A new gallery in Songkhla showcases Chamni Thipmanee's photography in an antique environment
The classical Sino-Portuguese buildings along the strip of Nang Ngam and Nakorn Nai road of Muang district, Songkhla province, have long been recognised for their historical significance. Many of them have graced the downtown of this southern capital for over a century.
Not only aesthetic, the buildings are also reputed to be a haven of quality eateries and a centre of community spirit.
Early this year, this lakeside community welcomed a new neighbour: a.e.y. space, an art gallery occupying two blocks that once housed a famous restaurant.
Songkhla native Pakorn Rujuravilai acquired the space and restored the deteriorating building while maintaining the antique appeal of its original architecture. Besides keeping all the old but strong pieces of the wooden structure, Pakorn, who has an MA from New York's Pratt Institute, has opted to retain rustic colouring along the walls and ceilings, as well as several scratches on floors and panels incurred by the removal of built-in furniture. It is a wise design move, for it makes the space itself a true objet d'art.
The gallery is currently hosting its second exhibition, "Two Decades of Chamni Thipmanee". One of Thailand's leading photographers, and a native of Songkhla, Chamni showcases dozens of his black & white photographs that take up almost all a.e.y.'s white walls.
The show's arrangement is based on Chamni's wide body of work, with categories for portraits, street shots, religion, architecture, landscape, still life and nude. Here we witness Chamni's versatility in journalistic, documentary and commercial approaches.
More importantly, the exhibition offers viewers a panorama of geographic sites and human ethnicities. Human figures inside Chamni's viewfinder range from Thais, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malays, Indians to Arabs, and more.
The diversity of locations, countries and cultures captured in this huge volume of images has an effect that's close to, at least in terms of ambition, what renowned German artist Gerhardt Richter offers in his legendary "Atlas" photo installation project.
Ironically, the rustic ceiling, crude walls and uneven floorboards perfectly supplement the exhibition's mode. Stepping carefully, the viewers feel the need to be attentive in appreciating each photo. Moreover, the sense of the human touch extends from the picture frames to the circumstantial ambience nearby. For instance, the gallery keeps several vintage decorations and facilities from the venue's belle epoque _ such as closets, jars and mirrors _ and they almost become part of the exhibition.
One highlight is a set of images taken from the daily living scenes in Songkhla; a photographic replica of what exists just a few blocks away from the gallery.
Certain portraits may raise our eyebrows in wonder: are they instantaneous snapshots or choreographed mise-en-scene? What's surprising is that they all come with a kind of built-in narrative despite the absence of captions and titles. Chamni lets nothing but the images themselves speak.
A large self-portrait is positioned at one end of the building, installed together with a screening of his interview. With this element, the visitors have a chance to be in virtual conversation with the artist. One more gimmick is a pile of wooden containers that were used to ship all the photos from Bangkok.
Light bulbs hung from the ceiling offer an eerie effect, especially during the early evening. They may not provide the perfect illumination for the display, but creatively speaking they offer another kind of aesthetic.
The physical and cultural mode of a.e.y. space is reminiscent of the now-defunct About Cafe/Gallery in Bangkok's Chinatown (a converted shop and an active art hub in the 1990s), and Tao Hong Tai: d Kunst, a functional, home-grown gallery in Ratchaburi province.
But this new art venue in the South seems to have a higher ambition. It wishes to integrate with the surrounding community; the venue has already allowed some non-exhibition activities proposed by local scholars and activists to use its space. Above all, it has successfully drawn locals and passers-by to take a look. This fits the owner's intention to position his space not as an elite spot for the arty type, but a grocery-like shop that's always welcoming visitors.
Chamni's show is the venue's second after the debut by Noppadol Khaosamang in February. The exhibitions planned for the future will cover various forms of artworks by both native and guest artists. With a small coffee corner, a.e.y. is a friendly, pleasant gallery recommended for any visitor to Songkhla.
By Pattara Danutra
01 August 2012