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Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Harit Srikhao and reinventing the Group Photo

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within them.

I'm still not exactly sure what an archive is, its more formal use to refer to some kind of catalogued, formalised library of images serving a particular individual, institution or power structure (and create a narrative that both fits within that power structure and reinforces it) has got shifted in some ways to become old pictures. An album, a shoe box, a pile of pictures, it's all an archive now. A collection, it's an archive. Found photos which aren't really found most of the time but bought at a shop or a stall. They're an archive. And why not - they all come with the meanings, power structures and neuroses of the time they were both made and collected and catalogued embedded within them.

The job then of the artist is to mess with these meanings, to reorder them, to recontextualise them, to bring them into something new - but a new that shed lights on the past and in so doing has the past shed light on the present. Or a variation on that.

That's what Harit Srikhao does with his collages and tableau in his brave book Whitewash, published by Akina Books. It's brave not because it challenges the way in which we see photographs or space or challenges ideas of identity or narrative or anything else that is abstract and kind of empty and meaningless.

Rather it's brave because it has real social meaning and it attracted the attention of the Thai military, because it questioned Buddhism, the army and the monarchy in Thailand. Thailand, the land of smiles and nice beaches, is something of a fascist state, a country where extrajudicial killings go hand in hand with a state-run kleptocracy, where questioning the monarchy will land you in jail.

Not that that's what Srikhao is doing with Whitewash. Not even close. But in Whitewash he's really questioning all the symbols of power and statehood that he grew up with, and the ways these run hand in hand with corruption, abuse of power, unaccountability, and the resulting institutionalised stupidity that goes hand in hand with a culture of unquestioning acceptance. It's a challenge to a way of thinking not only in Thailand, but everywhere. It's a challenge to the language of power and the rapidity with which we accept it as given. The Newspeak of neo-liberalism, of austerity, growth, and the markets was something that you did not hear 30 years ago. Now flick on the radio or open a newspaper and it is almost inescapable. Here in the UK the sickening militarisation of the state barely gets questioned in mainstream media and nor does the selective rhetoric of violence that it has created. The language of war and military strikes which all evidence of the last 20 years serve absolutely no purpose beyond destruction and mayhem, is now the dominant political discourse in the UK. Again, this is something relatively new. And yet so few people question it.

So it's a universal message.  Anyway, this is the background to the story of Whitewash.

School vacation, summer, 2010. The atmosphere of political violence in Thailand continuously heated up, and my friends and I were unable to go home. We all stayed together at a friend’s house. We only received information from the military, which made us curse the protestors feverishly and watch them getting beaten up with great satisfaction.
Then, in 2014, the thirteenth coup d’etat took place in Thailand. The country has been ruled by the military regime ever since. I began researching deeper about the country’s political history. I found that in 2010, the crackdown resulted in over 90 deaths, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (the military junta), was among the commanders. Although the death toll of this incident remains the highest in Thai history, none of the victims has received any justice from the law.
This work was driven by the cold-blooded responses that I and other people around me had towards the protestors back then. Five years have passed and I’ve only started to perceiver what actually happened and understand the protestors as fellow human beings.
The fact that people in the country remained ignorant, indifferent, and even satisfied towards the protestors’ deaths reflects the chilling darkness of nationalism. All the places that appear in my work are those where students are brought to to receive “moral attunement.”
The process of history laundering is conducted through sacred rituals and celebrations, while the concept of karma is used as the key political tool for dehumanization.
Such a process of mental and emotional surgery has been conducted continuously for a long time to control the lives, minds, and dreams of people in the country.
It comes in different sections with the first featuring a series of images of models in black body suits posing in tableau that are taken from Hindu mythology amongst other thing. They're odd with socks on and you get the deepest of feelings that there are things going on here which we know nothing about. But they are there under the surface and they create an unease; rituals of power, of worship, of sex, replete with breast plates and body parts and references to religion, photography (Kohei Yoshiyuki is referenced) and legend.

There are strange models, alien landscapes and these ever-rapacious black-clad ghost-figures that gnaw at breasts and the shrivelled up skins of deflated sex-dolls. What the hell is going on? Something?

Skipping over the paper collages, things get more concrete in Srikhao's group shots of people of power. Air stewards, army cadets, flagraisers, nuns, muslim schoolgirls and much more are thrown into the Srikhao mixer. Images are cut up (by hand so the traces would remain) and messed with in a glory of black masks and bright lights. A giant puppy looms over an army cadet colleg, , a mad-eyed Buddhist figure over a school entrance yard. Nuns' faces are blacked out and dotted with stars. Everything is dotted with stars except the occasional reminder of the earthly life that is still there to be lived. And that's how the book ends, a sea of blacked-out faces floating in a celestial world where substance is always apparent but always denied.

Here the meaning has been added to by Srikhao's interventions, cuts and sparks that eliminate and illuminate what it means to have a particular way of thinking, and some of the places those ways of thinking might originate from. Or rather it's about where an absence of a way of thinking might come from, how we can be seduced by the high glitz and thunderflashes of pomp, ceremony, ritual and roleplay. With a healthy dose of intimidation thrown in if we're not up to getting the message.

Whitewash is a book about absence, about our willing embrace of absence because that is always the easy thing to do. We might think that we embrace and we engage the reality of the world but that engagement for most of us is arbitrary and selective. It's the easy route. That's the world that Whitewash is about. And that's the world that we live in today, wherever we live.

Maybe? Because ultimately I'm still not sure what's going on. But something is...

Buy Whitewash here. 

Read an interview with Harit Srikhao on the BJP here. 
Read an indepth review of Whitewash on The Collector Daily here.

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