Phornphop Sittiruk: Sometimes You Can Be Weak
by Eric Goh
Phornphop Sittiruk is a Thai artist who sees his artistic practice like a form of language—an assemblage of consonants, vowels and linguistic structures — which he then explores to articulate his reflections and positions, as both an artist and an ordinary individual, on the political and cultural conditions of his native country. Lately, because of an experience with depression, his practice has shifted from one that was centred on sociopolitical themes to one more concerned with the personal. While Phornphop has sometimes contextualised this current exhibition in terms of his own struggle with depression, the works are not con ned by such a narrative. There is a poetry in Sometimes You Can Be Weakthat exceeds this framework, as evident in the artist’s lyrical combination of forms, materials and techniques.
The Thai Department of Mental Health reports that women are more likely to be afflicted with depression than men.1 However, the suicide rate is four times higher with men than with women.2 It is likely that the interaction of modern society, class and gender gives rise to grossly diverse and gendered experiences of depression. In general, it may be difficult enough to articulate one’s emotions, but apart from words, visual languages o er another means through which we can come to terms with our emotions.
Modern global society places constant emphasis on attaining happiness, and this exhibition is a sober reminder that negative emotions are essential and unavoidable aspects of life. It is also a testament to what an artist can create when he is depressed. The absence of vitality can become a catalyst for beauty. Sometimes you can be weakwas produced when Phornphop’s depression precipitated into an existential crisis. When the artist is not making art, he shares a studio with a team of people to design and produce made-to-order furniture and crafts. His fellow workers initially did not notice any changes in the artist when he developed symptoms. They continued to project their expectations onto him as a friend and colleague. Phornphop felt that the people in his life likened him to a hammer, and he was under constant pressure to conceal his weakness from his peers. He was bent on remaining outwardly strong, sturdy and reliable, although he was inwardly disoriented, exhausted and dispirited.
There is another reason why a tool like hammer resonated with Phornphop. Tools and materials related to craftwork have always been a big part of his life, and not just his own artistic work. His father was a contractor who was hired to build Buddhist temples in his hometown of Nakhon Si Thammarat in Southern Thailand. He designed buildings, sculpted statues of Buddha and skillfully applied decorative stucco to temple walls. He contributed to the building of many temples, but the one that took the longest was Wat That Noi, a temple that houses the remains of Phor Than Klai, a respected monk of the early 20th century, as well as a wax reproduction of the monk and a large reclining buddha. Hence, Phornphop was steeped in the environment of local artisans and sculptors from a young age.
Restis a wooden sculpture consisting of an elongated and curved pole with a rectangular block affixed to one of its ends. It blurs the line between the illusion and reality of stability, which is characteristic of most of the works in the exhibition. The object, which at first glance looks unevenly distributed, appears to balance on a pedestal effortlessly. At the time of its creation, the artist began to withdraw from people and any activity that did not relate to art making. But leisure has a sinister side. If it is not undertaken with the right approach and mindset, it could worsen one’s state of mind. The state of equilibrium that he aspired to achieve during his breakdown required him to balance opposing forces and influences in his life. At the same time, it a orded him the opportunity to embark on a long period of introspection.
In Leisure: e Basis of Culture, German philosopher Josef Pieper taps into classical and medieval notions of leisure to examine and criticise the dominance of work in modern society. Pieper attributes the importance of leisure to its capacity to nurture our consciousness. He distinguishes between two concepts of knowing: ratio and intellectus. Ratiostands for discursive thinking. In this case, knowledge is gained by actively organising, compartmentalising and comparing parts of the world and treating these parts as objects of study. On the other hand, intellectusrequires one to be at one with oneself through leisure in order to perceive rather than produce thoughts.3 In turn, one obtains greater clarity about the reality of the world. Theologian Aquinas Guilbeau O.P. expands our understanding of intellectusfurther by stressing the importance of qualities such as courage and humility during leisure.4 These were the qualities that stuck with Phornphop after he was diagnosed with clinical depression. It required courage to carry on, and humility to keep him emotionally grounded, until when he was able to again and joy in simply being alive.
Western understandings and treatments of mental illness such as depression were introduced as early as 1826 in Thailand by missionaries and through the support of the Siamese kings, even though Thailand has not been colonised by Western powers.5 The rst mental hospital was built in 1889, thus marking the beginning of a long series of developments in psychiatric care in Thailand.
When Phornphop’s symptoms worsened, he sought help from a doctor. His visit to the doctor led to After that..., a sculpture made of marble powder in the form of an ear resting on layers of wax, layers which are increasing in circumference towards the base. One biomedical narrative of depression indicates that it is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, especially from low levels of serotonin. However, other mental health professionals have argued that mental distress cannot be simply diagnosed and treated based on a set of physical symptoms. The argument here is that the biomedical narrative misleadingly narrows the causes of depression mainly to internal and bodily malfunction, when instead we should look to the destructive structures in modern society for clues.
2015 was a tumultuous year for Phornphop. He was conscripted into the army and was required to serve as a corpsman in a medical battalion. The air of chauvinism and rigid masculinity that permeated his time in service, coupled with his parent’s marital breakdown and the end of his own romantic relationship, devastated his emotional wellbeing. The artist started to count the days when he would be released from the military, after which, he sought professional help and took medication, but continued to rely on his artistic practice to work through his negative feelings.
When ideas come to him as images, he can start work on his sculptures without needing to make sketches rst. At other times, ideas would appear as words or phrases. Then he sketches those thoughts into images before carving them into sculptures himself. Most of his sculptures are created without prototypes. They are not the product of studies and trials, but are immediate spatial translation of his emotions and intuitions. In choosing the shape of his sculpture, he does not distort the original meaning of the form, but merely adds certain characteristics to the object to layer other messages and ideas.
