In elegant images of long-finned Siamese fighting fish, one Thai artist is keeping this tradition afloat
When the iPhone 6 debuted to thunderous hoopla, a Thai photographer stole a few decibels of that thunder by having his images of Siamese fighting fish appear as the phone’s wallpaper. For Virasute Angkatavanich this was another new peak to scale in his ascendance from viral sensation on the Internet to a more mainstream mogul of the advertising and art worlds in but a few short years.
He politely declined to talk about his deal with Apple, but he was much more voluble when it came to sharing his passion for the fish that are his muse and main subject matter. Not unlike many other Thai boys of his generation, he kept them as pets in glass bottles. Famously nippy and territorial, the fish have to be kept in separate containers.
Though the short-finned strain is used as combatants in gambling matches all over Southeast Asia, Virasute has focused on the long-finned kind. Bred for their shapes and iridescent colors, they are called pla kat jeen (literally “Chinese biting fish”) for their long fins have been likened to the robes of a Chinese emperor, billowing out as they swim around in slow circles.
Combining his background in graphic design and commercial photography, Virasute spent a lot of time choosing the fish and waiting for them to come into the frame lit by a light and flash above the tank. The focal point is the fish themselves. The water and tank are invisible. The backgrounds of the photos are either wholly black or solely white.
Aside from their elegance and technical simplicity, the photographer is unsure as to why these images have become so popular and his stock-in-trade. “Maybe the fish are something common which a lot of people know but have never seen portrayed in this style before. And because my work is so simple the photos can cross different cultural barriers,” said the 46-year-old, who majored in Communication Arts, specializing in advertising, at Chulalongkorn University in the Thai capital.
Whatever the reasons, his painterly photos of fighting fish have been featured in big newspapers like The Guardian and on major websites like Yahoo! and ABC News. Through the La Lanta Fine Art Gallery in Bangkok, which serves as his agent, the photos have appeared in galleries and ads around the world.
In this way, Virasute has assumed the role of a cultural preservationist, framing a quintessential creature of Thai folklore and inspiring a resurgence of interest in them, while also showing how the most traditional subject matter in Thailand can be reframed for an international company like Apple.
It’s the kind of old-school/new-wave combination that the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul employed to win the biggest prize at Cannes in 2010 for his Isaan-set film about reincarnation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. And it’s also a potent reminder for aspiring Thai artists to delve deeper into their own culture and folklore before borrowing from other nations.