If you walk along the street outside the Poh-Chang Academy of Art in central Bangkok you’ll see a fantastic jungle of half-completed sculptures left behind by former students. Look further and you’ll catch sight of the new intake, feverishly producing work for their diploma. Even a single glance makes you want to go inside and explore the whole building.
I’m fortunate to get privileged access because my partner attended Poh-Chang and together we walk through the studios and take candid photos of the artists in action. From the inside I can look back towards the street and see the artworks up close.
I love art schools although my own experience of one, immediately following university, was unusual, to say the least. I became caught up in student demonstrations — in fact, a full scale “sit-in” that lasted until the summer vacation, at which point the authorities took a dozen of us, including me, to the High Court for trespass. (The judge let us off).
Mightier Than the Sword
In Bangkok, by contrast, art students usually get on quietly with their work. It’s their counterparts at other institutions who demonstrate against whatever political party currently holds power. At Poh-Chang, there’s a sense that the brush, the chisel and the welding machine can all be mightier than the sword.
Students can choose traditional or modern art, the traditionalists working on Buddhist themes — sometimes adding to the vocabulary of designs, but keeping, for the most part, to the tried and tested ones. This sculptor (below) appears to have branched out into Christianity, with a Madonna and Child.
On one visit (I’ve been a few times) I came across a teacher working on a mask. I’m sure his skill will be transferred to future generations, whatever direction the modernists take.
Angst, Guns and Nails
Poh-Chang’s faculty of modern sculpture tends to be more photogenic — and terrifying — with themes of death, destruction, and violence. Everywhere there’s a pervasive sense of angst and lots of guns, barbed wire and nails.
In my featured image (at the top of the post) the traditional and modern have collided to produce a gigantic head, now spattered with paint, and lying, neglected, at the end of a corridor.
I like this image. I ran it through the Everypixel neural network (which automatically evaluates the aesthetic quality of photos for the benefit of editors who need to sift through piles of dross) and was rewarded with a high score (below). I guessed it would trigger the sweet spots of a neural net!
At Poh-Chang I was struck by the work of one artist (below) who seemed to be aware that I was taking pictures. Without any overt communication passing between us, he took up various poses while appearing to be lost in thought.
It was perfect. To this day I don’t know whether he was posing for the camera or not. Because of this uncertainty the encounter yielded just the kind of ambiguous images I like to make.
Art Is Everywhere
In Thailand, artistic expression can be seen everywhere: along the roadside, in stores and in people’s homes. Sometimes it may just be an old beer can, like this one hanging in a garden. I love it for its unassuming simplicity. It may not be as fancy as the elaborate tin sculptures you can buy in London’s Camden Market, but it demonstrates the maker’s ingenuity and genuine aesthetic sense. I admit it needs dusting.
You don’t have to visit an art school to find art. In fact, you can sometimes find exactly the same scene — in better light — outside on the street.
Here’s an example (below). This lady was squatting on her doorstep, just yards from my partner’s family home in Ekkamai, painting a mask not dissimilar to the one being produced by the teacher at Poh-Chang.
Back at Poh-Chang itself, the modern sculpture department is in full swing, erecting a roomful of free-standing figures, each one supported by an uncomfortable-looking wooden insert. A skeleton, missing a shin-bone, dangles from a hook in the middle of the room — presumably to remind students of the internal structure (or the mortality) of human beings.
I don’t work with flash — or even fill-flash — so I have to grab whatever images are possible in the variable light of the art school. The big studio is well lit, so the result this time is not too bad.
Moving back outside, in the brightly lit area near the street, the colours are more intense and somehow more reassuring.
There are no people in my last photo, but, at least from a technical point of view, I feel as if I’ve nailed it.
But no. The neural net at Everypixel gives it just an 89.89 percent chance of being awesome, and I’m inclined to think it’s right. Again.
Incidentally, I’m sorry for the short hiatus in this supposedly weekly blog. I’ve just returned from Bangkok, having caught measles (yes, measles) which delayed my return. I hope this longer-than-usual article makes up for it!