Tale of a Little Snake


With Tale of a Little Snake artist-cum-children’s book author Navin Rawanchaikul offers a playful call to consider contemporary art & community initiatives.


Words: Tyler Russell


Public art remains a question that is a long way from being answered.


As is well document in this book and elsewhere since his early days working as an artist Navin Rawanchaikul has very seriously considered the relationship between art and the general public. His first public work, installed at Jed Yod Temple in Chiang Mai in 1992 was dismantled by vandals who disagreed with his use of temple grounds as a space for contemporary art. With this the 21 year-old Navin resolved that his artistic mission would be to dig into questions about the relationship between art and the public. One of his more intriguing early propositions, a taxi gallery, was widely acknowledged to have hit the nail on the head, and as a result he was spun into the torrents of the international art world. His subsequent encounter with the commercial and political prerogatives of that world gave rise to further questions. His playful response to the cultural-commercial nexus of turn-of-the-century biennale/art fair mania was manifest in Super(m)art. And in Navin Party, a project I co-author, there is an attempt to put the choreography of geopolitical gesticulators and the practice of cultural nationalisers into relief. In certain segments of the art world at least these projects are both relatively well known. However, Tale of a Little Snake, Navin’s foremost expression of concern with the form, direction and possibly conflicting interests of local ‘art & community’ initiatives is less well known.


One of Navin’s most acclaimed projects is Fly with Me to Another World a portrait of Thai art world legend Inson Wongsam. Giving away art works and friendliness as he traveled from Thailand to Italy Inson received kindness in return and modeled a way of art’s place in inter-human communication and human endeavour that deserved celebration. Beginning in 1999 Navin’s project culminated in 2004-5 with a yearlong series of workshops and community-based art projects in Inson’s hometown of Lamphun. While popular with some in the local and international art community (and to be fair seen as utterly problematic by some local art people) Navin noted that the project’s impact on the community at large was somewhat hollow. Further, acknowledging not only the odd distortions resulting from financing negotiations and his own career promotion that the project’s execution in the context of the art world implied, he wondered about the direction and form of such cultural actions.


Then in late 2005 Navin participated in the Anyang Public Art Project (APAP) an art and architecture initiative of the South Korean city of Anyang. At first glance and through much of the preparation and installation process APAP seemed to be nothing more than a typical, relatively benign sub-urban renewal project. However, nothing, it seemed, could have been further from the truth. The project eventually revealed itself to be part of a bigger plan. Through day-to-day observations of local construction projects and through conversations with locals Navin came to see the APAP as part of a broader urban plan that is wrecking a beautiful public forest and displacing numerous small businesses in an attempt to shopping-mall-ize a stretch of the city’s river valley, which is a popular destination for Korea’s booming day-hiker crowd. Needless to say Navin and others were very disappointed and as a result Navin had more questions to add to his list.


The model that APAP organisers had looked to was a less directly aggressive tool for the advancement of capitalist interests but certainly an odd manifestation of late-capitalist ‘public art’, the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale; an exhibition Navin was invited to participate in the following year.


To understand this Triennale or other Japanese projects like it one must first of all appreciate that it is a product of the kasseika (活性化:activation, or to directly translate the Japanese version of Wikipedia “to stimulate something that wasn’t in use”) or chiiki okoshi (地域おこし:regional awakening/activation) industry. A unique Japanese field of massively subsidised post-bubble rural revitalisation, kasseika has become a bureaucratic micro-world that similar to others like it has set off on a path of perpetual expansion as it amasses a growing dictionary of specialist language. Being a magnet for the time and energy of a significant segment of Japan’s art world kasseika has been a central influence on recent artistic production in Japan. While its effects can be various, the Echigo Tsumari Triennale to which Navin was invited is certainly an interesting case of what can happen when kasseika meets art.


In its earliest stages the Echigo Tsumari Triennale’s motivations may well have been even more pure than stated on the website: “The project attempts to become a model case where people and nature coexists in harmony” But due to the nature of the system that kasseika projects, especially larger-scale projects depend on it would be a great feat if the Triennale didn’t come to take on a kasseika form. As a project idea passes through the bureaucratic filters of the kasseika system it is likely to encounter various influences. First it may be warped by initiators’ expectation towards massive state funding. Then it is likely framed by the idealistic hyperbole that rural bureaucrats often need to use to gain access to the central government’s kasseika coffers. At this point in the process it is not unlikely that a good dose of hope towards the project’s role in extending the life of a shrinking community is mixed in. Finally, the project must endure the pressure to grow according to what could be called a tendency towards budgetary expansion. And that is to speak only - roughly and in limited space - to the internal pressures of the basic bureaucratic mechanism, not to mention subtler influence of various cultural factors or the unavoidable presence of pressures from the international art world and art market.


To give a surface picture of the tendency towards expansion according to their website in the year 2000 the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale welcomed the participation of 148 artists from 32 countries; in 2003, 157 artists from 23 countries; in 2006, there were 337 works by 317 artists and groups from 46 countries! And they have dotted the hills and valleys with around 200 permanent artworks and numerous architectural projects along the way. While a bonus for local construction interests, with its huge volunteer programme, it is likely a welcome influx of young energy for this shrinking elderly region of some 50,000 people. However, given Navin’s experiences and as mentioned by Nicolas Bourriaud in this volume (Navin’s Sala), his practice of opposing the abstract by highlighting the particular it is understandable that he would have an intuitive concern with the bureaucratic art-machine that had been set in motion. And his concern would be with the local community and the natural environment. He may not have had an answer, but he certainly had questions.


And these questions led to the creation of Tale of a Little Snake, a children’s book that is likely just the sort of critical stimulation that the world of kasseika art needs.


Collaboratively written by Navin and his family Tale of a Little Snake tells the tale of a little blue snake who grows up in a beautiful mountain village and upon graduation from school heads for the big city where he becomes a successful sculptor who travels the world. One day many years later, when he returns to visit an ill relative he finds that the forest of his youth has been covered in garbage. Disturbed by what he sees he enlists the help of his old friends and clears it away. Then with a stroke of inspiration he feels he could revitalise the village by turning the garbage into sculptures and in turn he invites artists from around the world to join him in making garbage-art for the forest. An interactive book the snake turns to the readers and invites them to make their own garbage sculptures and paste them directly onto a little mountain in the book. With a forest empty of garbage but full of garbage-art the community is again vivacious and clean.


A quirky yet relatively straightforward call to contemplate the meaning of rural art & community projects, Tale of a Little Snake is a fun book that became a prominent part of Echigo-Tsumari Triennale’s 2006 children’s programmes and the centerpiece of a popular public installation/café.


Unfortunately, while popular with locals, it seems to have had little impact. Organisers and art world regulars were expecting Navin to get one of his Chiang Mai based painting teams to execute one of Navin Production’s typical movie style billboards that playfully celebrates the curatorial team. And apparently many people’s eyes glazed over when they found that instead he enlisted the illustration skill of Mayumi Kogoma and offered needed perspective while illustrating that Navin Production needn’t know any formal bounds as it pursues its various lines of cultural questioning. A relief from Navin’s art-brand trap, in the small scale of its collaboration it was also an important response to the most fundamental question mark surrounding Navin’s recent practice - the capitalist-like consumption of others’ creative time and energy in the context of hierarchical systems for the production of complex, large-scaled projects. More than all of this however, Tale of a Little Snake is thoroughly delightful interactive read. Sadly, it is currently only available in Japanese.


(Published in Navin’s Sala)


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