DISINI Discovers – Kamin Lertchaiprasert
Although he’s been making art for over four decades, and is duly recognised as one of the region’s foremost artists, there are no airs about Kamin Lertchaiprasert. Although a chair is present, he has no qualms about sitting on a dusty concrete floor—all the better to share, in close proximity, about his work. But to hear him speak is to learn about more than just his art—he shares about beliefs and ideas that have been a lifetime in the making. For DISINI’s Second Wave, Kamin unveiled The Ground, a towering, 8-metre installation of papier mâché sculptures—made of paper waste collected over 18 years—enclosed in cases of glass and polycarbonate. The idea behind the work, however, transcends its impressive physicality; we speak to Kamin to find out more.
4/ Do you have a favourite technique?
Normally, I draw every day, just for myself. It’s like a diary and I try to understand or record my ideas. I don’t have a favourite technique; every medium has its own collectors and supporters. Again, it depends on the subject I’m interested in, and then I look for a technique to support that.
6/ The first 10 years of your artistic practice have been described as you questioning and searching for life’s meaning. Why was this something you were exploring?
I was first interested in art because it gave me freedom to do things I could not with other subjects; it felt like the only way I could live and express myself. A lot of my earlier work relates to my culture, in terms of searching for identity, what Thai art and culture were, and understanding who I was. When you get older and you have more knowledge about life, you become interested in things bigger than yourself—maybe it’s social issues, or the paradoxes of society and its systems. Now, my work is a search for an ultimate truth, not just expressing myself or trying to understand society, but more about the meaning of life. For me these stages don’t just apply just to art, but life as well. When you’re a teenager you don’t care about much, you just want to express yourself and have fun. When you get older you have a family, responsibilities, and a career, and after that you become calmer and wiser. That’s how people develop in nature, and art is the same process of development.
7/ In 1998 you co-founded, with Rirkrit Tiravanija, the land project (now the land foundation). Can you tell us more about the idea behind that?
It was about a social experiment or social lab. Everywhere in the world, we saw land being owned by countries or people—we wanted to experiment with the idea of no ownership, and people being free to use the land for their own benefit or opening a space or platform for people to share and communicate their experiences. There was an economic crisis at the time, and it was difficult to be an artist because you had to depend on selling your works to get by. We thought it would be easier if we were self-sustaining and independent, so we had the idea to buy a farm and develop the ecosystem. As artists, what we do is not to create objects, but rather platforms for sharing and learning. The foundation started as an experiment, but we support meditation and learning about who you are, because if you understand yourself then you can understand others. Being self-sustaining in terms of agriculture and farming, and creating cultural change—those are our basic principles.
9/ When did you start being interested in the environment?
The environment and spirituality are connected for me. It was a gradual process. I started my work for DISINI, The Ground, in 2000, maybe even earlier, but it started when I noticed I had a lot of garbage in my house. I wanted to recycle my trash and I was curious about how much trash one person or one family generated. I started collecting trash and created my seated self-portrait for The Ground. After that I created the tree and elephant—I’ve spent almost 18 years building this work. I wanted to make people realise how much garbage one person can create. The ground of life is oxygen and we’ve destroyed a lot of nature for development, and now we have a lot of crises in the climate. In the work the tree is dried up and the elephant looks like it’s dying, and that was how I wanted to use it to indirectly talk about how much natural resources we consume in our daily life.
12/ What are you working on next?
I have a project coming up for the Thailand Biennale in Krabi where I’m making a big installation in the sea. I don’t know if it will happen, but it’s going to be an architectural structure that’s 12 metres long. That’s quite a big project. At the end of this year, I have a big event with the students of the Poh-Chang Academy of Arts. I’m bringing the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit—an initiative I co-founded that takes on various forms—to Bangkok.
14/ How do you measure success as an artist?
If your goal is to sell a lot of art then that’s your measure of success. But if your goal is to understand the meaning of life, and you manage to free yourself from attachments and material things, then you’ve succeeded. I still have many attachments in life, so for now I wouldn’t say I’ve succeeded.
