Life lessons – Bangkok Post

Fate clicks its fingers and an already poignant piece in Navin Rawanchaikul’s “Revisited Departed” becomes the exhibition’s most moving. It’s a photograph of the artist as he guides his ageing father’s fragile hand around a metre stick — an indispensable tool of trade for any fabric-wallah — fronted by a group of clay moulds sculpted from the imprints of his father’s hand.

The photograph Homage to a Man Who Tries to Push His Identity Out (After Montien Boonma) shows artist Navin Rawanchaikul and his ailing father Suwan, a fabric vendor, at his O.K. store in Chiang Mai. Navin’s father passed away last week. Navin Rawanchaikul

Navin, a veteran Thai artist of Punjabi descent, is known for his rambunctious, high-pulp images and installation pieces that flaunt bright colours, good-humoured self-satire and Bollywood-style splash. But that is just a front, a decoy, a ruse. Throughout his long career — in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Japan — Navin’s work has derived its power from an underlying melancholy, even morbidity, which comes from the artist’s exploration of his family’s past as members of the Indian diaspora fleeing troubled Punjab in the 1940s to settle down in Chiang Mai, where his father later opened a fabric store in Warorot market.

The sadness and sense of longing is most pronounced in his latest show. The rich, elegiac and deeply personal “Revisited <> Departed”, which runs until April 7 at Bangkok CityCity Gallery on Sathon 1, revolves around two of Navin’s heroes, the two most influential men in the artist’s life: his teacher, the late conceptual artist Montien Boonma, and his father, Suwan Rawanchaikul. The 26 pieces in the exhibition interweave the presence of the two men that together, through joy, respect, nostalgia and memory, come to represent the artist’s two “homes”.

Montien’s death in 2000 at the age of 47 left a black cloud over the Thai contemporary art scene. Navin, a student, has found the perfect opportunity to pay homage to his mentor. But just last week, another unexpected event took place, deepening the relationship between art and life, or between artistic reflection and the inevitability of fate: Navin’s father passed away in Chiang Mai after a long illness. The funeral rite is currently under way and Suwan will be cremated on Mar 17.

“My father was hospitalised when I was setting up the exhibition last month,” said Navin from Chiang Mai.

“So for a moment, what I was doing with the show was a bad omen.

“But I know it wasn’t. I’m happy that dad’s spirit will remain with us. I’m glad too to have a chance to record the sound of his breathing to use in this show.”

That’s why the picture of Navin’s father and the clay moulds of his hand seem to acquire an eternal resonance; their emotional and artistic value has deepened now with his departure. The work is titled Homage To A Man Who Tries To Push His Identity Out (After Montien Boonma); Navin modelled it after Montien’s earlier work in which he sculpted clay moulds with imprints of an elderly community craftsman. The message is simple and uplifting: these are the hands that create — the hand of the craftsman and the hand of the fabric-wallah, clutching their tools.

The skull on red fabric is part of Dad, Mom And Me. The framed musical score is called Page 42: Very Beautiful, and features the symbols ? and ! on a musical staff, representing the notes for Chopin’s Funeral March. The video project on the wall is Revisited <> Departed, a remembrance of the artist’s home and the home of Montien Boonma, his mentor. Navin Rawanchaikul

Now with both Montien and Suwan gone (when the show opened in mid-February, only one of them had passed), “Revisited <> Departed” may have acquired a funereal aura. Only the show was conceived with such sincerity, sublime elegance and firm conviction in the everlasting power of life and art. The exhibition is set in two rooms at Bangkok CityCity — the front gallery features Navin’s recollections of his mentor Montien, while the main gallery deals mostly with the artist’s father and his family’s legacy, with the centrepiece being a life-sized replica of his father’s fabric shop, O.K., housed inside rows of wooden crates in which Navin used to transport his art (it was part of the exhibition Navin put up in Chiang Mai four years ago).

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“Both men were my teachers,” said Navin, 48. “They taught me to love what we do for a living — Montien as an artist, and my father as a fabric vendor. They believed in what they did. It’s natural for me to connect the two men.”

The works in the Front Gallery are steeped in elegiac remembrance and respect, from Navin’s letter to Montien (written to the dead as if he were still alive) and the moving House Of Hope, a video projection that beams images on a painting of Montien’s family, with his mother-in-law sitting in serene contemplation as Chopin’s Funeral March (Montien’s favourite composition) plays in the dark. Using black soot gathered from the cremation of Montien’s artworks mixed with dust collected from Navin’s old family home, the artist painted Lotus Sound <> There Is No Voice, a black-and-white sketch showing the artist working with his teacher — a companion piece to the picture of Navin and his dad in the next room.

The main motif in Navin’s recollection of Montien is a formation of the symbols “?” and “!”, reversed and paired into a philosophical riddle. The two marks are printed on Montien’s original fabric work from 1994, and restaged here, while Navin has created a side piece using the same two symbols spread over a glass wall, called Room. What’s striking is that, though this is an exhibition conceived to remember his teacher, its mournful sentiment is not based on a romanticised memory. Instead, it’s a memory distilled through maturity and years of artistic polish and reflection.

The main gallery, meanwhile, is a combination of Navin’s personal history — through his parents and his father’s fabric shop — and its convergence with his memory of Montien. More than just a catalogue of the artist’s family albums and colourful souvenirs (paper bags from O.K., his mother’s sewing machine, etc) this vast room is in fact a visualisation of Navin’s emotional and cerebral underpinnings — an inner portrait of the artist as an Indian-Thai man through his biological and artistic lineage.

On the far wall, a video shows Montien’s and Navin’s own house, below which is a scrawling of Chopin’s Funeral March — not in standard notes but the “?” and the “!” drawn with dust collected from his old house in Chiang Mai. In Dad, Mom And Me, two fabric pieces hung overhead show the images of his father and mother, while a crate in the middle is emblazoned with a large skull (the “me” from title). Tales Of Navin #3 is a painting of a family gathering, supposedly at Navin’s own funeral. Sombre, loving and with a playful touch, these pieces combine to show Navin as a son, student and man who investigates his own influences and who contemplates his past and his future with an unblinking gaze.

The hand of fate may have dealt Navin a harsh blow when his father passed away. But if anything, it means “Revisited <> Departed” becomes a memorial to the man — in pictures, in fabric, in sound and images.

“Let’s not dwell on the sadness anyway,” said Navin. “Let’s celebrate the memory of these two men of my life.”

Lotus Sound is a painting that shows Navin helping Montien set up a work. It was sketched using dust collected from the artist’s house and soot from the ‘cremation’ of Montien’s works. Navin Rawanchaikul


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