Published on July 22, 2007
Volunteer helps cultivate the seedling on the hilly terrain for Sakarin Krue-on's "Terraced Rice Field Arts Project".
What tens of thousands of Thai farmers do every day has become the "craziest" thing that Sakarin Krue-on has ever done. The conceptual artist has given Germany its first rice plantation.
Rice is growing across 7,000 square metres on the hillside below Schloss Wilhelmshoehe Castle in the city of Kassel. It's Sakarin's contribution to Documenta 12, the world's biggest exhibition of contemporary art, held every five years for the past five decades.
The first Thai to participate in Documenta consulted an archaeologist, a geologist, an agriculturist and an engineer and negotiated with the staff of the public park on the castle grounds before sowing the first actual seeds for his "Terraced Rice Fields Art Project".
He reckons it will ultimately cost more than Bt10 million.
Sakarin, 40, looked at the elegant, 1786-vintage castle and its immaculate park, dotted with city folks enjoying their leisure, and wondered what he could do with it.
Against such historical grandeur he settled on the simplicity of a rice field, cultivated with rustic hoes and spades.
"When I proposed the project to Documenta's curator, Ruth Noack, I never thought it would be approved - it's the craziest project I've ever done," says Sakarin, the head of Silpakorn University's Thai Art Department.
"The idea is to stress the importance of the process, not the end product. I'm trying to get people from all over the world to pitch in on the long khaek," he says, referring to the traditional collective efforts of rice farmers.
"Some of the volunteers have come 100 kilometres to work here. As they work, I'm hoping that questions arise in their minds about the concepts of 'self' and the division of labour in modern society."
There were no overt protests about a slice of the pleasure park being lost to agriculture (although some people would have preferred to see flowers growing), so in April Sakarin - abetted by an actual Thai rice farmer and a selected team - got busy.
They carved out terraces, installed an irrigation system, nurtured seeds in a nursery and planted the seedlings.
"People get excited about a horticultural challenge, and that applies to this project - rice isn't normally grown in Germany because the summer weather is too changeable. My rice field should foster a rebellion in this consumerist country, and show that everyone is equal on this earth."
Sakarin had chosen an age-old wet-farming method ideal for slopes, but he'd no sooner begun than the art exhibition's organisers cited fears of erosion, so he had to switch to the dry-soil approach and install sprinklers.
They lost a few plants, Sakarin says, "but that's normal with rice crops. We have a maintenance team and extra seedlings. The seeds I used are from Italian crops that can grow using either the dry or the wet method. The cultivation technique remains traditional."
If the summer stays warm and dry, the grain could be in bloom by September, just in time for Documenta's closing day on the 23rd.
"The curator team has promised to try hard to improve the irrigation because most people hope the rice will flower before the end of the show, and perhaps even produce a harvest," Sakarin says.
"The paddy may vanish after the show, like all the other art, or remain in place - that's up to the organisers."
Among Sakarin's inspirations was "7,000 Oaks", which the late German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys began at Documenta 7 in 1982.
Beuys spent five years planting oak trees throughout Kassel, each one paired with a four-foot basalt column, in a call for environmental responsibility and urban renewal.
Elsewhere at this year's Documenta, Sakarin harks back to his roots in traditional Thai art with a show at Kassel's Neue Galerie called "Nang Fa" ("Angel"). The walls are covered ceiling to floor with images from Siamese folklore and theology, all stencilled in powder.
Sakarin's work is often a gauntlet of metaphor and symbolism. In 2005 he had winged, white porcelain street dogs roaming Bangkok's 100 Tonson Gallery, a satire on the lust for wealth and all things Western.
Last year he lined up 200 Nang Kwak statuettes in rows on the floor of the Chulalong-korn Art Centre. Normally seen beckoning customers into shops, here the Nang Kwak embodied capitalism.
"My previous works satirised people who hope in vain for future benefits," Sakarin says. "But the terraced rice project encourages people to hope for real benefits now. I, for example, hope to have a rice paddy in a land where most people think rice won't grow!"