News Column

The artist who took a 'slum vacation' to Thailand's biggest shanty town

July 8, 2014

Jonathan Jones, theguardian.com



Art has a special relationship with money. As the latest art sales show, contemporary art is a coveted luxury item. It is collected by people who have supervillain yachts and help to fund the Tory party.

Can today's plutocrat art say anything about poverty? Artist Phil America (yes he's American) has had a go. Recently, America moved to Klong Toey, Thailand's largest slum, and employed a local carpenter to create him a "typical" slum dwelling a tiny one-room shack. He lived in it and "interacted" with fellow slum-dwellers.

The resulting work, Slum Vacation, has been shown at the art gallery of Bangkok University. The shack in which America lived and its contents were on view in an installation at the gallery, together with photos and sounds of the slums. The university is close to Klong Toey, and the event is said to have broken down cultural barriers between the academic community and its neighbours.

Yet the limitations of Slum Vacation seem all too apparent. Reproducing a "slum house" in a gallery turns poverty into spectacle. The way people live has been aestheticised here as an object of curiosity to contemplate.

The fact that Phil America lived in the shack himself and experienced life in Klong Toey only adds to the work's clumsiness. It becomes an image of the heroic artist bravely stepping out of his life to experience the other side of existence. His artwork is not a portrait of the people of Klong Toey: it is a self-portrait of the artist having an exotic adventure.

Slum Vacation so obviously risks making poverty into entertainment and the artist into a hero as he literally slums it. Come on. How can this stand up as a serious representation of, let alone intervention in, the lives of the poor?

Only that title, Slum Vacation, shows a more subtle understanding of how hard it is for artists to make a meaningful social statement. With its echo of the Dead Kennedys song Holiday in Cambodia, it acknowledges the absurdity of the project, the impossibility of truly "experiencing" poverty as an outsider let alone communicating it to others.

If this work fails to address inequality, is there any art now that does do it justice?

I see more depth in the work of Santiago Sierra. He makes conceptual art that seriously addresses poverty, often paying people from impoverished, exploited groups for example migrants to participate in his works. These disturbing performances draw attention to their own means of production. It's provocative, and a lot more real than a slum house displayed in a gallery.

Even so, the contradictions are agonising for artists today who want to be socially engaged, for any image of poverty in the moneyed art of our time risks looking about as socially realistic as an 18th-century porcelain figure of a happy swain.


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Source: Guardian Web


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