Blurring the line between us and them

Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong, Bangkok Post, 21 March 2018

The Thai-Myanmar border is the focal point of Thai artist Nipan Orraniwesna's latest exhibitions


The toylike, 2.5cm-high wooden sculptures and multifaceted coins of Thai artist Nipan Orraniwesna are making a return this month in two separate shows at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai and Nova Contemporary gallery in Bangkok.

At Nova, Nipan presents his new body of works, collectively titled "Neither Body Nor Soul", in which miniature replicas of physical borders evoke the imagined boundaries man has constructed over time.

Drawing from his personal journeys across the Thai-Myanmar border four years ago, the artist transforms and sublimes everyday objects -- like evidence collected during his stay in Myanmar -- examining the emotional value we invest in coins, paper notes and amulet-like medallions.

Silver and gold currencies, or a phone number hastily jotted down on a beer-pack wrapping, become connecting platforms or interfaces, just like the border itself.

"For this show, I wasn't particularly interested in the border as such. My interest was primarily to look at the people living on both sides of the frontier and their relationship," Nipan said.

The border space is a theme the artist already explored in his 2016 work 2401, currently on display at MAIIAM as part of the "Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus" exhibition. In 2401, Nipan recreated the outline of the border between both countries as a floor installation. Viewers are invited to cross the demarcation line -- multiple times if they wish -- the movement being child's play in comparison to actual crossing conditions migrants must face.

As Nipan went on to explore different facets of the border in his latest works, a similar installation can be viewed on the ground floor of Nova Contemporary. Only, there isn't a single dividing line, but multiple "borders", fragmented and scattered across the gallery space. It's only after a closer examination that one realises these are all of Thailand's borders, both natural and treaty-negotiated ones.

​In a bold move, Nipan's deconstruction of the country's geographical map voids it from its political and symbolic power. As man's constructs come undone, so do nationalist attachments to the border as a partition line, creating a distinction between an "us" and a "them".

As a whole, "Neither Body Nor Soul" is traversed by the artist's dedication to ideas of communication and conversion between cultures and currencies.

Having started his journey to Myanmar by encountering and working with migrant workers at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre in 2014-2015, he decided to follow their footsteps back to the Kawthaung crossing point.

"I wanted to see and understand the crossing of the border from their point of view, although, eventually, that's impossible, since I am a Thai and come from a different background and with a different experience," the artist added.


The economic aspect of workers' migration is present throughout the exhibition, through coins the artist had cast into golden medallions. The conversion of money into gold is a phenomenon Nipan has observed in many areas of the country and, especially but not solely, among migrant workers. Gold is the perennial, the ever-lasting material, a currency that is both stable -- less subject to economic fluctuations -- as well as high-valued. Taking necessity items such as medicine capsules or seemingly trivial objects like wrapping paper with the phone number of a Burmese acquaintance, the artist embellishes these objects, filling or covering them with silver and gold. As the items take on a monumental or sculpture-like quality, do we value them for their function or for their perceived importance and worth?

writer: Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong