen in Luna’s work, and contrasts the reproductive power of the human body with the biological forces of nature. To this end, Awsinsiri then added documentary recordings of the 2016 floods that devastated Southern Thailand.
Art Radar spoke to Awsinsiri about his practice and his most recent exhibition.
Could you please expand on your interest in the social construction of concepts of obscenity, pornography and erotica?
The concepts of obscenity, pornography and erotica are connected to each other and often seen in arts, appliances or religious icons from various cultures and civilisations since ancient times. Although the concept has been prejudiced and distorted by the influences of Christianity, and especially Western colonisation and modernisation that occurred globally, which has deprived these concepts to the point of censorship.
For me, we should radically look into this matter through comparative studies and specific contexts from different ideas. In the contemporary world, our understandings and interpretation of human actions and definitions of cultures shouldn’t be construed from religious teachings because religions are just concepts, they are constructed beliefs that help humans proceed on life and give them purposes to live in the early days. In the studies of philosophy, religion is placed much lower than those that seek the truth. Even though the [significance of the] idea of seeking the truth through philosophical means has undoubtedly decreased through the influence of the postmodern paradigm.
Long ago in Thailand, the[se ideas] weren’t as prejudiced as much as today. For example, we often found images of people engaging in sexual activity at the bottom of the traditional murals. The objective of these murals was to teach people who were illiterate about the religion’s teachings. These murals are mostly located in temples, which are considered to be highly sacred places.
Also the word ‘obscenity’ is derived from an ancient Greek word that literally means offstage or wrong place at the wrong time. The word initially related to the idea [of] time and place and appropriateness rather than sexuality.
Building upon the influence of Gustave Courbet on your practice, do you believe works like L’Origine du Monde still have the ability to shock viewers as the work once did?
It is possible that this painting by Courbet might still have the ability to shock the viewers today, especially in societies where the understanding of art history and ideologies are not well circulated and not as academic. This painting has to be understood through its many different layers. L’Origine du Monde was commissioned by a Turkish diplomat for his private collection, then it fell into the hands of Jacques Lacan and eventually became part of the Musée d’Orsay’s collection, where it is now on display to the public and was once the subject of a performance piece done by a female artist for the sake of art activism and politics of gender.
Personally, I’ve considered all the layers mentioned above and have appropriated the painting in order to understand its floating definitions and constantly changing values as it is on display to the public. And also to expand on the idea of using the body as an image or tool for communication.
Could you please expand a little about the ideas in your work The Earth?
In The Earth (2017), I didn’t fully intend for the work to be referencing the idea of desire, the erotic or the unconscious in the manner of surrealism. This piece is actually a continuation from another project I did last year where I want to pay homage to films and directors who I respect. Last year I did a work called The River, which aims to pay homage to the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang (and to the Malian musician, Ali Farka Toure). The Earth is the second work from this series and I’m currently working on a third one that will be based on the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman.
In relation to your film works… the themes of desire, the erotic and the unconscious that are present in the films of surrealist Luis Bunuel, and thinking about that particular strand of European filmmaking that includes Bigas Luna… is this something that you are interested in?
My interest in this specific piece by Luna is that I thought it is different from his other films where the theme of desire, sexuality and the unconscious plays the big role. In this film, the image of a naked woman sitting on a freshly ploughed field and nursing her baby appear to correspond with my own interest of using the image of the human body as a tool for communication, together with the idea of fertility, nursing and [the mother as] a source of food, which leads to the idea of the early agricultural systems.
The Earth is composed of three different components: The original short film (extended to 1 mins) by Bigas Luna, a tribal music from Pakistan, and 16 pieces of terracotta screen.
In this piece, the original footage from Luna’s film is extended to match the soundtrack. The choice of music was based on aesthetic reasons and I think it gives the sense of something primal, which goes well with the film. The terracotta screens refer to prehistoric arts and utensils as well as all the red bricks that are still used as foundations for buildings today.
“L’Origine du Monde” by Thanet Awsinsiri was on view from 1 February to 6 May 2018 at 100 Tonson Gallery, 100 Soi Tonson, Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok, Thailand 10330.
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