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The Midnight University



Art : the sparking power for critical thinking
In Support of Fa Diew Kan
and the role of art in democratic society

Keiko Sei

An international campaign group "Friends of Fa Diew Kan"
has been launched in Vienna
for the lift of the ban on the magazine
and the charge on the publisher/editor.


บทความที่ปรากฏบนหน้าเว็บเพจนี้ เป็นงานเขียนทางวิชาการของตัวแทน
กลุ่มรณรงค์นานาชาติ "มิตรฟ้าเดียวกัน" ซึ่งได้ก่อตั้งขึ้นที่กรุงเวียนนา
เพื่อขอให้ยกเลิกการห้ามจำหน่ายวารสารและการกล่าวหาบรรณาธิการฟ้าเดียวกัน

สาระสำคัญของงานเขียน ชี้ถึงการใช้ความคิดเชิงวิพากษ์
เป็นคุณสมบัติของการศึกษาและความเป็นอิสระที่ควรแก่ความภาคภูมิใจ

midnightuniv@yahoo.com

(บทความเพื่อประโยชน์ทางการศึกษา)
มหาวิทยาลัยเที่ยงคืน ลำดับที่ 887
เผยแพร่บนเว็บไซต์นี้ครั้งแรกเมื่อวันที่ ๑๐ เมษายน ๒๕๔๙
(บทความทั้งหมดยาวประมาณ 10.5 หน้ากระดาษ A4)



In Support of Fa Diew Kan~and the role of art in democratic society~
An international campaign group "Friends of Fa Diew Kan" has been launched in Vienna
for the lift of the ban on the magazine and the charge on the publisher/editor.

This article is about the Thai magazine Fah Diew Kan and the recent trouble it has had with the police. Yet, first of all, I must take the readers on a tour of the German Reichstag (Parliament) building in Berlin.

This late 19th century building that was to house the Reichstag, the parliament of the German empire, is a witness of turbulence of the modern German history. In 1933, it was burnt for reasons that remain un-known even now. This mysterious fire was used by the Nazis to legitimize the beginning of the suppression of all human rights, under the pretext of an emergency decree.

During the time when Germany was divided to East and West, it had to bear humiliation of standing idly besides the wall, without any significant function, for several decades. After the decision of placing United Germany's capital in Berlin, Sir Norman Foster was given a task to reconstruct this, one of the most significant buildings in Germany, as the new house for the Bundestag (as the German Parliament is called today).

He created a large glass dome through which natural light illuminates the parliament floor below. Another part that was added to the original structure was a passage where the public can go up and "look down" on the MPs on duty (anybody can go, regardless of nationality, without reservation from 8am to midnight…it was open even after 9/11). This experience creates and communicates enough of a feeling that the MPs are servants of the citizens.

Since the parliament was moved, the German Bundestag has also invited artists to create site-specific art projects for the Reichstag and adjacent parliament buildings. About 30 or so projects can be viewed and experienced now, which includes Katharina Sieverding's memorial to persecuted members of the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic, and Gerhard Richter's work of large glass plates on back of which the artist painted the color of the German flag - black, red and gold(1). No single artist that is invited is a court-painter that paints beautiful portraits of nobles and landscapes. This is Germany.

Among them, the project that stirred up the most heated discussion is that of Hans Haacke. His proposal was to place a wooden trough in the north courtyard in which each MP was to fill 50kg of soil from their respective constituencies and create a flower garden. In the center is a neon sign that says "Der Bevoelkerung," which means "To the Populace." This is a deliberate contrast to the famous central gable inscription of the building that says "Dem deutschen Volke," which means "To the German people."

Dire conservative MPs claimed that it is written in German Basic Law that a member of Bundestag is a representative of "Volke", and that the wording in the installation is a defamation of the Bundestag. Even some liberal MPs who support a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, opposed the project claiming that an association with "home soil" could be misleading because it reminds people of "Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil)" propaganda of the Nazis, or it's only bio-kitsch, etc, etc. Conservative press accused the artist of wanting to do away with the German people. There were months and months of heated debates by parliamentarians, the press and public over whether they should have this installation at the Bundestag or not.

Hence voting took place on April 4 at the parliament to decide the matter. The debate had attracted so much attention and interest, it is reported, that more deputies attended and voted for this case on art than was the case on the intervention of the German army in Kosovo, for example(2). The voting result: 260 to 258 in favor of Haacke's installation.

