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Birds of prey

An artist welds portrait to sculpture for an exploration of a cruel world and the faith needed to survive it.

Published on September 6, 2007

Birds of prey

"Portrait of Life 1"

 As suggested by its title, Pradit Tungprasartwong's exhibition "Portraits of Lives" paints a picture as realistic as any photograph of people whose existence is a daily struggle for survival.

His debut solo show at Surapon Gallery, which runs until September 29, showcases his talents for painting and sculpture by combining realistic portraits with three-dimensional objects.

The three portraits that share the exhibition's title function like installation art: wrinkled old men with nok eiang (mynah birds) perched on their heads and shoulders are surrounded by several fibreglass mynahs pecking at the floor.

"In Thai we have a saying that a buffalo's hard work attracts a nok eiang, which perches on the beast's back. I'm using this traditional metaphor to bring out the comparison with the hard life faced by these old men. I want my works to express their struggle so that viewers can judge for themselves whether or not the birds will come to roost on their shoulders," says Pradit, 39, who earned his bachelor's degree in sculpture and his masters in painting at Silpakorn University.

"One of the two old men I painted live near my house. He's employed at a construction site and works like a dog despite his advancing years.

"The other guy lives near my college and will do any job to earn some money. Their lives are so downtrodden that I wanted to capture them."

The gallery is inside a luxury office building on bustling Sathorn Road, and it feels like Pradit is thumbing his nose at the proprietor by inviting humble street people into such a fancy palace.

In his two life-size paintings "Portrait of Life 1" and "Portrait of Life 2", the same old man is clad in old navy-blue shorts. In one picture, he has his hands raised; in the other, he is pointing ahead. There are birds perched on his shoulder, and even pecking at his head.

"The portraits are figurative, they speak of his hopes for a better life. He's still fighting to live, no matter how much pain he feels from being pecked by the bird," says Pradit, who's an instructor at College of Fine Arts, Lat Krabang.

In two other works, "Thronging" and "Exhausted", he presents the torso of another old man in black and white, giving off an aura of dream-like loneliness. While the birds peck his hair, the old man bears their presence patiently, as if he believes in a better life to come.

 As well as presenting the drama of other lives, Pradit depicts his own through "Struggle", a drawing in ball-point pen. A closer look reveals the distorted figures of striving humans.

Pradit's previous works have included portraits of farmers, old ladies and a sweating sam lor driver. Attached to the portrait of the sam lor (tricycle) driver was a real sam lor, the wheels of which were cut in half and surrounded by laterite to suggest a hard pedal.

But there's more than just despair to the exhibition. Also on show are realistic paintings of such respected individuals as His Majesty the King and the Venerable Luang Por Sod.

"When I'm in trouble, my solution is to rely on the teachings and wisdom of the people I respect the most. For other shows, I've painted the portrait of the late revered Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and put his teachings in a light box, while another work contained a portrait of HM the King with a tiny fibreglass figure of myself lying face downward."

On the gallery's upper floor, Pradit showcases works about love. But here also, there's little happiness. In "Disappointed with Love", Pradit presents the portrait of a beautiful young girl in a black frame with two blackbirds perched at the bottom. The top of the frame is decorated with sculpted black and red roses, and a tiny sculpted man, his face covered with black cloth, sits on the edge. In front of the painting, the artist has installed an iron stand with red rose petals.

"The causes of happiness and despair mostly arise from struggles with life and love. When we're down, we find the way out by searching for faith, which comes from the teachings of revered people like the Lord Buddha, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and HM the King. That's why my works always relate to these three," says Pradit.

Surapon Gallery is on the first floor of Tisco Tower on North Sathorn Road and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 11am to 6pm. Call (02) 638 0033.

Khetsirin Pholdhampalit

The Nation

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