Dusadee Huntrakul inhabits Bangkok’s 100 Tonson Gallery in a sensitive display of stolen histories.
The solo exhibition, running from 22 June to 23 September 2018, offers up Dusadee’s work as subtle activism on archiving and contested acquisition.
Earlier this month, American collector Katherine Ayers-Mannix returned a dozen looted ancient artifacts to the Thai Embassy in Washington D.C. While it is unclear how she obtained the objects, which are believed to be between 1,800 and 4,300 years old and made by an ancient civilization in Ban Chiang, what is certain is an overarching attempt to ratify years of cultural thievery. This comes after a string of investigations into US arts institutions who have hosted Ban Chiang artefacts since their accidental discovery in the 1960s, an event which just might rank as one of the greatest fortuitous findings in archaeology.
In the summer of 1966 a Harvard student called Steve Young was living in a village in the northeast reaches of Thailand, researching for his senior thesis, when he tripped and found himself face to face with some buried pots, their rims exposed by recent monsoons. Intrigued by the unglazed shards, he brought them back to government officials in Bangkok.
What he had stumbled upon is now considered to be one of the most important prehistoric settlements in the world. Initially dated as early as 4000 B.C. – a date since revised to 2000 B.C. or even later — the so-called Ban Chiang culture is the earliest known Bronze Age site in Southeast Asia, documenting the early development of technology, agriculture and commerce to the region.
While large numbers of the Ban Chiang objects have been returned to their native lands – and with a string of more expected to be underway – there remains a lingering resentment for their migration in the first place. And in lieu of their study and display in Thai museums, archaeologists, artists and historians have had to rely on creative enterprises to submit the pieces into national archives.
This is where Dusadee Huntrakul comes in. Having exhibited widely at Chan + Hori Contemporary, the Oakland Art Museum, the Singapore Biennale, ICA Lasalle and Palais de Tokyo, the multimedia artist returns to his hometown in an imaginative archival alternative. Bangkok’s 100 Tonson Gallery is home to his ongoing solo exhibition titled “There are More Monsoon Songs Elsewhere”“There are More Monsoon Songs Elsewhere”, in which a series of hyper-realist drawings of the prehistoric Ban Chiang bracelets, which remain in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), stand in for the real deal. Dusadee’s black and white images portray a largely overlooked portion of Thailand’s Bronze Age pieces, both highlighting his own sensitivity in remembering the forgotten or overlooked (and displaced, for that matter) artefacts, and his subtle method of ‘archiving’ through artistic and activist measures.
The accidental discovery of the Ban Chiang objects is, beyond its happenstance story, still considered to be a major archaeological breakthrough in Southeast Asia. It marks the region as having an autonomous Bronze Age apart from the rich archaeological bounties in neighbouring countries like India and China. But it is an autonomy that has become shadowed by political baggage and imperialist purloining.
The press release for “There are more monsoon songs elsewhere” states that, while the artifacts had “surfaced before”, they were brought to international academic attention through the aid of the United States government, leading to expedited large-scale archeological excavations of the site in northeastern Thailand. Yet the gallery notes:
This could be seen as a post-Vietnam by-product of US imperialism… to serve their geopolitical agenda of replacing Indochinese governments with liberal democracies to win against the influences of communism.
The fact that collections of Ban Chiang objects were immediately brought to the United States and kept there until now surfaces questions about nationalist ownership, responsibility and the honour foreign governments are expected to uphold (though seldom do) when it comes to returning national treasures. This is drastically displayed in the acquisition and recent raid of several Ban Chiang artefacts by the four California museums back in 2008 – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum of Art in Santa Ana, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.
As part of a larger inquiry into stolen antiquities, artists like Dusadee Huntrakul seek to represent what has long been subject to the back-and-forth arguments and federal search warrants. For example, agents often cite a 1961 Thai law, the Act on Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Art and National Museums, which states that “buried, concealed, or abandoned” objects are “state property” and cannot legally be removed from Thailand without an official license.
Though, because a foreign country’s law is not necessarily recognised, or further, upheld, in the United States, despite traction gained by the National Stolen Property Act of 1948 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, it has become the responsibility of contemporary artists like Dusadee Huntrakul to maintain a supplementary archive of drawings.
Along with the drawings of Ban Chiang bracelets and bangles, Huntrakul’s solo show also presents his series Artifacts (2007), which came about just as accidentally as the bronze objects themselves. Whilst rummaging through a thrift store in Los Angeles, the artist encountered a pile of photographs haphazardly thrown into an old drawer. The images depict bikini-clad women leisurely laying on a beach, captured by an unknown hand during moments of apparent relaxation and luxury.
While the identity of the women remains unclear, they nonetheless provide a curious link between forgotten events and displaced figures. Together with images of the prehistoric bracelets, they mirror the parallel egalitarian lives that similarly run amok in times of “leisure-laced capitalism” and the Bronze Age. The artist suggests that this juxtaposition displays a vision “where all be envisioned as skilled hunter-gatherers [and] taxpayers”.
In “There are More Monsoon Songs Elsewhere”, Dusadee Huntrakul also unveils his new ceramic sculptures, which were designed in collaboration with Naroot Pitisongswat of Flo Furniture. Dusadee came across Flo’s famous design Dinsor (pencil), which is structurally composed of hexagonal wooden fragments that resemble pencils. Both practitioners were drawn to the universal accessibility and simplicity of the utensil, a tool which has defined much of Dusadee Huntrakul’s career and stands symbolic of the foundations of art making.
Layered atop this simplicity, however, is the pair’s continued and adamant urge to recollect and record. Dusadee Huntrakul elucidates:
I make objects to remember the lives of those around me; clay has [the] potential to open up how ‘becoming’ addresses its own materiality, economy and technology. With hand-built figurines, I want to suggest that information and empathy can be realised through represented touch.
Like the monsoons unearthed shards of the first-discovered Ban Chiang artefacts, Dusadee Huntrakul’s exhibition title, “There are More Monsoon Songs Elsewhere”, suggests that the rain is far from over. History’s artefacts will continue to be excavated from their subterranean hovels, its images discovered in different times and places, but what matters most is how they are approached. And while years of neglect, materialism and imperialism have ingrained in us a wretched selfishness, Dusadee Huntrakul reminds us that, in archiving the old and the new, the lost and the found, the accidental and the sought-after, we must be cognisant and respectful of an object’s histories.
“There are More Monsoon Songs Elsewhere” by Dusadee Huntrakul is on view from 22 June to 23 September 2018 at 100 Tonson Gallery, 100 Soi Tonson, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand.
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