Deputies started to bring soil and fill the troughs. Although the soil was to nourish a flower garden there was no garden plan, leaving it to grow naturally instead. Only fresh soil that would be brought in by newly elected MPs would continuously stimulate its metabolism. Wolfgang Thierse, then the liberal president of parliament, brought soil from the Jewish cemetery in Berlin. There was soil from a former concentration camp site. There was soil with three earthworms, each with a name - Gabriele, Fritz and Erkan (Turkish name).

Two MPs from the Green party brought soil with seeds of genetically modified Dutch hemp "super-skunk", which stirred up a whole new controversy. Some MPs were upset because the seeds were of hemp, some got angry because the hemp seeds were genetically modified and not organic. The Greens claimed that this would help them promote a parliamentary debate over legality of hemp.

In fact this was not the first time that the German Bundestag invited heated debate over an art project. In 1994, when the Bundestag was still in Bonn, there was a debate on whether the artist Christo would be permitted to wrap the Reichstag as an art project or not. This was a project that this acclaimed artist had planned since 1975. Christo's work is what is called "process art", which means that the experience of art for the audience is not only to appreciate the end-result but also to examine the whole creative process to awaken the viewer's inner-discourse. Therefore I quote an excerpt from the Green party MP Konrad Weiss's speech at the parliament session, in which he acknowledged the fact that the parliamentary debate itself was part of the art work, since it summarizes some basic and important facts about the role of art in society.

"…..is it not one of the causes of general bleakness, superficiality and meaninglessness that human beings still only seldom learn to come to terms with art and to find themselves through their own creativity. Art is more than commerce and entertainment. It frees and widens views. It orients and helps us find the reason for our own life.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is no disgrace and no lost time if for once the parliamentarians in this dignified house argue over a work of art and think about it. (Applause from many Mps)

Through this process, we ourselves will become part of the work of art that Christo has created for many years with admirable obstinacy and creative genius. An artist is only seldom successful in setting of such a broad discourse. …..How boring is everything compared to this that does not raise contradiction or question. There is truly enough flat monotony.

The wrapping of the Reichstag my colleagues, enables us to see in another light and newly, perceptually experience this central and ambivalent place in German history. …..

……Our memory will be enlivened to that which has occurred within and with this building, the creation, the downfall and the rebirth of democracy through the wrapping. Our analysis of the history can be nothing else but that: we make a picture of that which presents itself under the maturing of time on past reality. The wrapping of the Reichstag will remind us of the limits of our perceptions and how uncertain our knowledge is. That is the vision: the stone of the Reichstag will be concealed from our views for a time. …….The soft material which drapes the Reichstag will remind us of the flames that lashed from these walls and how vulnerable and endangered democracy is.

…………I wish for us, ladies and gentlemen, that we find the courage to face the creative provocation of this symbolic wrapping, that we show courage to the ironic distance with ourselves as part of this work of art and at the same time to the responsible integration of our history with all of its highs and lows, with all its good and evil for which this Reichstag stands." (3)

After this speech, voting took place. The result: 292 in favor, 223 against and 9 abstentions. Following this, in June 1995, the Reichstag was wrapped in 100,000 square meters of thick woven polypropylene fabric with an aluminum surface and 15,600 meters of blue polypropylene rope for 14 days. Millions of visitors came for this unique experience of a lifetime. People, from young to old, families, workers and politicians, they were there, quietly watching the wrapped parliament, contemplating, just feeling the air. This atmosphere was somewhat incomparable to any other; it was neither that of an outdoor concert, nor a revolution, but there was a sense of community in its own manner.

It's not enough only to point out this parliamentarian's understanding of this contemporary art project and art in general. Or, it isn't enough either only to immerse ourselves into a discourse on the fragility of democracy. In Germany, the process of understanding art and democracy has always come together. Throughout modern history, in the society, in education and in politics, the idea of democracy has been learnt and understood through art. Art has grown more elaborate as people have learned to embody the sense of democracy. The two cannot be separated from one another. Massive use and suppression of art by the Nazis would not have happened without this background. Hence there is no German Bundestag if there is no art, and if there is only art for the sole purpose of glorification and beautification, this doesn't represent the Bundestag either.

Stimulating our imagination, provoking our thought, maturing and freeing ourselves with critical and analytical thinking, empowering ourselves with constant inner and outer discourse, these are all essential to embrace democracy in our minds. Different methods of training our mind in order for us subsequently to understand the meaning of our life, methods such as art, literature, theater and music are vital to the process of developing our mind. These methods, however, must be dealt with not as a tool for comfort but as an instrument to challenge our mind and soul.

