25th January – 28th February 2005
Who’s a Pussy?
Portraits of the artist as a ‘saint’ and a ‘whore’ are part of the dare at Michael Shaowanasai’s new show
Chulalongkorn University’s art center has reawakened from a long slumber with a provocative photo installation by Michael Shaowanasai, whose art – controversially – reflects his life.
This is the same center that tossed Michael’s self-portrait in monk’s robes and pancake makeup out of a group show several years back.
Perhaps a challenge was issued mutually at that time. If so, the Chula gallery and the artist have both risen to it with “Michael Shaowanasai Greatest Hits R.E.223” (the suffix refers to the current year in the Rattanakosin Era).
Michael, now 40, has foregone the monkish outfit – but he’s dressed as a schoolgirl, a beauty queen, a graduating student, a bride and a woman toting a child in the photo installation series “Saints & whores”.
Alongside this series there’s a blank space… then the final photo of him dressed as a nun.
“It’s the conventional formula used by many people to take their lives along this track,” says the graduate of art institutes in Chicago and San Francisco.
“After the picture of a mother and child, I left the blank space to let the viewers interpret on their own how life should evolve next. Some people may end up becoming a nun, while some have other choices.”
The self-portraits are Michael’s way of opening a visual discourse with viewers. His 2002 photo installation “MS@OAS” at Open Art Space showed him mostly nude and either half laughing, half yawning or looking rather tormented.
There was a hint at his gender bending, but then as now, he says little about his work, preferring to let viewers figure it out.
The Chula show has another series of self-portraits called “Women in Rose Blouses” extrapolating from Michael’s title character in the delightful musical comedy “The Adventure of Iron Pussy”, which he co-directed with Apichartpong Weerasethakul.
Done up in the film like 1960s screen legend Petchara Chaowarat, here Iron Pussy the superheroine avoids eye contact – unlike the fixed gazes of “Saints & Whores” – and the viewer is left to ponder clues in the pendant he/she wears.
There’s a Buddhist amulet, a cross and a Star of David, and in the last photo, Miss Iron Pussy is clad in the white robes of Islam.
We’ve been down the religion road before, when Michael writhed naked on a cross of rise at the end of a performance during his Chicago student days.
The current show isn’t all pictures of Michael. He loves to play with language, and in one room at the art center are three canvases, each bearing words in a combination of English and Thai letters. All have sexual meanings.
Elsewhere a CD of “Iron Pussy” is playing – without the pictures, though. Just the Thai and English subtitles show up on screen.
Next to it hangs a canvas bearing the gold-dusted word “flower” in Thai. “Golden flower” is a Thai term for a bitchy girl.
The contonation carries over into a collection of beauty queens’ ribbons that read “Miss Communication”, “Miss Understood”, “Miss Place” and so on. Viewers are invited to pick one to wear.
Far more jarring is the sawastika projected on the floor, but Michael wants to remind us that perceptions can shift: what became the Nazi symbol was once a sign of Hindu devotion.
“It’s hard to predict what his works will be,” says the center’s new director, Prapon Kumjim. “Even though his work is provocative, it’s worth taking the risk. It’s not just aimed at raising people’s eyebrows.”
The Nation, 26th Jan 2005