Masters

Manit Sriwanichpoom

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Held up at a red light one day while driving past religious icon shops around the Giant Swing in Bangkok, I noticed two life-sized statues of monks. One depicted Lhuang Por Toh Brahmarangsi (Holy Father Toh, King Mongkut's guru, 1788-1872) of Rakhang Temple; the other portrayed to Lhuang Pu Tuad (Holy Grandpa, circa 1582 - 1662) of Chang Hai Temple.

The sight made my skin crawl. They were like living flesh. As if these revered monks had risen from the dead to sit there by the road, to demonstrate their meditation prowess to passers-by.

The creepy feeling deepened when I saw the glass display-case behind them, filled with 30 cm-high replicas of yet more famous monks. These resin miniature humans had been made so life-like by their Thai craftsmen, they rivaled Madame Tussaud's famous wax figures of celebrities.

Yet one more step by Thai Buddhist commerce in its manufacture of "sacred icons", deftly copying and appropriating the Western celebrity cult for the Thai ecclesiastical world and its attendant amulet business.

No one knows when the worship of sacred icons of individual Buddhist masters began. In ancient days we worshipped Buddha statues as a symbol of our great teacher and his teachings. The Buddha statue represents a concept rather than an individual. Worship of masters emphasizes specific people and their reputed magical powers for worldly blessings, in direct contradiction to the Buddha's message of self-reliance and to focus only on the teaching itself.

The more advanced the marketing and production techniques, the more intricate and fantastical their products, it seems to me, the further we travel from the Buddha. Our vision becomes blurry, nothing is clear, including when we look to these holy masters.



Q&A 

ASYMPTOTE:
Could you tell our readers a bit about how Buddhism is practiced in Thailand?

MS:
Although Thailand is known as a Buddhist country, it has its own unique practice of Buddhism, which comes from mixing up Buddhism with local superstition—many Thais still believe in powers beyond nature. It may sound odd to you that a religion like Buddhism, so full of wisdom and rationality, would have anything to do with irrational superstition, but that is how it is in Thailand. In the past Thais have worshipped images of the Lord Buddha in the forms of sculptures and paintings. The advent of photographic technology in the 20th century saw religious images being produced to fit in pockets or to hang on walls of homes and offices. By late 20th century, when people started to go to shopping malls more than to temples, commercialism spread to the bastions of Buddhism. To get more attention (i.e. donations) and survive, temples now have to adapt to modern marketing methods. Casting the cement or brass sculptures of well known "masters" is now a common practice in temples.

ASYMPTOTE:
How are these sculptures produced and who in turn 'worships' them? What do you think of this new practice?

MS:
Two years ago, someone used resin techniques to cast images of popular Thai masters to look like wax figures in those in a Madame Tussauds museum. Since then, miniature versions, only 30 cm in height, have been mass manufactured so that worshippers may buy figures of their favorite masters and put them up on home altars. Each master is known for a special power. One may attract wealth, another love; another may yet protect you from bullets. When I first saw these figures, I was taken aback by how unpleasantly realistic they were. At the same time, I was dismayed because it confirmed my suspicion that Thai society was moving further and further away from the actual teachings of the Lord Buddha. Enlightenment is no longer the goal.

ASYMPTOTEWhat do you hope to convey by deliberately making these out-of-focus photographs?

MS: My work comments on the current state of Buddhist practice, about the Thai Buddhists who may have lost sight of true Buddhism by focusing on objects (such as these reproductions of masters) instead of teachings.

I also hope to caution against facile perception. Most people, without knowing any better, would take these images for real Thai monks—therefore of Thai Buddhism—, if I presented them clearly. My intention is to make the viewer stop in front of my work and ponder the ambiguous object in front of them—the ambiguity unsettles preconceived notions and allows the viewer to formulate new impressions.

ASYMPTOTE: You are otherwise known for your political works. What do you think of the outcome of the latest election in Thailand?

MS:
Thailand has just finished elections peacefully and is going to have its first female Prime Minister in Yingluck Shinawatra. As everyone knows full well, she is nothing but a puppet of her brother, ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, currently in self-imposed exile in Dubai to flee a court verdict on a "conflict of interests" charge during his premiership.

Outsiders might have big questions over how someone like Thaksin could influence Thai voters despite his reputation for corruption and human rights abuse. I daresay it's because the Thai majority—formed by the poor—have compromised their moral values for populist policies that serve their personal interests.

It seems obvious that all unrest in Thailand (except for the unrest in the South) boils down to the conflict between private and public interests. Thaksin's populist promises appeal to those looking out only for themselves, to the detriment of public good. So, to uphold public good—and make sure transparency prevails in the rule of law—a defiant segment will rise up. Therefore, unrest in Thailand is really a result of a conflict of moral values, not of class differences and double-standards as claimed by the Thaksin-sponsored Red Shirt group.

The incoming Prime Minister and her government will shortly initiate "reconciliation". "Amnesty" campaigns will be run to override the rule of law and allow Thaksin Shinawatra to come back home with a clean record. How can they expect to succeed in this? Do they really think that there will be no resistance from the anti-Thaksin minority?

Thailand now is on the edge of civil war again. How can we prevent it? 



Manit Sriwanichpoom was born and bred in Bangkok, and is one of Thailand's leading photographers and its best known in the international art world. His solo shows include Lambs of God at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (Melbourne, Australia); Bangkok in Pink at the Yokohama Museum of Art (Japan); Pink Man in Paradise at Monash University (Australia) and Valentine Willie Fine Art (Malaysia); and Beijing Pink at the Highland Gallery (China). His works are held by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), The Queensland Art Gallery (Australia), the Singapore Art Museum, and private collectors. In 2002, he was named one of the world's one hundred most interesting emerging photographers by Phaidon Press in their book BLINK. In 2007, he was awarded Japan's Higashikawa Overseas Photographer Prize.



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