The Plural Forest; traces of Nature in Thai identity.
This essay was composed during a research visit to northern Thailand and was designed to accompany the Chiang Mai Social Installation project 2536/7- (1993/4) as a parallel to its programme of re-situating Art activity within a Social and Environmental context. The specific orientation of this text arises from my reflections surrounding the recurrent references to “Nature” within contemporary Visual Arts practice in Thailand - It is this Culture/Nature axis; brimming with contradictions and mythologies (cosmological and political) which provides our speculative terrain.
All theory my friend, is grey,
But green life’s golden tree.
Goethe (Faust 1).
The Buddha once said that his knowledge of nature was too vast to reveal and that most of this knowledge would not contribute to the betterment of mankind - one grain of wisdom, which did pass his lips on the subject of natural philosophy, was;
one grain of rice is composed of seven louse heads.
one louse head is composed of seven fine drawing lines.
one fine drawing line is composed of thirty-six pollen particles.
one pollen particle is composed of thirty-six sunlight rays.
one sunlight ray is composed of thirty-six molecules.
one molecule is composed of thirty-six atoms.
If, in the above schema, we calculate a rice grain at 5mm, the Buddhist atom has a diameter of 6 x 10-11 meters. This century Niels Bohr calculated the nucleus of the Hydrogen atom as 5.3 x 10-11 meters. A coincidence perhaps, or a remarkable example of pawana maya panya , a Buddhist form of knowledge, acquired through purification of the mind, which permits deep insight into nature.
What are National Parks for?
Between 1976 to 1982 the Phu Hin Rong Kla area was the strategic headquarters for the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT.) and its tactical arm The People’s Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT.). This area is rugged, forest covered mountain terrain, well isolated from Urban centres, but having the strategic advantage of being only 50 kilometres from the Lao border. After the 1975 fall of the Laotian government (to Pather Lao) China’s Yunnan province was still only 300 kilometres distant, with the city of Kunming providing the principal training site for CPT. cadres. The CPT. Phu Hin Rong Kla camp was especially active after the 1976 October student uprising in which hundreds of protesters were massacred in Bangkok by the Thai military - many students fled for their lives here.
The mountain terrain was the site of prolonged skirmishes between the Thai 3 rd army division (garrisoned at Phitsanulok) and the PLAT. In 1972 the Thai 1st, 2nd and 3rd Armies in conjunction with the Thai Navy, Air force and National Guard mounted a major offensive to rout the encampment but this attempt was in vain. Again in 1980 and 1981 the military made further, and partially successful attempts to re-gain the territory. However the decisive move was not military but political - the 1982 amnesty for students who had joined the communists after 1976 saw the ‘re-patriation’ of most of the students. The thus weakened PLAT. was unable to withstand a final military push, and in 1982 the final surrender of the area was effected. Phu Hin Rong Kla was subsequently declared a National Park with the remains of the PLAT. encampment forming a small Museum.
Culture on the Edge of Forgetting.
Consider the English saying, to throw the Baby out with the Bath water. An image in which a well meaning, but distracted parent is instantly dispossessed of their cherished offspring by a careless, but physically fluid action. An act of forgetting combined with irretrievable loss.
Despite the omnipresence of traditional practices and forms, contemporary Thai society balances uneasily on the cusp of forgetting or abandoning its cosmological symbolic order, in exchange for a new, materialist form of ‘dreaming’. This historical intersection is particularly precarious for the Artist - who is confronted with the dilemma of shedding the security of a coherent, but isolated cultural identity, to ‘compete’ in the un-certainties of the International cultural market. In effect this is to step from a site fixed in both time and space (a context) to the fluidity of a ‘non-site’, characterised only by spatial slippage and temporal disjunction.
All dressed up and nowhere to go?
