by Harit Srikhao
Text originally published in Foam Magazine #48 Talent, 2017 and provided by the artist. Harit Srikhao’s first book has been recently published by AKINA.
On Top of the Mountain
Harit Srikhao’s Mt Meru project is a story by a young photographer who never participated in any political or social movements before 2007, who knows the stories and history of his country the same way most middle class Thai families do: through media and education. Srikhao’s generation grew up with the norm that, in order to be a good citizen of their country, their role model was embodied by the photograph occupying the highest position on the wall: the king. Growing up, when they looked at the walls they might see the portrait of the then-king in full uniform, or perhaps in a casual suit with radio and map, working amongst a group of people. Like many his age, young Srikhao never had any great interest in the photographs of the king. Of course, he knew who was in the picture and how important he was, but Srikhao – like many others – saw these depictions as nothing more than pictures. However, during the political crisis of 2007 to 2014, which caused sharp political division in Thailand, both sides of the conflict used images of the king to represent their loyalty to king and country.
In Thai society, the formation of a middle class took place only about one hundred years ago. For many of those years, this middle class lacked a strong identity, rarely participating in the important moments of national history. To create a confident identity, Thai society’s middle class needed something they could trust, an object they could put their faith in that would also represent their loyalty to their country. To fulfil this emptiness, the middle class turned to the monarchy. Compared with other Thai institutions, the monarchy has a long and glorified history. The monarchy is seen as unlike political ideology, the capital, or even the national state, because these groups always made profit for themselves, never sacrificing for their country as the monarchy was seen to do.
However, to show loyalty to the monarchy in modern society could be complicated; the middle class needed something simple and tangible to symbolize this faithfulness. This need resulted in the veneration of images of the king. For many years, these images were of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in October 2016 after seven decades on the throne. During King Adulyadej’s reign, the Thai people presented his image as a way to symbolize their loyalty and national identity, which lead to the king being viewed like a virtual god. Usually, these images presenting the young, good- looking king or the working king do not create meanings beyond the information directly conveyed in the photograph; to build other meanings on them, the images need something special.
On Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, the highest gods never present themselves to humans. To preserve their existence, the gods build representations of themselves. These representations then do everything in order that the people believe and trust the power of the god at the top of the mountain. Because the god residing at the very top of Mount Meru is the highest god in Hindu culture, the idea of the highest image on the wall representing the most important and sacred person makes sense. The curiosity of a young photographer then, might naturally be directed to this highest image on the wall, this image meant to reinforce the good, virtue, and patriotism of a person. This person, who is treated as a virtual god, as sacred, was capable of doing terrible things like disregarding the 99 murders by the government in Bangkok or supporting the cruel lèse majesté law, which punishes defamation, insults or threats to the royalty with 15 years in prison.
There are many reasons for young people to be interested in politics, but for Srikhao his interest lays in the question of how so many middle class people – people who have education, wealth, and are practicing Buddhists – could care little for democracy and ignore murder in the centre of the capital, as represented in the artist’s Whitewash project. Or how many of these same people are proud of their monarchy’s protection of the country. In his Mt Meru project, Srikhao’s images convey the fantasy of the mysterious land, living in the hierarchy. In this land, when there is need, those at the top never present as a form. We only see the object that they created to represent the existence of the power at the top. However, in Srikhao’s work we, the viewers, see this mysterious land as the artist is an adventure photographer who is able to show us this through the form of expedition photography. Although he seems to pretend to be an outsider simply travelling to a fantasy land, Srikhao’s Mt Meru highlights the paradox he sees in Thailand: that many Thai people live with the meaning of the images that have been created by the sovereignty but never chance to question the methodology of meaning production behind the highest picture on the wall. This work might just be the fantasy questions about the system which Srikhao lives within.