*This blog is written by Rolf von Bueren
In this blog, I would like to continue the subject of art and design in this very modern world, and how the course of history has affected design and creativity.
Previously, in Western culture, changes happened through wars and epidemics. The Thirty Years' War in the 17th century radically changed the face of Europe. Before that, during the 14th century, the Great Famine and the Black Death, also known as the Pestilence or the Plague, had reduced the population to less than half, which in itself induced huge social changes. So did the Napoleonic Wars and, of course, the 1st and 2nd world wars, as well as social changes brought on by religious conflict.
The social changes after each of these events were far-reaching and sometimes radical, and the art world reflected these changes. A good example of this was “Dadaism” an artistic movement that was the result of the First World War that was a protest against bourgeois, nationalist and colonialist interests which were responsible for the war. It rejected beauty to reflect the horrors of the war.
Today, the world has had no major war for 75 years, but the Industrial Revolution and rise of technology-induced changes which were earlier caused by war. While the old palaces and beautify country houses of Europe are a testament to the European soul, today’s top architects of New York, London, Miami and Paris rely on computer technology to create work due to precision with data processing. The results are marvellous and faultless, but soulless.
There are, of course, exceptions with the creative designs by the great contemporary architects like Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, I M Pei, and Mies van der Rohe. Italy has its Leaning Tower of Pisa, which tilts due to an underestimation of the soft soil when it was built during the 12th century. Today, China has the “Leaning Towers” of the CCTV building, an architectural feat designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.
Many of the latest 5-star hotels which recently opened in Bangkok are all great computer-generated designs, but there is no reminder of the place or the culture they operate in, and one feels lost after a while since they don’t appeal to your heart and emotion.
Our eyes recognize the perfection of the design but at the same time, we are left untouched. There is no warmth, nothing to move our deep consciousness, nothing to connect to our cultural memory, our subconscious mind, nothing to tickle our emotions. It is a matter of all IQ and no EQ.
I believe this process has been repeated all over the world. In my travels, I have asked many designers how to break this spell of modernity of computerized design process, how to add warmth to the design, how to appeal to the subconscious of humans to establish a deeper connection between the structure and the humans living there or visiting the design.
Most of the answers I got was to “apply local culture, use local imagery” which are recognizable, and establish a personal bridge between the eyes, the brain and the emotions of the onlookers, in the way that the dragon represents the Chinese culture. Perhaps this local identity is the answer to elevate the technically precise and aesthetically flawless computer designs into an “emotional” presentation, meaning that the local element initiates a subconscious reaction.
Local cultural identity
Language, music, social norms, etiquette are the standards of local identity we grow up with. In today’s global society, English has become the common language, while the language of brands like NIKE, APPLE and computer games serve to level the standard in the playing field.
Over the last 100 over years, most European languages have lost their various dimensions and have come down to a colloquial level. One uses more or less the same words for everybody, while rude expressions have become acceptable in everyday use (notice how much the F word appears in films these days).
This process is also slowly happening in Asia where language has always been used to denote rank and status. The complicated and highly sophisticated languages of Bali and Thailand are disappearing, and have already in China.
Today, many people avoid the complications of high and low Balinese by using Bahasa, the common language of Indonesia as taught in schools. Socially we become equal through this process, but a whole dimension of the social life is eradicated.
In olden-day China, the Mandarins would test each other in a verbal duel by using complicated, sophisticated words to see how far the other could follow. In Thailand, high-ranking government officials used to be addressed with the very reverential “krap rien”, while today this has been muted to “khor rien”. The use of “phee” (big brother/sister) has replaced “than” which indicates the speaker’s lowlier status. It is probably the time pressure which has accelerated the changes. In the past, time was static, with little movement or pressure, while today’s advances are dynamic.
It took a traumatic experience like the Cultural Revolution in China to erase the past. The modernization of Southeast Asia was accelerated by the Vietnam War but was still much slower than in China.
In Thailand, the changes were very small in comparison to other countries as Thailand had not experienced a major war in over 200 years. But changes inevitably came through the Vietnam conflict and the huge investment of the USA into the Thai infrastructure. Generally, the focus in Thailand remains (subconsciously) with the Royal Court which provides the cultural stability in a world that wants to hurry into the unknown future of Artificial Intelligence and space exploration.
Many of my friends are worried about the vanishing “Thai smile” in Bangkok where people don’t offer to press buttons in the lift etc. Old elements of conservative polity of the past still remain, for instance, the army, but one can only guess how long it will be till we become a rude, Western-style nation, filled with road rage and no smiles.
Back to art in Thailand. Art is exploding left, right and centre. The Thais have a huge cultural heritage, a free mind not tied to ideologies, and are intelligent, and the combination of all that allows art to blossom, to develop. I will bet on Thais in future as long as they preserve this cultural heritage and build on it.
Museums and art galleries are springing up all over the country are doing well. Big art collections have been created by the likes of such visionaries like Boonchai Bencharongkul and Jean-Michel Beurdeley whose magnificent art collections form the basis of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Bangkok and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai respectively.
While art in Thailand was once dominated by religious objects and Buddha images, contemporary artists have expanded their artistic vision to fantasy temples like Wat Rong Khun of Khun Chalermchai Kositpipat in the North and the northern-style architectural monument called Baan Dum by Khun Thawan Duchanee. Thailand’s cultural heritage is intact, and we are starting to fly.
Wat Rong Khun – Chiang Rai
Bandaam Museum – Chiang Rai
Maiiam Museum Chiangmai
MOCA Museum, Bangkok