PICHAI PONGSASAOVAPARK, Drought 7, 2016, media-digital photography print on Epson Enhanced matte paper, technic-giclee print, 46 × 69 cm. Courtesy Subhashok the Arts Centre, Bangkok. 

Looking and Seeing

Pichai Pongsasaovapark

Subhashok The Arts Centre

Thailand’s rapid economic growth has come at a traumatic cost to its environment. The northern city of Chiang Mai is notorious for its “smoky season,” during which farmers torch fields to make way for new crops. Decades ago, Bangkok’s canals were clean enough to swim in, but they are now choked with waste and plastic, and have become almost entirely lifeless. Despite taking steps to regulate emissions in the early 2000s and ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement, the historically picturesque country is plagued by pollution and its effects. In response, Pichai Pongsasaovapark’s exhibition “Looking and Seeing” at the Subhashok the Arts Centre provided a sobering solemnity in its visualizations of pollution and catastrophic climate change.

The show began with a series titled “Deluge” (2016), comprised of five mixed-media canvases. The artist soaked each in tanks of water mixed with a myriad of substances to simulate the ravages of flooding in urban environments; to illustrate the artist’s process, a sheet of clean, white cloth was suspended from the gallery’s ceiling and dipped into an illuminated pool of polluted water. Oil, garbage, chemicals, plastic and biological materials left their stains on the artworks of “Deluge,” creating a kaleidoscopic blend of textures and colors. In these creations, dried and cracked mud and clay dyed with contaminants juxtapose slick oil littered with bits of plastic food wrappings. These were snapshots of devastation in the form of urban flooding. The pieces, marred with waste, appeared to be ready to continue their journey submerged in tainted floodwaters, as if haphazardly plucked from the devastation.

PICHAI PONGSASAOVAPARKDeluge 5, 2016, mix media, 210 × 142 cm. Courtesy Subhashok the Arts Centre, Bangkok. 

PICHAI PONGSASAOVAPARK, Exhaust Man, from the series “Air We Breathe,” 2017, steel, fiberglass, carbon on canvas copy, 130 × 140 × 320 cm. Courtesy Subhashok the Arts Centre, Bangkok. 

As some parts of the world are inundated with excessive water, others are suffering from a lack of it. Pichai’s “Drought” used digital photography to capture portraits of despondent, low-income families from northeast Thailand, where they must eke out a living on desiccated land as they face dynamically fluctuating weather patterns. These photographs of multi-generational families, their homes and farm equipment are overlaid with images of the arid soil of what used to be their rice farms. Faces of young men, children and elders reflect a stoic resignation as the soil that roots their identities dies beneath their feet. In the layered photos, cracked mud becomes their skin, and withered plants their clothing. The images’ starkness lends faces to not only the environmental challenges we must confront in the 21st century, but also the current economic impossibilities that embroil farms of all sizes, whether family-run or operated at a corporate scale.

An ominous, three-meter tall figure stood at the center of the room. Exhaust Man (2017), is constructed out of steel and fiberglass, resembling a monster from Lovecraftian horror. Tentacles formed from repurposed exhaust systems weave through the air resembling the twisted ribcage of an evolutionary aberration. Sandwiching the ribcage is a set of enormous sterling white lungs, whose former pristine condition has been heavily contaminated by arrays of monochrome “poison flowers” (more on this later) created by automotive fumes. The installation may evoke observer’s concerns, reflecting organs of those who breathe in pollution daily. The lungs are tarnished by internal combustion engines and perverted from their healthy form.

Several large sheets of cloth hung from the walls—surrounding the sculpture—some even extended to rest on the gallery’s floor. They depicted a field of overlapping black flower blossoms—the same found on the lungs of Exhaust Man. The pixelated black and white aesthetic of Pichai’s “Poison Flowers” (2017) draws in viewers to inspect their petals, revealing their particulate makeup. The origin of the soot and grime used to create these striking flora were explained by a nearby video documenting Pichai’s process. Each sheet of fabric was pressed against the exhaust pipe of a motor vehicle. As the vehicle combusts its fuel, the exhaust was captured by the fabric, yielding a sinister floral pattern. Each sheet is the imprint of a different vehicle—rice combine harvesters, tillers, trucks, cars, vans and motorbikes each leave their distinct mark that would have otherwise entered the lungs of city-dwellers or our atmosphere. The visualization of the physical effects of fossil fuel exhaust was enough to make one’s lungs feel abruptly tighter. Though the artist drew beauty out of destruction, “Poison Flowers” served as a reminder that every car on the street, and its billions of siblings, are constantly pumping poisonous fumes into the air.

Pichai is not singular in his use of materials. An artist in Beijing has used the city’s endless supply of smog to craft a brick, with the aim of visualizing the inimical particles found in the Chinese capital’s air. In India, Graviky Labs has developed a retrofit filter for automobiles that captures 95 percent of emitted particular matter and converts the pollution into ink. Pichai does, however, provide personal examples of pollution’s effects on the people of Thailand. The cost of progress is great, but it is not too late to mitigate those harms and protect future generations from our overreaching ambitions. In the artist’s own words, “It is not too late to learn how to live and work together in balance with nature. Of course, art itself cannot change the world, but sometimes, in looking at art, you see something that you did not anticipate. It is then when art has moved us, making us think and feel, that it has transcended the canvas and made a difference in our lives.”

PICHAI PONGSASAOVAPARK, Poison Flower 5 (Vans), 2016, carbon on canvas, 281 × 198 cm. Courtesy Subhashok the Arts Centre, Bangkok. 

Pichai Pongsasaovapark’s “Looking and Seeing” is on view at Subhashok the Arts Centre, Bangkok, until February 26, 2017.

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