In a pragmatic sense any move the artist makes beyond the finite iconographic canon of Buddhism invokes an immediate crisis in philosophical, methodological and formal issues. The breakage with tradition activates a strong gravitational movement towards the plurality of International style and is accompanied by an inevitable series of arbitrary decisions concerning the adaptation or adoption of new aesthetic modes and professional methodologies. These too are invariably in direct contradiction of traditional beliefs (if not traditional practice!!!).
To establish a cultural praxis which mediates tradition and the new is the utopic project that elusively confronts Thai Artists. One ‘neutral’ ground, which appears to bear direct parallels to the development of Thai cultural identity is the generic term “nature”. The co-option of nature, to be harnessed to cultural production would seem to provide a convenient bridge of continuity between the legacy of the past and the hybridisation of the future. However a careful scrutiny of the cultural construction ‘Nature’ may reveal its ‘naturalness’ to be anything but neutral.
Cultures of Dependency.
Global economies exist as a network of economic and technological dependencies which broadly operate between first and second world states and the third and fourth world ‘client states’, along the principal, North/South axis. It is also vital to acknowledge that the in-equalities of most national economies intentionally replicate the ‘four-worlds’ within their own social structures, making the streets of Manhattan a ‘home’ for the Homeless as well as a parking lot for the equally ubiquitous stretch-limousines.
Artists of technologically dependant cultures are inevitably ‘commodity consumers’ destined to play out remedial loops on the surface of technology; in emulation of the central clichés of the medium - as if to provide proof of their ‘membership’. This situation applies equally to the technologies of oil paint, as it does to those of the Digisphere - and effects Artists from technologically dependant 2nd world countries (such as Australia). Radical and innovative cultural action is denied to Artists whose principal aim is to approximate to the perceived notions of an International movement or style. In this mimetic situation the ‘transfer’ is only of a technological form, per se, rather than of a critical praxis, which uses technological ‘tools’ as a vehicle.
Technology Transfer - An Historical aside.
The contemporary concept of ‘technological transfer’ is an ironic re-playing of the historic trade in ideas and applied science between the Orient (principally China) and the Occident. Suffice it to say that lodged within the ethical and social mores of East and West lay fundamentally divergent attitudes toward science and the technologies of commerce.
The East, whilst being technologically precocious held such knowledge in distain, actively suppressing its social role in favour of the development of agricultural, civil and scholarly skills. In contrast the emergent European states, driven by intense economic and political competition, seized scientific principals and technological applications as central to their development. This obsessive drive culminated in the imperialist expansions of European states, which tragically re-imported to the East many of their own inventions, but in new virulent and violent forms.
Old Nature - New Nature.
As an ill-informed, but curious admirer of Temple mural paintings, I have noticed my gaze constantly ‘drifts’ away from the principal iconic focus, to rest in the dense backgrounds of forest cover. Here arises a powerful intuition that lurking in the distance of time lays another culture, pre-existent to Buddhism. Here remains a pre-history of animism, a matriarchal forest culture now lingering as a repressed ‘backdrop’ to Buddhism.
This genetic memory trace somehow signifies the inverse of the foreground action, with its iconography of aristocratic bearing, military power and patrilineal monarchy sited within urban complexes. Albeit a philosophy of light (enlightenment) Buddhism shades its origins, perhaps even more effectively than Christianity (which still lives with its elves, fairies and of course Satan - diminutive survivors of pre-Christian deities).
It’s only ‘Natural’ - recourse to nature symbolism.
How is the concept ‘Nature’ mobilised as an Artistic vehicle? - firstly a return to the assertion that nature is frequently harnessed to Artistic production, in order to provide a bridge of cultural continuity between tradition and those emerging cultural formations which go beyond the traditional symbolic order. Such a use of ‘nature’ attempts to both foreground and buffer Thai identity within the transitional process of absorbing International cultural forms.
Once upon a time…
The principal mode of co-option is as ‘nature mythologised’. In this usage the culture/nature nexus embodies a series of values, which emphasise cultural purity and historical authenticity. These values are clustered about a homogenous lineage of Thai tradition centred upon the harmonious symbiosis of the village and its natural environment.