The former social democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder openly and proudly states that his favorite artist is Joerg Immendorf. This artist's work unites German citizens in one frame of a painting, citizens of East and West Germany, of different classes, of different times in history (a series Caf้ Duetcheland, from 1978 onwards) ---yet this unity is achieved not in a superficially harmonious manner; rather, the unity makes viewers feel uneasy as each citizen of the picture carries problems and darkness that is a personal one, but is complicated by the problem of the nation. These symbols and metaphors of the problems of the state are painted in dark tones of colors of the German flag -- red, black and gold.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall came down. On the evening of the next day, in front of the Schoeneberg City Hall - where John F. Kennedy made his historic speech in 1963 ended with "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) -- a huge rally was held attended by the city's mayor Walter Momper, former mayor and ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl. So touched were they by the whole situation that the dignitaries started to sing the German anthem with tears in their eyes. Some of the crowd started to sing along, but a substantially large crowd started booing them. In no time at all, the left-liberal TAZ newspaper in Berlin distributed a disc of the recording of the booing, and attached it to the daily newspaper.

What is worth noticing in this and in similar incidents is that the whole thing is taken neither as "shame" nor as a "negative image" of the country, but only as another point of discussion. On the contrary, the heads of the state must have been proud of their citizens being so educated in critical thinking that they could analyze the meaning and the significance of the situation so quickly as to be able to demonstrate their opinion in an instant.

And these emancipated citizens could not have been so without education and training of critical thinking through art, culture and other activities. In education, there are academies of art, high schools for art, and art departments at universities in each state, and each state supports and promotes numerous exhibitions and art and culture festivals so that citizens are educated in being able to be analytical and critical. Take exhibitions of more general subjects such as the history of Germany or the German constitution, or take more radical or sensitive subjects such as the holocaust or RAF, art always plays the major part so that the audience not only "receives" information, but they can also stop in front of each piece of the exhibited item and think at length.

At one of these art festivals in the city of Osnabrueck, I came across a scene of a father with a little daughter watching an outdoor public installation/performance. The artwork was about a homeless person. An artist was sleeping on the street like a homeless person, and on her head was a TV monitor in which the audience could see her peacefully sleeping face. The girl asked her father: Why is she here? What is she doing? Father: This is what is called art. Don't worry, please go take a look at the monitor closely; you may even be able to talk to her. The daughter hesitates. Father: You see, this piece is here for somebody like you, for not to worry about these people. Also, with this, you can start thinking about these people. If you didn't see this, you wouldn't have noticed such people because the street is usually cleared up by the city.

This is not an uncommon scene in Germany. German children are trained in this way almost on a daily basis to actively think about the meaning of art and culture, discuss works from different perspectives - an experience that one cannot obtain from TV viewing. Those well-educated children grow up and become active citizens. To create this mature society, every citizen as well as the state first made a silent consensus that an artist is a free agent that can go in, out and around any boundary, and that can go up and down any hierarchy and layer of the society. Artists such as Josef Beuys and Anselm Kiefer's enormous influence in the political and social arena and their effect in German psyche, heralds it.

One of these numerous activities of training critical thinking is documenta. Taking place once in every 5 years, summarizing the zeitgeist (the spirit of the time) and tendency in art, culture and society of the time, it is the highlight of contemporary art events. Under carefully thought-after subjects, artists and art projects that are considered to be leading the time in provoking and stimulating everyone's mind and soul are invited. In each documenta there are heated discussions on each presented artwork at home, in the work place and in the media.

Born in 1955 in the city of Kassel, one of the devastated cities, it was originally an attempt to reflect German culture and civilization and to think about what they did wrong. It was also to revive the spirit of the people and the nation. Over the years it has become the most important art event in the world. Last documenta, documenta 11 in 2002, attracted 650,000 spectators in its 3-month exhibition period. The audience comes from all over the world but the majority are ordinary German citizens, not art professionals per se. These citizens bring discussions back home and to the work place to debate further.

The next documenta, documenta 12, will take place in 2007. For the next event, a bold proposal was made: this time, a magazine is considered as art. Naturally the magazines- both printed periodicals and on-line media - that can be included in this criteria are not those millions of commercial magazines, but a handful of those that are playing a similar role of an artist in society. Magazines that have a reputation of contributing to the local community by creating and generating discourse, striving to educate people in critical thinking by bringing up challenging topics and quality articles, are being carefully selected from all over the world. These magazines will not only be presented in the exhibition in Kassel but they will also form a forum to exchange different local discourses in the international arena.

Last year, I was assigned to research and select magazines in South East Asia and since then I have traveled the region extensively, meeting editors, publishers, writers and artists, visiting libraries, bookshops and publishers. Meeting with extremely intelligent and hard-working editors has given me confidence that contributions from this part of the world will enrich the global discussion.

