Art/Culture  •  Impressions

Impressions: Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs

Coco Petrachaianan explored the traveling exhibition “Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs” which is on display at the Jim Thompson Art Center from July 15 to October 31, 2017.

August 08, 2017
Curated by Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero; “Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs” is a multi-national cooperative work from The Jim Thompson Art Center, KADIST, and Para Site, made possible with the helping hand of the French Embassy in Thailand. The project started a year ago in September and the exhibition is nomadic and adaptive to the context it is juxtaposed into. So far, this exhibition has traveled to the the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila and at Para Site in Hong Kong; Jim Thompson Art Center is the third stop.

Because it is a traveling show, what you will see here in Thailand is completely different from what was on display in Hong Kong, as each new location has new commissions from local artists. The locations of the exhibitions are very interesting too—the different spaces having different limitations and meanings, especially the Jim Thompson Art Center.

I discussed the choice of venue for the Bangkok exhibition with Inti Guerrero, pointing out that  Jim Thompson’s wooden house is as Thai as Thai can be despite the obvious fact that the original owner himself wasn’t Thai. Guerrero described the venue as “orientalist”, featuring its own historical and cultural displays within and upon its walls, making it the perfect location for this exhibition.
As for the long title, Cosmin Costinas suggested that we take a closer look at the name of the exhibition to get the gist of the whole exhibition:

Soil is seen repeatedly in this exhibition. While soil is literally the brown substance on the Earth’s surface, this material is what cradles life. Soil is the foundation for life and also harbors resources. With resources comes our soil and thus political territories (and nationalism) that have long existed but are always morphing. Soil or land, as Costinas described, is a “pillar of society.” Soil is the cradle of society’s national resources and economy, but also memory, and, as a whole, a nation.
Stone: Stone is also another important resource. From excavation, archeologists have found the very first tools, instruments made out of stone. Stone tools were used to literally build civilizations and symbolically represent the gods. With stone came the earliest objects of worship (other than the sun and moon). Again, stone as a resource also contributes to the economy of a country. Beneath both stone and soil we find metals and oil. Both soil and stone are what human civilization were founded on and utilize the most in its maintenance.

With both basic resources, we talk about the soul. What’s within a soul or identity? Linking back to the symbolism of the soil and stone established earlier, the root or origin, religion, and nationalism are the few things that made up the soul.

Soul: The soul in this exhibition describes one’s spirituality. When we talk about the “essence” of oneself, the terms “spirituality” or “identity" can be used interchangeably. As I discussed with Inti Guerrero, humans are continually moving, either voluntarily or involuntarily, throughout history and perhaps a person cannot really find a single essence in his soul but instead finds a multitude of identities. And sometimes they fight within your mind.

Walking through the exhibition, I felt heavy with the angst and struggle conveyed through each piece. The first piece I saw (to the left of the entrance) was a video installation. The footage is one of the very first visual recordings of Australian aborigines, who are undergoing the earliest stages of their struggle under colonization as their ancestral land was appropriated by, among others, the mining industry.

Another interesting video installation features a Romanian artist boxing with himself that conveys the “self exorcism”, as Costinas puts it, or his personal struggle between the Eastern Orthodox faith and himself. The paradox is that the Eastern Orthodox faith is a part of his own identity and yet he is fighting with it. (Note: there is nudity.)     

A piece that I can very well identify with is from a Tibetan buddhist monk, who is an intellectual and the first modern artist of 1970s Tibet (very progressive at the time). The drawing depicts a monk finding emptiness in a bamboo stem. The emptiness reflects the nihilistic condition of the soul or that the existence of identity is merely a fabrication of the mind.  
Song: A development can be seen from “Soil and Stones” to “Souls and Songs”: the latter taking on a much more humanistic approach. Music is one of the most ancient ways that humans convey meaning and emotion. Souls are sometimes conveyed through songs, and songs can often convey the “zeitgeist” or the soul of a period of time. Thus, “Songs” was the focus of a little less than half of the exhibition, with the room on the right side dedicated to music.

“Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs” also features three other guest curators, Yongwoo Lee, Qu Chang, and Simon Soon, who were invited by the two main curators for another junction project called “Case Studies”. They each have a collection of their own within the show: Simon Soon’s in the room behind the main room, and the two others in the William Warren Library. I personally found Yongwoo’s topic to be quite interesting. He researched the relationship between animals and national identities. Looking through his collection of Korean historical propaganda with animals personified into different countries I secretly wished to see more.

“Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs” tells of how different artists, through different lenses of identity, express the relationships between their homelands and cultures, and invading forces. It endeavors to trace back to one’s roots in this fast-moving, technology-dominated world. It also presents themes such as colonization and decolonization, and the ways nationalism is manifested in different communities. There are dialectics on how indigenous people became marginalized people, and how their ancestral land, the soil and stone, became the binding element for a common identity despite the conditions of their contemporary lifestyles.

Gridthiya Gaweewong, the art director of Jim Thompson Art Center emphasized that “you don't have to fly all the way to MoMa or Tate; we brought them here for you to experience.” How has this nomadic show adapted to “Thainess”? Discover it for yourself at Jim Thompson Art Center. Learn more here.