Writer: Thanom Chapakdee
From the hot Phra Athit Street (Sun Street) location to the shade of Sathorn Street
By Thanom Chapakdee
It all started in 1975, when I – the author – crossed Bangkok’s city limits to study Art at the College of Fine Arts Front Palace (cfa). Unlike the modest school in my hometown, cfa was to me an inspiring source of learning in the arts and sciences, which opened the world’s door to art for me, a poor beginner. Downtown Bangkok – the city of angels and the residence of the holy jewel of Indra – was fascinating. Compared to my small hometown, you could say that Bangkok was the golden sky and my hometown an unfathomable dark crevice which I had come from. While the rural Northeast of Thailand (the so-called “Isan”) was suffering a drought, and communist propaganda spread like wildfire in the 1970s, the era of the Cold War, the city of angels was full of material wealth and houses like palaces, where traffic passed by at high speed.
The Wag Na district and its neighbourhood, Tha Phrachan pier, Phra Athit Street, Sanam Luang Park and Ratchadamnoen Street was where the art students of the College of Fine Arts mingled. Back then, the neighbourhood offered a wide range of learning opportunities in the artistic and cultural field: from palaces, temples, art galleries and museums to the slum that stretched from Chanasongkram Temple to Khaosan Street. In addition to this contrasting aesthetic of the city, which I deeply enjoyed, there was another place that I visited regularly. It was neither an art gallery, nor a national museum or theatre, but the Goethe-Institut in Phra Athit Street.
From late 1967 to 1977, the Goethe-Institut in Phra Athit Street (its old location) was a place of learning, education and a meeting space for activists. Students of Thammasat University, Silpakorn University, Chulalongkorn University, as well as artists, thinkers and writers who were actively involved in the political development of the country after the student uprising of 14 October 1973, were here able to express and develop their rights and freedom. Productive artists created a variety of new works. Cultural activities and creative actions were presented in various forms. The Goethe-Institut in Phra Athit Street became a meeting place for many people who poured in like a stream, just like the Chao Phraya River. The institute in the beautiful wooden house on the banks of the Chao Phraya River with its many visitors was at that time a fertile breeding ground for art and culture that never seemed to be exhausted. At the institute I had unforgettable opportunities to meet renowned artists such as Thawan Duchanee and Pratuang Emjaroen. (Many years later, both were honoured with the Thai National Artist Award.) Here I could attend cultural events, German films and plays or art exhibitions that one could only dream of. The library of the Goethe-Institut was also worth mentioning – for me a valuable treasure from which I drew knowledge. Unfortunately, I had to content myself with the pictures that were featured in the illustrated art books because of my lack of German skills. But this was enough for me to store the chronicle of art history in my head to this day through the power of my visual perception. Even though I do not understand the German language, I know about Goethe – the world-famous German philosopher whose name the Goethe-Institute has borne since its foundation.
When I was young, I was very curious, and I enjoyed getting involved and doing activities. Once I volunteered in a theatre group that performed the children’s play “Muknog-Kinder!” by the German playwright Rainer Hachfeld, which dealt with the topic of children’s freedom. Child abuse, the exercise of power and the use of violence against children by adults were discussed in this production. I became aware of how the weaker and less fortunate are abused and denied their freedom.
After volunteering in the children’s play “Muknog-Kinder!”, I wasn’t involved with the Goethe-Institut for quite some time, due to work. In the meantime, the institute moved to Sathorn Street. Eventually, I started visiting the Goethe-Institut again at its new location. At that time, we were collaborating on the project “Yuen Ban Lan Silapin” (Open Artist Studio / Let’s Visit Artist Home), which was launched during the term of the institute’s director Katharina von Ruckteschelll. “Yuen Ban Lan Silapin” was considered the first pilot project of its kind in Thailand, where renowned Thai artists opened their studios and workshops. People interested in art were invited to get to know the artists and their work. Thanks to this initiative, the relationship between the public and artists grew closer than ever before. The first visit took place in the studio of the artist Panya Vijinthanasarn and Sompob Budraj. The second visit was at the residence of the artist Pratuang Emjaroen. The third visit took place in the house of the artist Chuang Moolpinit. This event was offered every month to every other month. Another project, the Performance Art Festival, took place simultaneously with the Open House at the Goethe-Institut, towards the end of the year. The Goethe-Institut Bangkok represents an oasis of art and culture, a central meeting place for interpersonal exchange. It promotes socio-cultural interaction and education and thus quenches the thirst for knowledge. In times of tension and distress, it offers refuge for art and culture. To this day, the Goethe-Institut optimistically asserts these principles as if it were the morning sun that keeps art and culture moving though its power. Therefore, the institute fulfils its mission.