In Thailand, together with the Midnight University, in January this year in Chiang Mai we invited the editors of the magazines that we had selected to a preliminary forum to discuss the role of media. Among the 13 selected there were only two magazines that were directly related to art (Art & Culture and art4d) and the rest were political and social magazines. There were established magazines with bigger circulation such as the Matichon weekly and sarakadee, and there also magazines of much smaller scale and circulation such as MADgazine and saloween from Chiang Mai. Two were invited from the South (Isara Political News and Friday College magazine) and there were magazines with the aim of the media itself to enlighten people in critical thinking such as Open, Pra-Cha-Thai, Question Mark and Fa Diew Kan. Together with these editors, scholars and thinkers, such as Phra Phaisan Visalo (representing Buddpage on-line) and Dr.Nidhi Eoseewong, all spoke about the role of art & media in society (4)

Among the invited magazine was the political quarterly Fa Diew Kan. The magazine has many qualities that make it stand out --- a firm and consistent editorial position on topics of each issue, regular pages of media literacy, thought-provoking topics and articles, detailed reports on labor and civil movements elsewhere, and design that completes the whole issue as gesamtkunstwerk.(5)

When I first saw the cover of the Oct-Dec 05 issue on Thai monarchy, in which the word "institution of monarchy" is inscribed on the logo of coca-cola, I immediately thought that this magazine should go to documenta. The logic of the design not only states the editorial stance but it also invites the viewer to a whole journey of questioning. It also has a quality of art under strict censorship, in which the logic is carried out at more of a metaphorical level that stimulates stronger imagination-- such as Burmese performance art, Iranian films and graphic art under Franco's dictatorship
such as equipo cronica.

I also saw the "Phutaen Muang Thai"(Thai MPs) exhibition where the publisher and the editor of the magazine, Thanapol Eawsakul had worked as a curator and a designer. The exhibition, which aims to make younger people more interested in Thai politics, was full of hands-on sections, such as the corner where a visitor could create his/her own political campaign poster, an interactive map of the constituency on which the audience could hear MPs' speeches with a touch of button, and a CD-ROM with which one could play a game on Thai politics. Each section served the purpose of making the audience interested in, think about, and engage in politics. This exhibition was another major point of consideration for my selection of this magazine for the international exhibition.

Earlier this month, we heard the news of the banning of the very issue of Oct-Dec.05 by the police. On the following day, the publisher/editor Thanapol Eawsakul was charged with lese majeste. When I heard the news for the first time my initial reaction was, naturally, of being upset. But then I thought I should be proud of my choice of this magazine to represent Thailand in the international arena of creative and critical thinking. After all Fa Diew Kan played a free agent, that is not only free in itself but in freeing the perspective of people's vision, to open a gate for involvement. Some countries respect the freedom of its movements, and some don't. It's a pity that such free agents cannot fly freely over the borders of nations.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Note :
(1) Many of the art works can be viewed at the Bundestag website.
http://www.bundestag.de/bau_kunst/kunstwerke/

(2) "The hue and cry in Germany over Hans Haacke's artwork Der Bev๖lkerung (The People) by Stefan Steinberg,14 April 2000 http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/apr2000/haac-a14.shtml

(3) The entire speech can be read at <http://www.bln.de/k.weiss/te_wrapp.htm>

(4) Not every editor of the magazine that were invited was able to be physically present at the forum

(5) Originally used by Richard Wagner referring to an opera that encompasses music, theater, and the visual arts. Nowadays the term is widely used to describe any integration of multiple art forms.

 

 



บทความที่นำเสนอก่อนหน้านี้ของมหาวิทยาลัยเที่ยงคืน
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เว็บไซต์มหาวิทยาลัยเที่ยงคืน มีการเสนอบทความใหม่ทุกวัน เพื่อสนองความต้องการของนักศึกษา และผู้สนใจที่คลิกเข้ามาหาความรู้เป็นประจำ

At one of these art festivals in the city of Osnabrueck, I came across a scene of a father with a little daughter watching an outdoor public installation/performance. The artwork was about a homeless person. An artist was sleeping on the street like a homeless person, and on her head was a TV monitor in which the audience could see her peacefully sleeping face. The girl asked her father: Why is she here? What is she doing? Father: This is what is called art. Don't worry, please go take a look at the monitor closely; you may even be able to talk to her. The daughter hesitates. Father: You see, this piece is here for somebody like you, for not to worry about these people. Also, with this, you can start thinking about these people. If you didn't see this, you wouldn't have noticed such people because the street is usually cleared up by the city.

The Midnightuniv website 2006