If you know your sois in Charoenkrung well, chances are you’ve stumbled upon Bangkok’s first Customs House. A spectacular, neo-palladian structure that overlooks the Chao Phraya with a grand, old-world charm, the building was originally built in 1888, and is the brainchild of architect Joachim Grassi. It is within this century-old structure, with beautifully crumbling walls and smatterings of paint left from a different era, that Thanpuying Sirikitiya Jensen chooses to showcase her most photographic exhibition ‘Hundred Years Between’.
A deeply personal collection of images taken by Thanpuying Sirikitiya herself on analog cameras, the exhibition celebrates 115 years of diplomatic relations between Norway and Thailand. Thanpuying Sirikitiya does this by retracing the steps of her great great grandfather, King Chulalongkorn, during his time spent in Norway a century ago. From forging ancestral connections through art, to capturing the inexplicable, yet humbling magnificence of nature, we spoke to her about her work on Hundred Years Between, and what she hoped to achieve.
Harder than it Seems
The youngest daughter of Princess Ubol Ratana Rajakanya and the granddaughter of His Majesty King Bhumibol, Thanpuying Sirikitiya is reputed for her work as a historian in the Fine Arts Department. Despite her experience in understanding the past, however, she tells us that ‘Hundred Years Between’ proved to be a challenge when she first started. “I spent a lot of time studying King Rama IV,” she explains, so when I had to study King Chulalongkorn, I had to study an entirely separate reigning era. It was like I had to start from fresh.”
Letters from a Father to his Child
“To carry out this project, I had to talk to a lot of different people, and piece various bits of the puzzle together — essentially that is what history is about,” Thanpuying Sirikitiya says of the process. A large part of her source material was a series of letters that her great great grandfather had written to his daughter while travelling — letters that were later documented into a book called Klai Baan, meaning ‘Far from Home’. “I read all the letters he wrote during his time in Norway. In that month, he wrote a letter to his daughter every single day, and they are such personal, intimate letters,” she recalls, “it’s quite rare to see such language and tone coming from a King.”
This is a key element that Thanpuying Sirikitiya hoped to show through her exhibition — the human side of a mythologised monarch. Though he is today revered as the legend who modernised Siam, in his letters, King Chulalongkorn’s humanity can easily be seen as he expresses awe at the magnificence of nature around him, ponders the Viking reign, and at times misses home.
“There is something powerful and mythological about nature that humanises us,” Thanpuying Sirikitiya explains, and this relationship — that of a small human being against vast Norwegian landscapes — provides the thematic link that pulls the entire project together.
Same, Same, but Different
An important thing to understand about Hundred Years Between is that, while Thanpuying Sirikitiya retraces her ancestors’ steps, the images she takes show a very different perspective. “A lot of people suggested I take the same images, but it would be impossible for me to see the same things King Chulalongkorn did — things couldn’t possibly be the same way after 100 years. So instead, what I did was try to create parallels between what we both saw, and focused on capturing essence instead of form. The images you see are different but, the spirit of what was trying to be shown, the underlying message remains.”
Life and Death Sometimes Look the Same
On the third floor we find a series of photographs that show a building — Vikingvang. Through the accompanying letters, we learn that it was a hotel His Majesty King Chulalongkorn had come across, and while he did not stay the night, he’d taken a photo in front of it. In Thanpuying Sirikitiya’s images, the hotel has been overgrown by roots and flora.
“You’d think it’s a photograph of abandonment and decay,” she begins, “but actually, these overgrowing ferns are signs of life — signs that the soul of the building continues to live on. There are so many layers of history documented within this natural beauty, and it’s through understanding that this was how King Chulalongkorn felt, that I was able to create a shared dialogue through my art.”
Keep an Open Mind
With so much information to piece together, understand, and ultimately present through art, the exhibition clearly was no easy feat. When asked how she managed to accomplish it, Thanpuying Sirikitiya replies simply that success lies in your mindset. “To really understand something, it’s important to have a clear mind,” she says simply. “Sometimes we enter a situation, and we already have a narrative we are expecting in our heads. And so we try to find signs that fit under that narrative — we try to prove what we already believe, which is normal. The key here is to let go of that narrative, to enter without any expectations, and welcome new discoveries.”
Hundred Years Between is now on show as part of Bangkok Design Week 2020 in the Old Customs House, and will be open for viewing until February 9, 2020. This marks the first time ever that the building has been made open to public, and we highly recommend visiting both during the day and at night, as each experience is different and equally fascinating.
To find out more about Hundred Years Between, or Bangkok Design Week 2020, visit bangkokdesignweek.com.