Fields of fascination

The frog-headed tuk-tuk food truck. Photos courtesy of MUSEUM SIAM

Long before the internet and, before that, high-rise buildings, Thais led a much simpler life in the farms and villages. It was simple but also innovative — according to the exhibition “Minds Of Thai Inventors” at Museum Siam now — and though their innovations were far from scientific breakthroughs, they allowed people to appreciate and harmonise with their surroundings.

Minds Of Thai Inventors aims to put visitors in touch with the past by viewing it through the eyes of three modern-day influential figures: TV host Konthorn “Hongtae” Taecholarn, rock star Thanachai “Pod” Ujjin and magazine editor Zcongklod Bangyikhan.

Each of these three guest curators — icons of the putative cool generation — is responsible for his own gallery: Konthorn features “Thai-Tech”, an installation of Thai agricultural methods and tools; Thanachai came up with “Thai-Dharma”, an exhibit that takes a glimpse into the minds of Thais; and Zcongklod presents “Thai-Solutions”, a fusion of traditional Thai foodstuff and the modern-chic cafe environment.

These three exhibits show the possible fusion between the past and present, and how old Thailand may not entirely be alien to the younger generation. After the exhibition, you are more likely to view past eras of Thailand in a different light.

Entering “Thai-Tech”, you will be greeted by wooden contraptions. These are agricultural instruments that have been assembled to form what appears to be an upper part of the human body. The piece, named Unsung Heroes, is a peek into the farm life of yesteryear, with each farming tool serving a distinct role, the same way organs function in the human body.

Perhaps the purpose of Unsung Heroes is to prod us to to appreciate the home-grown techniques that have largely been forgotten. After all, the tools that comprise the piece are in fact inventions that were crucial to the daily life of farmers, and by crafting a human torso using these tools, the piece symbolises the labour of men as accomplished through simple innovations. In a way, it informs visitors, unlikely to have seen any of these instruments before, of the forgotten creative minds of earlier times.

Moving to the second exhibition is like a journey from the body to the mind: “Thai-Dharma” — according to Thanachai, frontman of the rock band Moderndog and guest curator — is a summary of how Thais choose to confront their problems and inner struggles.

The exhibit explores the mindset of Thais back in those days and plays with traditional beliefs and Buddhism-based superstition through the display of objects such as palad khik, or the phallus amulet, and “Scapegoat Dolls” made to absorb fear and bad luck from a person. Highlighting this exhibition is a simple yet creative device called the “Buddha-Blessing Sprinkler”, which was designed to clean a Buddha statue.

These talismans are spiritual reassurances and considered “inventions” in accordance with the beliefs of the people back then — and actually now, because they’re still practised.

To top off the entire visit, you may reward yourself with refreshments at the final exhibition: “Thai-Solutions”, featuring “Café Thai Thai”. Presented by former A Day magazine editor-in-chief Zcongklod Bangyikhan, the gallery is a melding of Thai traditional desserts with the atmosphere of a hip café environment. The “café culture” of today is a symbol of cool for the selfie crowd and Instagrammable pictures.

Visitors will experience the typical café set-up with more of a Thai twist as seats are just cushions while the tables are basically the tray-tables found in the North.

Furthermore, the gallery puts a spin on food truck fever. In this case, a Daihatsu frog-headed tuk-tuk plays the role of a food truck serving khao tom mud (sticky rice stuffed with a banana and wrapped in a banana leaf) and khao niew sangkaya (sticky rice with custard wrapped in a banana leaf). Zcongklod said that his idea is to show “the possibility of expanding the grassroots wisdom into new products that meet contemporary demands”.

The exhibition shows that the past of Thailand can coexist with its present, and how the simple craftsmanship of Thais have a function in the modern environment, either in the field or in the mind.

“Minds Of Thai Inventors: Looking Back And Ponder” is open with free admission from May 31 until Aug 27.

Charms and amulets —creations that soothe the mind. photos © 2016 The New York Times

The ‘Thai-Tech’ exhibit. photos © 2016 The New York Times