Unimagined Communities

We are all migrants at heart.

In the world Thai artist and filmmaker Chai Siris describes, being an immigrant on the outside looking in comes with an emotional stress that is often ignored in the presence of physical hardship experienced in modern day Thailand. His exhibition “Unimagined Communities” at Tokyo’s Komagome SOKO makes slight reference to those who have emerged in the wake of new technology in a country that wrestles with its future while at the same time pays reference to a past that exists in the mind of the Thai population, often revised and reimagined by a cultural elite that ignores the mental and physical persecution of foreign settlers from around the Southeast Asian delta.

Still from Rebirth (2017)

As Benedict Anderson argues, these communities are “imagined, because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”  It’s this ‘imagined’ nation state that tells only half a national story with monarchy and military at odds with a population caught in between. In the mind of Siris, it is the ‘unimagined’ sense of nationless-ness that now dwells on the periphery, adding new aspects to Thailand that exist in stark contrast to the ruling class, as out of touch as it would appear out of reach.

The dual-channel video Rebirth (2017) intercuts jungle tree line with the view from a room where a naked figure lays sleeping. Here, the setting reimagines the ending to Walter Lang’s 1956 musical film “The King and I”. His portrayal of the king as comedic led it to be banned. With the king at the end shown on his death bed and his son increasingly aware of a world beyond what was Siam, Siris hints at a silent minority of class, race, gender and sexuality, that now collectively transform Thailand just beyond the camera and outside our frame of view.

As a son of a Bangkok doctor, Siris is sympathetic to the poor and disenfranchised, aware that medicine alone will not bridge widening social gaps or fix the problems that have forced a fugue of minorities to refuge in the vagueness of online social networks. Issues are steeped in the fuzzy logic of identity and wider personal crisis. For some, technology remains a distant dream, but where possible these virtual communities shy away from the glare of a regime that sets them apart from everyone else.

Still from Rebirth (2017)

Where migration and landscape collide, Siris documents a place that could easily exist in the troubled mind of someone trying to make sense of a dream. Archive of Bad Mountains (2016) is a photographic slideshow procured from online communities, collectively imagined as a nation of workers with no physical home. Interwoven with the natural landscape, the images lurch from serene to horrific moments, where celebration exists alongside tragedy to such an extent that it is hard to distinguish who these images belong to, if anyone. This mountain of imagery is in itself influx, only temporarily in contact with the ground that is itself being reworked. When sound is involved in the exhibition, albeit as an echo, the dream as suggested by Archive of Bad Mountains (2016) takes on further significance.

At the centre of the gallery, a banana tree that forms The King and Reena (2017) carries a headset playing a love song. Fiction and the real world freely mix as barely audible sound leaks from each headphone. With these photos and the song that fills the room, these communities become the technology that enable them in the first place, seeking the temporal seclusion that being online brings. They embody a community all it’s own.

As a palliative experience, the exhibition does not argue for migration one way or other. It steers away from the murkiness of cure or remedy, singling out the reasons why fissures exist. Nationalism, as the title suggests, represents an idyllic, idealized version of what a country should or could be. Regional and international politics, however, make those national borders harder to read and more complicated to follow as people are displaced by war or driven by the desire to make a life away from the experience of terror. Unimagined communities extend beyond Thailand, and as the perception of foreign-ness evolves so too do attitudes towards culture, gender and sexuality. Like the figure in Requiem (2017), that attitude is slowly emerging from a decades-long slumber.

Chai Siris
Unimagined Communities
Komagome SOKO (SCAI The Bathhouse Support Program), Tokyo
July 8 – 29, 2017

Images courtesy of the artist and SCAI The Bathhouse