Such a mythic construction operates as a proto-critical vehicle, frequently ranged in opposition to contemporary ‘western’ values and urban developments. In this manner the contemporary fragility of Thai cultural identity is equated with the corrosive effects of western industrial capitalism with its resulting alienation from the natural world. Those who subscribe to this proposition rely upon the equally mythical assumption that the industrialisation of Thailand is driven by neo-colonial agencies external to Thai society - a fate that must be accepted with reluctance.
The conjunction of nature with emotion is currently in vogue with young Thai Artists. Nature is again cited as a receptacle for innocence and purity but here the metaphor embraces the individual psyche of the Artist rather than the social psyche at large. Nature becomes the matrix, which houses the emotional self, a source of inspiration - an echo filled space, which faithfully returns the monologues of the individual. To operate within such a ‘privatised’ nature provides an alternative terrain to the difficult realm of social space. Nature is conceived of as a space beyond ideology - an escape route from contemporary social conditions, perhaps promising a re-entry to an imagined cohesive past.
Perhaps the most legitimate ‘mythologising’ of the natural realm is one in which nature is subliminally recognised as the original ‘cosmological site’. Under this configuration the conception of nature expands to occupy its actual dimensions forming an infinite resonant space adequate to house the equally vast symbolic worlds of Brahmanism and Buddhism. Within this ‘full-size’ conceptual universe there is room enough to provide dwelling places for shamanism and animism – forces, which inhabit the pre-histories and contemporary peripheries of the major theologies.
Brahman and Buddhist cosmology’s have incorporated nature symbolism as their iconic and conceptual foundation, within this continuum the tree figures as the total cosmos, the branches are heaven, the lower branches the plane of earth, the roots the subterranean world with the trunk representing the axis Mundi, the pivotal vertical axis which aligns and unites these layered worlds. As the axis Mundi the tree is a prominent aniconic representation of the Buddha, who is in turn the anthropomorphised form of the cosmic, or solar pillar. The Bohdi tree is specifically associated with the Buddha as both the site and sign of his enlightenment, and trees act as symbolic markers for each of the significant events in Buddha’s story. Here, where the essential and its materialisation constitute the intelligible and the sensible aspects the universe, where everything is both what is visible but also what it represents symbolically - here we have come full-circle, to the ground-zero of a powerful belief system - to a source of creative energy!!!
Wild Nature - the Environment and Fear.
Despite the almost total de-forestation of Thailand leaving the remaining ‘natural’ mountain/forest-scapes as secondary re-growth - the institutional and political consciousness still retains a genetic memory of ‘Wild Nature’. But here the wildness and its concomitant danger are generated by the intersection of political frontiers, the trade in contraband (narcotics and weapons) and ideological or inter-ethnic conflict, all played out in the physical context of malarial and monsoonal conditions. ‘Wild nature’ is nature beyond the long arm of the law, a form of nature not to be tolerated.
It is not without irony that the ‘meta-physics’ of Wild nature are the mainspring of the tourist economy in Northern Thailand. Here, an entire fabric of double-speak serves to exoticise the fringe existence of ethnic minorities (whose varying fates at the hands of the government have included, physical suppression, relocation and assimilation). Their current status as tourist commodities at least ensures them the ‘insurance policy’ of a public profile). In a similar mythologising operation, authentic experiences of ‘Wilderness’ are commonly advertised for general consumption (as a brief stroll in Chiang Mai will show). Here the often charming, but totally man-altered, Northern landscapes of forest re-growth and verdant rice paddies stand in for what was once dense primal forest (certainly no place for urbanised Europeans!!!).
The ‘taming’ of nature by traditional Thai village society is perhaps not simply an expression of the economies of logging with a subsequent influx of rice economies developing on the cleared land. This environmental transition from the ‘natural’ to the ‘cultural’ may also be viewed as an expression of the basic fear of ‘chaos’ found in nature which has been systematically eradicated under the logic of economic progress. Re-forestation projects naturally proceed along the rational gridiron of the surveyor’s chart, and frequently employ non-native, rapid growth hard-woods (Australian Eucalypts) - This form of forest regeneration is also a form of ‘pacification’, here nature obediently forgets ‘chaos’.
