A Chiang Mai art teacher on Friday brushed off his overnight fame after being filmed defending his students in a clash with other university staff over a politically sensitive installation.
“This is a crazy world,” Thasnai Sethaseree said, when asked about his sudden fame.
He said he was aware of the risks of speaking out, but felt it was worth it. “I do have concerns about online bullying of me and my family, but I’ve been doing this half my life to make society understand what is happening.”
Thasnai became an overnight sensation after an incident in Chiang Mai University on Monday, when he tried to prevent staff from removing an installation representing a dead man tied to a concrete block from an exhibition of student art.
A video went viral showing the dean of the Fine Arts Faculty and other personnel loading the piece into a truck while arguing with Thasnai and several students.
“We are artists, we are teachers, do you feel no shame?” Thasnai is heard saying. “We must respect the arts,” he said, adding “Art is nobody’s master and no one’s slave.”
The clip was widely shared, commented on and satirized online this week.
The piece’s creator Yotsunthon Ruttapradit, a fourth-year media art and design student, has filed a complaint for attempted theft. The artwork was said to represent the body of one of the two aides who disappeared along with political activist Surachai Danwattananusorn in 2018.
Speaking to Thai Enquirer Friday, Thasnai explained his outrage at the time. “I was angry because an art school is supposed to help the next generation grow and nurture new ideas,” he said “Why are art teachers failing to protect liberty for artists and art?”
He first heard something was going on in a message from a student while he was heading with his family to his sister’s restaurant. “I first paid no attention. But when I got to the restaurant several students called me so I decided to go to the faculty to see what was happening.”
“I respect and believe in art. I felt what was happening was a betrayal of the intent of art by a group of people who claim to love art.”
Thasnai said he teaches advanced theoretical concepts so his students are free to express themselves, including over some ideas that could be seen as causing offence.
After studying in the US he returned to Thailand to teach because there are many artists but not so much thinking in the country, he said. This especially applies to the critical thought necessary to open new perspectives in politics but also in fashion, architecture, and other areas, he said.
He aims to move contemporary art forward and secure its “place on the map”, he said. “I see the decline of the kind of contemporary art that gives a voice to the voiceless,” he said. “Politics, society, and art cannot be separated.”
Thasnai dismissed the idea that he is driving this connection, but rather said the people already feel the influence of power structures over art, even if they do not feel free to talk about it.
“I could have been the volcano that erupted, allowing the lava of others’ feelings to also burst about the situation of art in Thailand, as well as other dimensions of the country.”
On one level, art and freedom are different expressions of the same thing, whether in English or in Thai, he said.
“When we talk about art we talk about liberty, which on a social level is related to political life,” he said. “Liberty and politics are related, so art will be related to politics.”
This thinking can clash with “traditional schools of thought, or even authoritarianism, which try to separate art from society, politics, and history, and instead create art that is above politics in the name of ‘pure art’,” he said.
“But if art floats above society and politics, it lacks meaning,” he said.
“In Thailand we have what I call ‘value corruption,’ where a closed group decide the value of art with a mafia-like system or a monopoly,” he said.
“Any society with such value corruption is close to collapse. Economic and political corruption is normal, but if Thai society keeps lying to itself about its values, it’s close to collapse because there is nothing to hold on to it. This is why art and politics are connected.”
On the impact of his protest, Thasnai said he hoped it would not just be another passing internet trend. “I hope it is not an overnight celebration, but something that brings change and hope.”