Deconstructing the Sacred Status of the Thai Monarchy
By recreating idolatrous depictions of the King in his Thai homeland, Harit Srikhao looks to call into question the constructs of Hindu cosmology and simultaneously challenge the role images have in shaping social hierarchy.
Buddhism plays a central role in Thailand’s societal structure. Present in every aspect of peoples lives, it shapes the way they think and behave. It also consolidates the political authority of the King, who is considered to be an avatar of a Hindu God. When King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in 2017, an imposing funeral pyre was erected in central Bangkok for his cremation. Adorned with images from mythology and of the accomplishments of the King, the structure represented Mount Meru, the centre of the Hindu universe.
“The metaphysics of life are very different here than in the West. In the West, you think you have one life, whereas in Thailand you believe that if you’re poor, it's because in the past life you did something wrong. The opposite is true of the King - he is honoured as such because he was a good person in a previous life”, Srikhao explains.
Drawing on Hindu cosmology and Western fetish culture – characters wear tight outfits or latex-like masks and dolls are the pray of adoration - Harit Srikhao interprets Thai social hierarchy. The tale he narrates image after image features monks, worshippers and masters, each with a hint of violence. Worshippers are invariably masked and gender-free, entirely and homogeneously dressed with hermetic, hole-less, black wet suits – a horde of rampant human beings deprived of eyes and mouth. Deprived of freedom of thoughts?
“I mix visual culture from both the East and the West. For example, I mixed the traditional outfit of Hindu monks with that of Ku Klux Klan members”, Srikhao explains. He also used the three-faced mask from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. “I referred to fetish culture as an attempt to reflect on the power of pornographic pictures and on the way images control people’s desire”, he clarifies.
Just like pornographic images, any image by extension can shape people’s desire. Think about propaganda pictures and the way they have contributed in a lot of countries to impose a dictatorship. Srikhao’s series is complex. It suggests without stating. It builds on various layers of fiction while using a clearly identifiable imagery.
Srikhao also painted each photograph of the series in the same fashion as vintage official political portraits – those that the King distributed during the cold war era when he had to reinforce his power against the rise of communism. Multiplying the references, touch after touch, Srikhao’s series creates an intriguing world that forces us to question Thai societal system, and the role of images in shaping societies in general.
Harit Srikhao is a Thai photographer currently based in Bangkok. Blending fiction and reality, he aims to challenge the systems controlling the way people understand themselves, and their view of others and the world. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.
This article is part of our feature series, Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.