The Environment and Reprisal.
The perception of ‘Wild Nature’ existing at the peripheries of the State result in habitually violent responses to both the environment and to the fringe dwellers who inhabit the geographic and political margins of the State. Reports of institutional violence against nature are the daily fare of Thai national newspapers, which demonstrate an alarming complicity between the State/Military and the Entrepreneurial ventures engaged in this war of attrition. Two recent reports, paraphrased from “The Nation” demonstrate the scale and political involvement of these environmental incursions;
“Burma dams are clearly a crime against humanity” - might be aptly re-titled “How to kill two birds with one stone?”. This report outlines plans for massive hydroelectric dams on the upper and lower Salween River, permanently flooding over 1000 km2 of forest on the Burmese side of the frontier. These dams are projected to supply energy greedy Thai industry with 4,540 megawatts (per dam) in addition water will be pumped to the depleted Bhumibhol reservoir (as if to say that dams can work as replacements for watershed forests - logged out by short sighted enterprises). Not only will these projects impart respectability and inject hard currency into the SLORC. dictatorship, but as part of the entente cordiale established between the two governments, eradicate (by flooding) the homeland of the Karen, destroying their way of life and effecting a “final solution” to the forty year self-determination struggle the Karen have waged against Burma’s Military dictatorship. The Karen, dispossessed, will have to choose between SLORC. concentration camps or Thai refugee camps!
“The forest killing fields in Cambodia” - described as an “environmental massacre” the result of a war against nature waged during the decades of civil unrest in the region has left only 50% of the original forest cover (with only 25% of the primary forest in-tact). The western zones of Cambodia have been literally stripped bare of minerals and hardwood by the Khmer Rouge in conjunction with their clandestine Thai ‘business partners’ (and ordinance suppliers). Neighbouring Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, whilst officially supporting the UN. total ban on Cambodian timber exports, have continued to buy Cambodian timber as have Japanese concerns. The Cambodian Environment minister Mok Mareth terms the situation an “Environmental Catastrophe”.
Thailand as an (over)Developing Country.
It is especially pertinent to note that both of the above catastrophes are located in the ‘trans-border’ areas of ‘Wild Nature’. These ‘sensitive’ border zones are the preserve of Military governance that seem free to extend neo-colonial practices of environmental exploitation, in defiance of Thai government policy and International law. Such an obvious lack of political and economic control, coupled with systematic disinformation and un-responsive government bureaucracy combine to project the “Ugly-Thailand” image held by many of Thailand’s less developed neighbours, who view the Thai version of ‘western’ industrial capitalism as an irresponsible and socially inequitable disaster.
Pax Britannia, Pax Americana ~ Traditional Cosmology and the New World Order.
Buddhist tradition has been unable (to date) to provide a system of ethical ‘checks and balances’ when confronted by the historical process of Thailand’s incorporation into the world market economy by colonial and neo-colonial agencies. This process commenced with the concessions made under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1826 and the Bowring Treaty of 1855, which initiated the free export of rice and the controlled import of opium. Combined with the expansion of British teak logging industries from Burma into northern Siam during the reign of King Mongkut the traditional subsistence economy disintegrated developing as a ‘client’ economy in the mould of ‘early’ industrial capitalism, un-fettered by European concepts of Unionism and ‘Social-Contracts’ - governed only by a fierce free market ideology.
The effect of a Free Market Economic system (the Pax Americana) within the ‘developing’ countries is essentially twofold. The overt mode develops an economic/industrial base in the image of the western market, increasing the overall standard of living but invariably tethering the developing country as a dependant ‘client’ state (which is ‘allowed’ to supply the developed world with cheap raw materials!). The price tag on this ‘development’ is hidden within the second principal mode of this double-edged sword.