15/ Can you remember your first memory of art?
I remember drawing when I was young. Like all kids, I liked to draw cartoons. When I told my parents that I wanted to study art they said no, so I had to lie to them and say I was studying architecture. (laughs) They found out eventually, but by then it was too late. Like all traditional Chinese people in Thailand, they didn’t think art was a viable career. Being in business, they expected me to be a businessman as well.
1/ How did you become interested in art?
When I was a student, I wasn’t good in a lot of subjects, but I could do art. I graduated and went to art school, but it was a step-by-step process and I didn’t realise I was falling in love with art. Art was just something I could do well, better than other things.
2/ But why do you think you fell in love with art?
I think art is something that allows you to express what you have in your mind that you can’t share or talk about. It’s like when you write in your diary—at the beginning, art is to express yourself, and after that, it’s a means of healing. For me, art is part of the process of learning about life, nature, and society.
3/ You work with drawing, painting, reading, meditating, pottery-making, wax-sculpture, and live and recorded performance, to name but a few—why were you interesting in exploring such a diversity of techniques?
I don’t choose the technique; the technique chooses me. I work with the concept. Art is the process of learning about life, and in each period of my life I was interested in different things. I made my work using different mediums to understand different topics.
5/ You studied printmaking and sculpture at Silpakorn University in Bangkok before attending the Art Students League in New York City in 1987—why did you choose to go to New York to study, and why did you return to Thailand to continue to make art?
At that time, New York was the centre of the art world, and I wanted to know what went on there. After staying there for almost five years, I understood more about the art world and what I wanted. I was interested in things that, at the time, were not trendy—spiritual ideas and personal things. New York was more about art movements and culture; I understood what they were like, but they did not understand me. For me, New York was a good place to learn and gain experience when you’re young, but when you want to develop your own ideas, it’s not a good place to stay because you have to spend a lot of time earning money just to live, and you lose time to make your own work. I decided it was better to go back to Thailand because it was simpler. New York is a good place to go if you want to understand movements, and I feel that you understand yourself more when you live in different environments because you’re able to make comparisons.
8/ We understand you became a Buddhist monk, briefly, and you’re still a committed Buddhist today. Can you tell us about how your beliefs influence your work?
As I said, I believe in an ultimate truth, so everything is a learning process that leads to that. I’m not a religious person; I see Buddhism as a means to understanding. I’m interested in Vipassana meditation, more as a practice of self-awareness than from a religious perspective. I’m not interested in Buddhist rituals so I can’t call myself a good Buddhist, but everything has inspired me to understand the meaning of life and existence. For me, art and life cannot be separated.
10/ You mentioned that the title The Ground came from a book you’re reading.
It’s called The Ending Of Time, by J.Krishnamurti and Professor David Bohm. It’s about quantum physics, from both a spiritual and intellectual point of view. The book talks about ‘the ground’ in the sense of an original emptiness before energy—what, in religious terms, others might call ‘God’. We’re led by our consciousness which comes from experience, and knowledge which comes from the constraints of time; time gives us the idea of the ‘self’ which creates separations between people, object, and subject. To transcend time is to merge the subject and object beyond ideas of self so there’s no ‘you’ and ‘me’, just oneness. It’s really interesting and inspiring to me.
11/ What do you want people to think when they see your artworks?
I don’t expect anything, they’re free to think what they want. However they interpret it, it’s okay. I can’t expect or predict what they think, I just do my best.
13/ You’ve been making art for almost 40 years. What inspires or motivates you to do art everyday?
Art is a part of my life just as much as eating or breathing or meditation; it’s my method of learning about life and myself. Whether my work sells or goes on show doesn’t matter; it’s for myself. It’s like a diary for me, so art is less a career and more about life.
16/ Are they proud of you?
I don’t know, because they’ve both passed away. I hope they are.
17/ Do you have any advice for people who want to become artists?
Be sincere with your mind, and follow your heart.