Navin Rawanchaikul at the Satani Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

Talk about a progressive art movement – Navin Rawanchaikul has a gallery that is literally mounted on wheels. The "Navin Gallery Bangkok" is located inside a taxi cab working the city’s streets, has hosted several exhibitions since its inception in 1995, and is but one example of Rawanchaikul’s quest to bring contemporary art to his countrymen.

Which is no small task. The Thai art scene, not unlike those found in other developing countries, is largely built around the market for old artifacts and traditional crafts. But Rawanchaikul believes things are starting to change, especially in the country’s second city, Chiang Mai.

"Although Bangkok has more galleries and larger universities," he says, "the Chiang Mai university is more experimental because about half the professors come from the West." And when Rawanchaikul joins his naked, blood-letting pal Kosit Juntaratip for an art performance at the Chiang Mai municipal library, the event gets noticed, as do the dozens of public art pieces of his own and by foreign artists that Rawanchaikul has placed throughout the northern Thai city as part of his ongoing "Social Installation" series.

While there is no blood in "Asking for Nothingness," a Rawanchaikul mixed media installation now showing at the respected Satani gallery on Tokyo’s Ginza art strip, what the exhibition lacks in provocation, it makes up for in presence. A tower of 15,000 bottles stacked in the center of the gallery dominates the room. The old medicine bottles come from a junkyard in rural Chiang Mai province. "The place is run by an 80 year-old Chinese man who has been doing the same thing since he was 16," says Rawanchaikul, who undertook the interviewing of elderly residents in Chiang Mai’s small villages some seven years ago, about the same time he began collecting the bottles. Black-and-white full-body photographs of his ragged subjects have been stuffed into those bottles that are visible from inside the two-meter-high, 11-column semi-circular installation. None of the bottles have been cleaned, most are impacted with the crud of years of neglect.

"When I found these bottles, the old man told me that they were some of the only things in his junkyard that he could not resell, as Thailand has no glass recycling system," recalls Rawanchaikul. "You see, people use the contents of the bottles to treat their bodies, and after they make themselves better they throw away the container and it becomes garbage. In Thailand we have a big generation gap between the young, educated people in the cities and the old folks living in the countryside. That is how I came to cork-up the portraits of these old people inside the bottles, to preserve their memories."

Although this is Rawanchaikul’s first solo show in Tokyo, the 29 year-old artist has had his work featured in a number of prestigious group exhibitions here, most notably the Museum of Contemporary Art’s 1997 show "Art in Southeast Asia," and at the Watari-Um Museum, where the artist distributed his independently-published manga – a fun little pocket-sized comic book chronicling the adventures of a taxi driver. Rawanchaikul also set up a ramen stall serving exotic cocktails, which became one of the most popular attractions at the Watari-Um last summer. The artist seems acutely aware that serious conceptual art works best when it is either startling, tempered with humor, or, in the case of this show, informed by a strong emotional undercurrent. It is a safe bet that we will be seeing more from the talented Rawanchaikul in the future – if only because he is now married to a Japanese and dividing his time between Chiang Mai and Fukuoka, where he is working with local children and seniors but, for the time at least, has no plans to open a second roving taxi-cab gallery.

"Asking for Nothingness" also includes sketches and drawings, and about a half-dozen wood-and-glass objet, to provide a good look at a key player on the fledgling Thai contemporary art scene.

Notes: The show runs to June 25, (35646733).

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