The Free Market economic system, even when adopted by authoritarian and centralist governments (e.g. Communist China :- “It does not matter if a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it’s ok!” D. X. Ping) not only effects the political and economic complexion of the state but acts as a corrosive force within the ethical and philosophical systems of the society. Its principal effect is to dissolve ideology, ethics and cosmology. It is not simply the case that Western forms of commodity production and exchange are incommensurate with traditional Buddhist precepts - but that the mechanism of the free-market acts like a viral invasion to dissolve and permanently ‘re-write’ the ethical and philosophical ‘codes’ of traditional modes of being and conduct.
As the architectures and consumer durables of industrial capitalism slowly drown the ancient walled cities, their symbolic order, manifest in temples and imperial structures, become embalmed as material signs of that which is disappearing as a modus vivendi. Juxtaposed against the multi-storey shopping mall, the temple and palace are fossilised as national heritage, commodified as historic artefact and consumed by visitors from the ‘developed’ world.
The main goals of U.S. strategy were to promote stability, to facilitate internal development, and to promote security to prevent a take-over by internal communism. To achieve these ends, the strategy operated ....on many levels, affecting virtually every aspect of Thailand’s economic, political, social and cultural development. It was a major effort at social transformation, which involved all….parts of the governmental corporate - foundation - university - military complex.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
It’s question time! How do Thai artists propose to operate within the National and International cultural ‘circuit’? It would seem from the above that however earnest re-enactments of Thai traditional forms might be, they operate as a desperate expression of loss within a cultural context of inevitable transformation. In reiteration;
To establish a cultural praxis which mediates tradition and the new is the utopic project that elusively confronts Thai Artists. The principal task would appear to be to establish the ground-rules and game plan for the development of Thai culture within an International context. This must be accomplished in a manner which avoids the com modification of Thai identity as exotica or folkloric, and equally resists the co-option of Thai Artists as stylistic ‘clones’ who replicate the appearance (and little else) of the current International vogue.
Artists have options - They can choose to operate (as an ancient metaphor puts it) as the root or the flower of culture. As the flower their task is to amplify the status quo, to affirm that which is already evident, to act as ‘social grease’ - the advertising agents of institutional culture. From the perspective of the root Artists become pro-active cultural critics and spiritual or ideological reservoirs, willing to work in the debris of the collision between tradition and the (un)ethics of the new world (dis)order.
For the Artist using ‘nature’ as an artistic vehicle who adopts the complicity of the ‘flower’ stance the natural is inevitably adopted in its mythologised configuration, providing a nostalgic and temporarily comforting respite in stark contrast to an uncertainties of a future in which the symbolic and ethical order is dissolving to be replaced by unknown but certainly ‘alien’ values. It is not without irony to note that the iconic systems employed to portray nature and the natural are frequently adopted from (alien) European sources.
Those who take the alternate, critical position, who consider nature as both a cosmological site and an ecosystem - who work with both aesthetics and ideology, will find little support or acclaim in a cultural system which formed its social conventions of harmonious and non-confrontational conduct some two thousand years prior to the emergence of capitalism. To work as a ‘root’ may mean to work in darkness!
The Chiang Mai Social Installation Group is a nucleus of positive cultural energy, which has the potential to shift contemporary Art development away from the moribund beaux-arts confines of the gallery to the fresh air of a social and environmental context. This open arena is the only place where the Realpolitik of cultural and philosophical material can occur - tested out, offered as a gift, fought over and savoured. It is not a question of training and taming the ‘public’ to learn to ‘love’ art, but a vital opportunity for Artists to actively join the world.
As a final comment, it is highly significant that the Chiang Mai Social Installation Group has intentionally situated this cultural experiment within the physical precincts of Buddhist culture. That the project was officially opened in Wat U-Mong (a forest temple) is for me doubly resonant. In this manner the group actively chooses to engage sites of traditional philosophy as an active force in the development of an independent and vigorous contemporary Thai culture.
© Nigel Helyer 1994.