I am made 4 SIN
Solo Exhibition By Michael Shaowanasai
Curated By Loredana Paracciani
8 - 27 June 2012
GOING BEYOND BELIEFS
By Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani
After 9/11 one cannot underestimate the power of religious symbols and beliefs over the minds of individuals and collectives. Across a landscape of distinctive societies, these beliefs testify to the individual and communal acceptance of a conviction, a principle or a proposition without undermining its validity. Apparently mundane choices such as where we live, whom we spend time with, what we eat and what we wear and how we choose to present ourselves are subconsciously permeated by our own beliefs.
Thus the question arises: Are we really aware of how we express and define these notions?
Artist Michael Shaowanasai is. I am made 4 SIN presents a new body of works conceived as the artist’s reinterpretation of personal and collective beliefs. These beliefs are playfully shuffled and repositioned by Shaowanasai to entice "the Other" into a challenging exchange of ideas towards freedom of “wearable” expression.
Significantly, this body of work is presented for the first time in Singapore, a city-state well known for its tolerance and acceptance of all religious beliefs heralded by its coexisting ethnicities.
Of Thai origin but brought up in Europe and the US, Shaowanasai has extensively explored issues of gender inequality, ethnicity and religion in his two-decade career. Though heavily conceptual, his practice is also accessible through the use of simple visual iconography, symbols, text and photography.
Through works such as Four Faces of Faith (2005), Portrait of a Man in Habit No. 1 (2000) and Buddha, Dharma, Sangha (2007), Shaowanasai offers the opportunity to step back and rethink our acquired social codes and beliefs at the turn of the century (1). Examining inclusion and exclusion in conformist societies, within and beyond Thailand, Shaowanasai’s work calls for a responsibility in our moral choices. From human rights to homosexuality and the role of the Sangha in Buddhism, his practice mirrors — in conceptual and literal terms — our social behavior, often pointing to the “uncomfortable truth” we collectively refuse to see.
Dealing with such contentious social issues through his art practice, it is not surprising to see the commodification of religious symbols in I am made 4 SIN by the subversion of the art object itself into ‘wearable’ items or “props” as the artist defines them (2).
By registering a sense of belonging to a cultural and/or religious trend, clothing mediates the body and the community while enabling a process of cultural understanding amongst individuals. This process is largely articulated through the freedom of self-expression but is often constrained or even dictated by various cultural and social influences (3). Different social contexts assign different social meanings to certain symbols. For instance, the appropriation of a particular style or symbol considered offensive in certain fundamentalist communities could be harmless or “theologically mute”(4) in others.
In I am made 4 SIN Shaowanasai investigates the role of historically informed symbols and texts, mostly from the Koran, Bible and Buddhist scriptures, extracting and deconstructing them from their familiar connotations. The Swastika, for instance, meaning “good to be”, is the oldest known symbol originally from India and adopted by many Asian and European countries. However, it achieves its height in its most negative connotation through the Nazi iconography. An emotionally loaded symbol, the swastika is immediately discarded as an icon of the all-too-disgraceful period of human history (5).
With the Swastika series Shaowanasai confronts his audience, aiming for a critical distance necessary to examine the notion of signification between the image and its codified belief. Art then becomes the functional answer to the duality of form and content.
Extrapolated from theological scriptures, the use of text in most of I am made 4 SIN “wearable artworks” functions as a prominent visual signifier to entice the viewer into a process of recollection and recognition of conventional knowledge. However, after a first, superficial reading the viewer is forced into a second, more attentive reading of the artist’s writings, for the all-too-familiar theological passages are reassembled by Shaowanasai into new and challenging interpretations.
Thought-provoking as ever, this new series of works by Shaowanasai deals with the act of ‘revealing and concealing’ in social practices and the function to which the artwork may be assigned, embodying and confronting personal and collective religious beliefs.
(1) See also Iola Lenzi, “After History and Memory: Generation Shift in Contemporary Thai Art,” in CUT THRU exhibition catalogue (Singapore: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2012), 9.
(2) Interview with the artist, February 2012.
(3) Julia Twigg, “Clothing, age and the body: a critical review,” Ageing and Society 27 (2007), 285–305.
(4) Donald Preziosi, Claire Farago, Art Is Not What You Think It Is (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 24.
(5) Erica Alaine Nooney, The Silence of the Swastika: Uncovering Absence and De-mythologizing Modernism in Contemporary Graphic Design Discourse (Kansas: Kansas State University, 2006).
- Michael Shaowanasai