Many artists depict and criticize society and politics, but only a few possess the wit and flair of Sutee Kunavichayanont, who turns his opinions and reflections into Pop Art pieces.
Born in Bangkok, Sutee fulfilled his early artistic education at the College of Fine Arts and at Silpakorn University. Then he obtained a Master’s Degree in Visual Arts at the University of Sydney, where he was exposed to a freedom of thinking in which ideas and concepts superseded techniques and forms. In contrast to the practicing and teaching of arts in the conventional methods, Sutee explored various media, branching out beyond his first forays in drawing and printmaking. Upon returning home to Thailand he started to teach art theory at his alma mater Silpakorn while still practicing his own art.
“I was more introspective and focussed on the spiritual aspect of life,” he says of his early years. “I tried to interpret and visualize images from Buddhist teachings and Abbot Buddhadasa’s words. I used both abstract and realistic symbols to encapsulate these concepts.”
Sutee also mentions that during his past two prolific decades he was inspired by contemporary artistic styles and perspectives in various forms—from installations to mixed visual media. Encouraged by the interest in Southeast Asian art by international art institutions, media, and collectors, artists like Sutee began to exhibit more works stimulated by changes in society, politics, and history. His concepts thus developed from spirituality into social commentary and critiques.
“We went to Sukhothai on a study trip with Ajarn Sumol Srisaeng and students,” he recalls. “I saw broken stucco reliefs of an elephant with its head and trunk separated but placed like jigsaw puzzle pieces. I was so touched that I created the ‘White Elephant’ series to express my ideas about something that is gone, or extinct, but we try to keep it alive. It can be interpreted in different viewpoints. Simplistically, elephants—a symbol of Thailand on old Siamese flags and cultural icon—are in peril. Historically, it means that our traditions and customs are in a maltreated state. These social issues represent sickness in our society. Ecologically, it also means that our natural environment is under threat. We can only try to sustain it. The whole thing represents contradictions in reality. Is our culture and nature dead or alive?”
Sutee’s works often show dichotomy such as delicateness vs. aggression in the ‘Elegant Middle Finger’ works, or sincerity vs. secrecy in the ‘Half Truth’ series.
Among Sutee’s themes of socio-economic, political, and cultural changes, the ‘History Class’ series has been one of the most engaging installations. This interactive project starts from 14 desks telling 12 stories to 23 tables telling 20 stories. Audience members can participate by sitting, rubbing the engraved images, and taking their works home. Also exhibited in Japan, the stories on these desks question our educational system and beyond. More desks and stories are to come.
One of Sutee’s statements on his works reads: “Thailand is in debt to its artists because they bring harmony to the community by making non-political statements through their work.” On another it states: “Artists are not pure enough to break away from politics.” Both statements give insight into his view of himself as an artist.
“I don’t think that as an artist, we can actually change society much, or make a direct impact on it,” he laments. “I can only hope that the unpleasant situations will improve. I just express my opinions and stimulate the viewer’s mind, but I don’t offer the solutions. For example, Thailand’s art education system is difficult to change because of organizational culture and institutional branding. We can develop it by putting an emphasis on ideas and intellectualism, rather than techniques and skills, which are already there. If one reads and learns more about theory and history, one will become like a ‘tiger with wings’—strong in both body and mind.”
His creations balance and integrate conceptual and critical thinking and visual execution. While presenting potent images, he playfully probes complex problems on local and global identity, cultural convention, history, and nationalism. His knack for layering ideas into his works makes the merely two-dimensional surface pop.
“My visual style is highly graphic,” Sutee explains. “It’s not painterly with brushstrokes and such. It’s more Pop Art, because it incorporates printmaking, typography, and visual puns. I’m also charmed by the retro or vintage style of Thailand’s mid-20th century. I try to capture that period’s mood and ambience into my works. Being an art educator, I admire all periods and styles. I’m influenced by Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Hem Vejakorn, and even Montien Boonma’s local and meaningful, historical material selections.” Interestingly, Sutee’s nickname is ‘Pop’. Is he Thailand’s contemporary version of Andy Warhol?
Having written several books on art, Sutee is forever compiling notes about international contemporary art compared with that of Thailand, plus analyzing his own works. He plans a new series to express the stories of identity and ego by looking at the history of “I”, or “me”, in everyone’s psyche.