Sunday, 22 November 2015

A portrait of the artist as madman

This piece originally ran in a recent edition of Fah Thai, the Bangkok Airways magazine and one of the spiffy publications of the INK group.

Chalermchai Kositpipat is crazy like a fox. What does the fox say? “I am simply a painter … a small unit in human society, hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet earth.”

     That is Chalermchai in Thai National Artist humblebrag mode. But the creator of Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple in Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai, is prone to more bombastic and bizarre soundbites.

insta-art © Jason Gagliardi
  “A living treasure”, “world masterpiece” and “a must see for every human being” is how the self-styled “creator of food for the soul of all humanity” describes his work, begun in 1997 and so far costing a reported THB 40 million, all funded by the artist. It is his meisterwerk and magnificent obsession, a visual epic poem and a hubristic shrine to his own talent, draped in ancient allegories and limned with pop culture references.

    Lanna Rococo meets Buddhist Disneyland on Ritalin might best sum up the style, all white plaster and shards of glass and curlicues upon flourishes, like a wedding cake dreamed by Dali and left to melt in the Siamese sun. Visitors run a gamut of gods and monsters, cross a bridge over hell, depicted by 500 outstretched arms, and enter the red and gold ubosoth, an inner sanctum where the struggle between good and evil gets a Warholian makeover:

George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden glitter in a demon’s eyes as Doraemon watches the Twin Towers burn. Spiderman, Superman, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, The Terminator, Kung Fu Panda, Ronald McDonald and Hello Kitty are there, dodging space ships and ancient ogres.

       Chalermchai uses western pop culture to highlight the delusion of desire and to poke the glazed eye of rigid tradition. Thailand’s most successful living artist has seen his paintings fetch over THB 500,000 at auction, and counts among his collectors HM King Bhumibol Adulydej.

      A serial talk show guest, the artist made a recent appearance on left-field lifestyle program The Toilet Show, little knowing he would soon be starring in a toilet show all of his own. It began with his ban on Chinese tourists at the White Temple, announced to journalists along with a rap sheet of Chinese potty atrocities.  The headlines plopped into the public domain and splashed around the world. WeChat whizzed the straight poop to every last Chinese with a smartphone. It was a gut-punch to national pride, a strain on bilateral relations and threatened to put the skids on the torrent of free-spending Chinese tourists – the one thing propping up Thailand’s moribund economy.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Mr Dojo Rising ... Meet MMA's hardest Nutt

My latest piece in the South China Morning Post, on the full mental racket that is Full Metal Dojo, a potent cocktail of brutal cagefights, hot girls, hard rock, full beards and cold beer. Jon Nutt is the Dojo's high priest of hucksterism and hype. I meet him in 'the coolest city in the world' - Bangkok, says Nutt - to get the lowdown on throwdowns, takedowns, staredowns, and shakedowns, not to mention System of a Down.  Link to the SCMP story is here:

Jon Nutt has a reddish beard and a piratical air, although he professes no family connection to the 17th-century English pirate who cut a swathe through Newfoundland and Labrador before his capture in 1623.

The latter-day Nutt is content with cutting a swathe through the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) with his Full Metal Dojo show, which he somewhat breathlessly extols as the ‘fastest growing show on the planet, in the fastest growing sport on the planet, in the coolest city on the planet’ – his adopted home of Bangkok.

The most recent incarnation of Full Metal Dojo, two weeks ago, was held in the Sukhumvit Soi 12 club Insanity, formerly known as Insomnia, packing in a capacity crowd in excess of 600 people.
The first, although probably not the second, of the two conditions is almost certainly a boon in the world of MMA, a fighting style which sees two men or women of more or less equal weight (although often from wildly different fighting backgrounds) enter an octagonal cage and, with few rules and no holds barred, ‘get it on’ over three to five five-minute rounds.

The fighting discipline reached its global apotheosis with the show Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), in which the leading exponents must bring to the ring a mix of striking and grappling skills to have any chance of success.

Full Metal Dojo follows a similar model, although Nutt has made it his mission to spice up the showbiz pizzazz; his shows are a full metal racket that combines the bareknuckle fighting with hucksterism, live bands, DJs and copious quantities of food and booze. The Insanity show, Full Metal Dojo VI – For Those About to Rock, was the sixth outing in just over a year for the Full Metal Dojo machine – justification, in Nutt’s world, for his seemingly rather ambitious and exaggerated claim.

Six weeks earlier, Full Metal Dojo V took place on Bangkok’s outskirts, at a venue called Live House, tucked away in a warren of local bars with bands, art-and-craft shops and independent fashion boutiques known as JJ Green, near the popular Chatuchak Weekend Markets.

