The haunting, illusory 3-D fabric paintings of Uttaporn Nimmalaikaew, which explore the nature of vulnerability, seem particularly well-suited to our current fragile state of global anguish and uncertainty. In conversation with Prestige, the artist joins with SAC Gallery’s Jongsuwat Angsuvarnsiri to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead for artists and curators alike.
Occasionally, good can come from bad and once in a while a happy accident opens the door to a wonderful new opportunity. At times like these, as the Covid-19 crisis continues to upset the foundation of our daily lives in every way imaginable, it’s an interesting lesson to keep in mind. Maybe, there are a few silver linings amongst all the dark clouds that currently hang over our heads.
For Thai artist Uttaporn Nimmalaikaew, a happy accident from 15 years ago was crucial in the course of his later career. When he inadvertently smeared some paint on a mosquito netting he took a closer look at the result and thought to himself that it actually looked quite nice. Over the years he’s developed this paint-on-fabric technique into an eye-popping artistic style all his own, creating haunting 3-D installation pieces in which multiple illustrated layers of semi-transparent material – when viewed at the correct angle – come together to form faces and figures, all the while gently swaying with any movement in the air. His solo exhibition at Bangkok’s Subhashok The Arts Centre (SAC) Gallery in July of 2019 was amusingly entitled ‘Reality As It Isn’t’, underscoring the fact that his works appear as if they are fleeting and fragile illusions, apt to disappear any moment – like a hologram or, perhaps more aptly, a ghost?
“I want to deny, or at least avoid that concept. It’s not my intention,” he remarks, obviously a bit weary of hearing this spooky interpretation of his work (although he admits that in his newer pieces he does intend to explore the idea of ghosts). Instead, he points out that the free movement of the thin material – a mesh-like, polyester weave – on which he applies his oils is a metaphor for instability in the world. Many of the models he uses are his relatives, and since many of them are women and girls, the female figure features prominently in his most recent works. These pieces, he says, “tell about the suffering of women who are in a whirlwind of sadness from an unstable life in the present and the future”. It’s safe to say that these past few months have been a whirlwind of sadness that both men and women can relate to.
During my meeting with Uttaporn in the sales showroom at SAC Gallery, he presents for me two of his most recent fabric portraits. They are from his ongoing Reality As It Isn’t series, but these works – both of his niece, but at different ages – differ from his more dramatic “installation” pieces which can be viewed in a full 360 degree setting. Instead, these newer artworks are multi-layered constructions housed behind glass in specially built wooden frames, a decision prompted by the artist’s desire to work in a smaller and more portable format. He’s also dabbled with adding filament wire (fishing line) and using fluorescent paints. Together these experimentations create an inner sparkle, making it look as though the portraits are lit from within by tiny fairy lights.
Uttaporn’s next major public art display in Thailand is scheduled to be as part of the upcoming Bangkok Art Biennale in October, although the ultimate fate of that particular event is still up in the air. Even faced with this uncertainty, he remains optimistic and is busily preparing the works he’ll hopefully be exhibiting. “It’s going to be an important milestone for me in my career, and maybe the biggest project to date,” he says, divulging that it will involve installation pieces in temples.
When I ask him about the government imposed stay-at-home decree, the 39-year-old artist is quick to reply. “I loved it!” he admits, explaining that he spent as much time as he could painting in his studio in Lat Krabang – and enjoying the lack of noise from nearby Suvarnabhumi Airport.
As a full-time lecturer at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, where he himself studied fine art (in addition to his fine art studies at Silpakorn University), Uttaporn has also been busy lately teaching his students via classes on Zoom. It’s an interesting insight into how technology and interaction online has become virtually everyone’s lifeline during these challenging times, and for the art world in particular it’s fast becoming the unavoidable new reality.
For Jongsuwat Angsuvarnsiri, the 31-year-old managing director at SAC Gallery, ramping up their online presence is a key part of his future plans for this venerable art institution. “In two years, we will be 10 years old,” he explains, “so leading up to that milestone we want to have a complete rebranding of ourselves. We want to focus more on contemporary art but also think about how we can elevate all of our artists to the next level and to bring them outside of Thailand.”
Jongsuwat is the son of Subhashok Angsuvarnsiri, an avid collector and supporter of Thai contemporary art and the original founder of SAC. As we talk, the focus of our discussion quickly directs itself to the post-pandemic future of art galleries in Thailand (and, indeed, around the world). Interestingly, despite all the chaos globally, the past couple of months have been quite busy for the SAC team.
“Even during the whole lockdown we haven’t really slowed down at all,” he tells me. “The exhibition in the gallery is ongoing, and will continue until the end of June. And we still have visitors coming almost every day – by appointment only and we only have 10 or less in each session. In terms of sales, surprisingly, it got better. I think that collectors have slowed down as well and have more time to come and spend, and to appreciate the art. We’ve also moved a lot of our programming online. For example, we just recorded a virtual reality tour of the current exhibition. We’re also rolling out more digital content, so not just writing about the art, but trying to write different content that adds to the context of the exhibition.
If anything, I find that the situation right now kind of got all of us to slow down and take a step back, and really look at what’s essential,” he reflects. “Out of this whole crisis there’s a silver lining. Artists are still preparing works and we are still working closely with collectors to search for the right piece for them.”
Although not an artist himself, Jongsuwat is fully immersed in the art world from the business end, a position that requires its own creative skillset. His academic background includes an undergrad in
filmmaking and post grad studies in marketing and art business, all at prestigious institutions that include the University of the Arts London, the London School of Business and Finance, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art (UK). He points out that the latter was where he was formally trained to think about art in the business sense, and as an alternative form of investment.
As for marketing and selling art online, Jongsuwat is well aware that’s where the future lies. In Europe and the US, billions of dollars are changing hands all the time in the buying and selling of art, using nothing more elaborate than JPEG files to view the works. But with that kind of money involved, an unshakable level of trust in the gallery and the art advisor is necessary in order to make buyers willingly take that leap of faith.
“As long as the provider of the goods or service is deemed as trustworthy, then I think people make those sorts of monetary decisions more easily,” he says. “Which is why I also encourage artists to sell through galleries, because the trust that the galleries have built with collectors all contributes to the successful transaction.”
Of course, while all this buying and selling in the digital realm has helped galleries like SAC weather the storm and stay afloat during the current Coronavirus calamity, the unfortunate truth is that not all art looks good in a JPEG format.
“Yeah, the thing is certain works do not photograph easily, or as well,” Jongsuwat readily admits. “Take Uttaporn for example, with his delicate layers and such illusion as to perception of depth. You can only really appreciate that in real-time with your own eyes. When you photograph those kinds of artworks they tend to become flat, and you don’t get the sense of scale and intimacy that you share with the work in person. That’s why some online platforms like artsy.com, which we are on, have an option for looking at the work in such a way that you can see the scale of it, in reference to a bench or a wall, or something.”
However, we all agree that in the end it’s just not quite the same as being in the same room as a work of art and being moved by the vibrance of the colours, and the drama of the textures, and so, in that sense, a bricks and mortar gallery cannot ever be replaced entirely. And for old-school art lovers like us, that’s definitely one more shiny silver lining.