Thailand: A Surrealist Mural

Richard Oyama

The marvelous is always beautiful, everything marvelous is beautiful. Nothing but the Marvelous is beautiful.

     —Andre Breton, “Le Manifeste du Surrealisme,”

Poet Ezra Pound wrote, “The age demands an image / Of its accelerated grimace.” Dare we mention that Professor Silpa Bhirasri (AKA the Florentine sculptor Corrado Feroci who emigrated to the country in 1922) inspired the modern art movement in Thailand, and was himself inspired by his homeland’s fascist movement? He played a key role in what became Silapkorn University, Thailand’s first university focused on the visual arts. He wasn’t alone in re-visioning Buddhist iconography or juxtaposing Western art-historical styles with indigenous content.

Dali is the predominant influence, his portrait at Bangkok’s MOCA showing the artist at his easel. He is painting a subject that turns out to be the viewer; a mirror has been inserted into the canvas. At the foyer to the men’s room in the Promenada Mall, there are Dali-influenced paintings on the wall that feature superhero figures. Thais seem to admire the Spanish painter’s showmanship as much as his skill. Like Breton, they believe “the Marvelous” is always beautiful.

A triptych of a Buddhist Heaven, Hell and Middle Earth contains the world; Michael Jackson is even in there. Few of the artists are known outside of this country even as “The American Century” ends and intellectuals speculate that our multi-polar world has pivoted away from them. The artists work in oil, acrylic, gold-leaf and other mixed media. For some, the medium is the hands. “Thailand: A Surrealist Mural” is a fever-dream.

The vegetation is baroque and uncontainable; flame-trees singe the retina. The song of the gecko ascends the scale and everything sweats and is eroticized. Soi dogs collapse in the noonday heat—one curls up in an ice bucket—but they’re nocturnal roamers, either in pairs or alone, reverted to their wolfish atavism. Gated hounds howl in the night, while alley cats mewl like infants or lovers. The mural’s multiplicity is excess and collision, hybridizing old and new.  Tin shacks abut a high-rise construction site. Tourist hotels give way to a shadowy soi lined with massage parlors where they ask, “Where you go, mister?” and tug at your sleeve.

Some of them ride their motorbikes side-saddle. It’s either a brazen teenaged attitude, learned from childhood, or perhaps it’s the power of karma and good luck in Theravada Buddhism. In any case, it serves just as well—if not better—than Western rationalism, which terminates in The Bomb. The mural is roughly the size of France and a bit smaller than Texas. It has the cultural subtleties of the former and the hubris of the latter. When the doors of the sky open, the monsoon clouds appear as they are: infinite.

The frozen clouds are by Rene Magritte. The glyphs are by Joan Miro. Since this mural is not static, other styles move in. Traditional Thai modes of expression and an eroticism that is less Egon Schiele and more cartoon canonization of the Thai Goddess-Maiden. Representations of female pulchritude are abundant: Pimpilalia, the lovely woman two men vie for in Thai classical literature, is everywhere. Male gazes salivate.

Consonant with them is the Buddhist-Hindu iconography that worships the female form even as it lionizes the patriarchal warrior tradition. There are figures of bloody, hair-bedraggled she-wraiths crawling on all misshapen fours, floating in air, lurking in AC vents and haunting school dormitories, hotels, homes—all those domestic and institutional spaces the West regard as “safe”—exacting revenge on male murderers and abusers of themselves and their children through stabbing, decapitation, drowning, disembowelment, crucifixion, meat-grinding. When Frida Kahlo said, “I paint my own reality,” rebuking Breton’s claiming of her as a surrealist, she may as well have spoken for these Thai artists, since the ghosts of iniquity and historical brutalities haunt their canvas and its mythologized kingdoms.

The mural’s weather is a surreal second skin. During the burning season, the nostrils and lungs are parched and the eyes smart. The mountains disappear behind haze—a surrealist magic trick. During a monsoon, the sky pours slanting sheets of rain that clatter corrugated tin. Rain disturbs the turbid waters until the moats turn a coppery color. After the heat, the rain is alms.

Tradition favors the colors of teak and bamboo, but the new canvas is splashed with turquoise and sea-green, palm and white sand, crimson and mauve. There are the hallucinatory neons of Bangkok in lurid Technicolor. The mural is indeed a fever-dream, shot through with the flashing lights of motorbikes. The mural is a saturated and high-contrast world, and the LED bulbs that illuminate the tented food stalls are unsparing. Nothing is hidden, though perspective is multiple.

The Maya Mall changes colors at twilight like a chameleon. A blue and green seascape can look like a Mark Rothko color-field, or a lonely woman in a blue-shadowed restaurant of low-slung tables and pitched lanai roofs could be painted by Edward Hopper. The escalators of Kad Suan Kaew Centre seem a shadowy and uninhabited modernity, just as the bellboy who approaches you from the shadows on that same horizonless floor is from “Overlook Hotel.”  A rooster brood forages under a billboard advertising condos on Huay Kaew Road. In the field behind them, under an outspreading tree, is an angular shack where humpbacked water buffalo roam free. Bangkok elites squabble over these lands with farmers of the north.

Guesthouses and vegetarian bicycle cafes grow, feed undiminished optimism that groups of Ṣ̄ers̄ʹṭ̄hī h̄ım̀ tourists from mainland China will continue to arrive sunhatted and selfie-sticked to allay their anxiety about too much leisure time. Tuk-tuks and songtaews, motorbikes and cars flow in an endless stream. A dusty shop window displays an antique opium scale and another, designer handbags. The average monthly wage for a Thai worker is 13,500 baht (approximately $385), so the displays at Maya Mall are mere diorama of luxury commodities, rare and beyond reach, like so much of the mural they lie within.

Richard Oyama’s work has appeared in Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, The Nuyorasian Anthology, Breaking Silence, Dissident Song, A Gift of Tongues, Malpais Review, Mas Tequila Review and other literary journals. The Country They Know (Neuma Books 2005) is his first collection of poetry. He has a M.A. in English: Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Oyama taught at California College of Arts in Oakland, University of California at Berkeley and University of New Mexico. His first novel, A Riot Goin’ On, is forthcoming.

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