I walked into Live House, after 60 minutes wandering in fruitless if entertaining circles trying to find the place, to see a fight start and end, with a brutal uppercut and a knee to the head, inside four seconds.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Branding Bungles of the Piggy Banks

This piece first appeared as one of my Palm Oil columns for Coconuts. The column became a casualty of my day job workload but I've been missing the chance to sound off in print and illustration on various topics that annoy or intrigue me lately, and I've been toying with the idea of resurrecting the column, perhaps just as an occasional feature on the blog. This was the final column for Coconuts, and one of my better 'Insta-art' pieces, illustrating the porcine aviation properties of banks and their promises.

LoadsaBank: Bish Bosh, look at all our dosh.
This little piggy goes to market! Insta-Art by Jason Gagliardi 

After the subprime-fueled global economic meltdown, when HSBC high-tailed it out of Thailand in 2012 and left behind only its corporate banking operation, I was amazed the press didn't make more of “The World's Local Bank” becoming rather less local. (It also flogged off its Japanese private banking business, a chunk of its Russian consumer banking business and about half of its US branches, along with great swaths of its Central American operations.)

There was a predictable flurry of perfunctory business stories, but what about the body blow this represented to the brand and its much-vaunted, oh-so-clever tagline? I was tempted to write something snide then, but figured that as I had taken local bank Krungsri's baht to pen about 20 letters to various classes of cardholders about the sale (Krungsri paid about US$115 million to acquire HSBC's Thailand retail banking business, including an array of credit card products) I was a bit close to the proceedings at the time.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Palette pimp: Riding in the hood with red

This is my essay on the colour red, which was a lot of fun to research and write. Thanks to the splendid 'eight' magazine and Ink Publishing for asking me to contribute it. These kind of 'think pieces' off the top of your head are always a bit daunting, but the most rewarding, often, when they are done. 

The colour red is crazy. Insane in the membrane. A few crayons short of a set, and not the sharpest pencil in the box. Call the men in white jackets, tell the asylum to get its padded cell ready. Poor old red – ready or not, here it comes, the loony tune of hues, the crime of passion, the time of your life, a twisted melon: lover, fighter, sinner, saint.

The pimp of the palette, the paint box pantomime clown and the visible spectrum's biggest show-off, red clamours for attention, the hue that cries. Red is the most visible and arresting colour for humans in daylight hours, capable of causing discernable shifts in mood and arousal and stirring appetites, passions and emotions. Sporting teams that sport red tend to win more, as do boxers and martial artists. Women wearing red are judged more beautiful and desirable than those in other colours. Men with redder faces get more mates.

Yet red clings precariously to the edge of the visible spectrum, the first or last shade on the rainbow, bleeding into its mysterious and invisible cousin, infrared. Just a few scant nanometres of wave length are the difference between celebrity and anonymity.

Simply red? It's complicated. Red is the colour of confusion and contradiction, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Red is a conundrum, pigment as palimpsest. Red runs thought the fabric of our lives, splashed across literature, staining the vernacular. In a world where red can mean almost anything, does its sound and fury in fact signify nothing?

I was caught red-handed and left red-faced painting the town red when my red letter day saw me walk the red carpet, only to find a red herring. That was a red rag to a bull, the red mist descended and I saw red. That got me red-carded so I hopped on the redeye, drank a red bull and got into a fight with some rednecks.  

Red is life and death, love and hate, sickness and health, hurting and healing, headache and heartache, oppression and revolt, bureaucracy and anarchy. Red is the capitalist, the communist and the fascist, the sailor's dawn warning and afternoon delight. The Red Army marches in Red Square. The crimson gape of the Grand Canyon. Uluru, the big red rock in Australia's parched red centre. 

Writer Saul Bellow - now there's a fellow who knew a thing or two about red's starring role in the grand opera and farce of life. In The Adventures of Augie March, his protagonist sears this image into the consciousness with colour: "The door opened; a woman sat before me in a wheelchair, and in her lap, just born in a cab or paddy wagon or in the lobby of the hospital, covered with blood and screaming so you could see the sinews, square of chest and shoulder from the strain, this bald kid, red and covering her with the red ... She and the baby appeared like enemies forced to have each other, the figures of a war."

Red means danger and evil in the Middle East, macho men in Greece, female reproduction in Japan, Christmas in the West, but in China the East is Red. Red means sackcloth and ashes and mourning in South Africa, and sex for sale in Amsterdam.