It’s flat, a miniature sculpture of a distorted heart, is one of his most detailed works in the exhibition. The ne lines that are engraved on the heart point to an aged and exhausted organ. The valves, which resemble exhaust pipes, seem to convey the loss of human warmth and vitality in the organ. It pumps blood to keep the body alive, but the soul is absent. Its deformity also lends it a sinister quality, as though the heart is capable of betraying its body and robbing the mind of its sanity.
In 19th century British Malaya, observers wrote about a phenomenon amongst the Malays whereby a calm and peaceful man would out of the sudden become manically murderous. The condition was known as amok. According to various accounts, it was believed that a heartache was not only capable of turning a person melancholic, but it also provoked the person into a murderous frenzy. The heart was seen as something of a double-edged sword: it has the power to give continuance to life, but it could also take it away.
Not now dude I’m tiredis made of a wooden pole spanning 3.5 meters. Its appearance contradicts the expectation of the weighty pole as something that is strong, rigid and durable. The sheer horizontality of the pole, which subverts the presentation that we often associate with the form, conveys the weariness and the weight of emotional baggage that the artist has felt. The folds and creases remind us of the wrinkles and folds of human skin. The visually arresting piece is a testament to Phornphop’s skills to poetically imbue objects with human characteristics. It commands the room with its unmistakable presence, which marks the creator’s talent as a gifted sculptor who skillfully fuses abstract and figurative forms.
I’m Okay: a message to my sicknessis a visual letter he composed to himself as a reminder of how far he has come. It is made of marble powder in the shape of a hand raising its thumb up. The hand might be rough around the edges and the fingers gone, but the work alludes to the resilience of the human spirit. The object doesn’t stand on its own, but rather sits on a base, which has an important role of ensuring that the fingerless hand remains stable.
When one lacks a reliable support network, it is difficult to deal with intrusive thoughts and remain grounded. The research of Simone Schnall, the Director of the Cambridge Body, Mind and Behavior Laboratory and Fellow of Jesus College, and her colleagues shows that social support can affect how geographical slants are visually perceived.8 When faced with a hill, participants who were alone thought the hill to be steeper than participants who were accompanied by a friend. Similarly, things took a turn for the better when Phornphop reached out to his family and friends for help.
Just trying to stand upmarks the return of the hammer, but this time, Phornphop carves the handle of the hammer into the shape of a femur or thigh bone. The head of the hammer supports the whole structure, which leans slightly towards one side. Just trying to stand upcontains familiar motifs such as balancing between abstract and figurative forms and blurring the boundaries between illusion and reality. However, what sets this work apart from the others is its pronounced qualities of confidence, hope and resolution. His experience demonstrates that the narrative of overcoming depression is lined with peaks and troughs. His is only one of many personal accounts of depression. Nonetheless, the exhibition serves as a testimony to the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of adversity and reveals the visual poetry that arises out of these intimate moments in an artist’s life.
- Department of Mental Health, Ministry of Public Health. Report on Situations and Trends of Mental Health Managing for Developing Strategic Plan of
the Eleventh National Economic and Social Development Plan 2012–2016. The Department of Mental Health, Ministry of Public Health, Bangkok, Thailand, 2008.
- Somporn Rungreangkulkij et al., “Loss of Control: Experiences of Depression in Thai Men”, Walailak Journal of Science & Technology 16, 4(2019): 265–274.
- Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), pp. 28–33
- O.P. Aquinas Guilbeau. “The Courage to Rest: Thomas Aquinas on the Soul of Leisure”, Nova et vetera 16, 1(2018): 39–46.
- Apichai Mongkol, “Mental Health in Thailand”, in Mental Health in Asia and the Paci c: Historical and Cultural Perspectives, ed. Harry Minas, Milton Lewis, (New York: Springer, 2017), p. 123–133
- Pichaya Svasti, “Under the
red roof”, Bangkok Post, 6
March 2017, https://www. bangkokpost.com/life/social-and- lifestyle/1209625/under-the-red- roof [accessed 26 June 2019].
- Ee Heok Kua, “Amok in nineteenth-century British Malaya history”, History of Psychiatry 2, 8(1991): 429–436.
- Simone Schnall et al., “Social support and the perception of geographical slant”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, 5(2008): 1246–1255
Phornphop Sittiruk: Sometimes You Can Be Weak11 July 2019 - 30 August 2019 A+ Works of Art
In collaboration with Numthong Gallery, A+ Works of Art is proud to present Sometimes You Can Be Weak, an exhibition showcasing works by Thai artist Phornphop Sittiruk. Comprising precious and laboriously crafted objets d’art and sculptures, the exhibition charts the fraught narrative of an individual learning to cope with depression, a condition that is on the rise in neoliberal societies today. Sometimes You Can Be Weak frames a series of intimate moments in the artist’s life as a compass to point us to larger questions and issues revolving around the nature and reality of mental illness.
During the onset of depression, Sittiruk was unable to articulate his emotions and make sense of what was happening to his body and mind. It was only later when he was diagnosed with clinical depression that he recognized his condition, but it also left him in shock. Eventually, he learnt to live and cope with depression, though uneasily at first. Nonetheless, he was creating works consistently throughout the different stages of his experience with depression.
Sittiruk’s objets d’art and sculptures borrow their forms from the human body and miscellaneous objects, which circulate in his daily life and work. He performs certain characteristics and actions on the objects to turn them into sculptures. His techniques include distorting shapes, combining distinct forms and ingraining objects with materials that at first sight might be incongruous with their original forms. With considerable sculptural finesse, he breaks down the rigidity of masculine objects and forms. At the same time, he also attempts to break down the sham of masculinity and reveal its toll on the human psyche through his works.