Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Thai Jewellers Visit Canberra

Gill Lumsden, Taweesak Molsawat, Puan Jiewthong
You become very aware of how far the Khmer influence extends if you travel around Thailand and Laos. Softly decaying ruins turn up all over the place. Sometimes they are huge and built up a hill like Phanom Rung in Thailand’s Buriram province and Wat Phu near Champusak in Laos. Sometimes they are tiny, like Phimai.

The echoes of Angkor spread wide.  But the carved motifs and images are the same. Daily life stands side by side with history and religion and mythology. The kings wear jewellery as do the apsara, the heavenly dancing angels, always smiling, always showing off necklaces, earrings and crowns.

It is the jewellery that was so strongly evoked by the recent visit (March 2015) by Thai jewellers Puan Jiewthong and Taweesak Molsawat to the ANU as ANU Artists in Residence in Gold and Silver Workshop and particularly by the traditional work done by Puan.

The complementary but highly contemporary works shown in Anew Negotiation, at Bilk in Manuka and described in an absorbing presentation at ANU SOA by ATTA Gallery (Bangkok) director and art jeweller Atty Tantivit also reflect Thailand’s long history of creating what Atty would call ‘wearable art’ but are less constrained by the past and more concerned with responding to the present.

These utterly modern works, the here and now of Thailand, socially and politically, wearable art for a contemporary style of presentation, have the strength of a long past behind them, even as the artists and makers experiment with techniques and materials and designs. The face of a monkey put together out of leather and fur and gold and silver by Noon Passama peers out from the cover of the exhibition catalogue, almost abstract in its energy but with that control that characterises Thai jewellery.

Maker Puan has no such freedom to play with materials. It is clear both from Taweesak Molsawat’s ANU presentations with Puan and from being lucky enough to observe Puan in action in a silver smithing class that the traditions he is working within are stricter. Who these days would take hours to make a silver button like the ones that Puan wears on his silk shirt?

Puan takes a small intense group of local silver workers through this process and I am privileged to be able to observe. The group includes Gill Lumsden whose ongoing research into Khmer influence in jewellery is a driving force behind the artistic residency at the ANU, the accompanying exhibition of Taweesak and Puan’s work up at Canberra Grammar School gallery and the Bilk exhibition. Ajarn Chintana Sandilands from the ANU Thai Program is also observing and she and Taweesak are interpreting where it is needed.

Indeed, the silver smithing and enamelling workshops run by Puan and Taweesak across two weekends as well as the more theoretical presentations by Puan, Taweesak and Atty are an essential part of a splendid initiative in cross cultural and cross institutional teaching at ANU and are clearly attended by a wide range of students.

What soon becomes clear is that the work speaks for itself among people who already have silver working skills.  It is evident from the slides in Taweesak’s presentation that Puan’s equipment in the village of Khwao Sinarin near Surin is open to the elements and unconcerned with many elements of OH&S that apply in Australia. Matters are of course tighter at the School of Art but the improvisation of many of the tools used to build up a button, disc by disc, is part of the process that Puan teaches the students. Soft hammers are built out of dowel, nails hammered into wood are used for winding thin silver into flower shapes and an old motor bike piston becomes another kind of hammer.

Puan sits quietly over his work, demonstrating a concentration that is meditative. It is interesting that the class seems to understand this instinctively. It is a kind of concentration required of all art makers, musicians, performers and writers as they rehearse and craft. 

But there is humour in the workshop as the day continues. Puan tells the eyes what to see and the hands what to do and the little flowery silver buttons gradually take shape. They are flowers, they are bees’ nests, they are eggs.  They take inspiration from the natural worlds of the southern Isaan but also the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Turn them sideways and you can see the mountain that is sacred Mt Meru, an image echoed in Khmer temples from huge Angkor Wat to tiny Phimai.

Making one of the little ‘buttons’ is a detailed process. They are built up layer by layer. Pure silver is used and it is very soft. It bends in your hands and between your fingers. It is like foil but is tougher and richer than foil.

The class is going inside the process and the carvings of the Khmer world will therefore never be the same to them. The strengthening of cross cultural perceptions goes on all day. The common language is the language of making.

I only manage to see a day of Puan’s teaching but I visit not only the Bilk exhibition but also Puan and Taweesak’s exhibition over at the Canberra Grammar School gallery. An hour spent looking at the jewellery, traditional and contemporary, side by side, informed now by talk and observation, makes it possible to work out what to buy. It has to be wearable art in Atty’s sense but it will also be good to buy something that honours the art of Puan, his inheritance and his teaching.

Taweesak Molsawat
It does not mean that the pieces by Taweesak are not tempting. They are, especially the bracelet that will only take its final shape when the owner puts it on for the first time. So are the works in the exhibition by Puan’s family and the crisp Khmer inspired Australian pieces by Gill Lumsden. But I’ve always had an eye for the ancient and here are not only the buttons that Puan was teaching the students to make but also the rosin filled beads with their thin silver coating that make up many of the necklaces.

There are silver rings with semi- precious stones and various bracelets and the centrepiece is a glorious silver belt that is so alien to an Australian fashion sense (and so superbly high priced according to its cultural value) that I suspect it does not sell but will make its way home, hopefully to be bought by someone who will wear it in the right context.

I settle for a couple of the buttons, made into earrings, a workaday necklace of ‘fancy bead on black thread’ and a rather magnificent heavy necklace for ‘best’, which will come up very well worn with black. The result of buying from the maker and seeing him at work is that none of these pieces will ever be worn without a sense of knowing something of their making.

I actually discover, going through the jewellery box at home that I have a couple of gemstone necklaces with the silver beads from the north east traded through to the seaside resorts. I find, by laying the seaside jewellery alongside Puan’s pieces, a new sense of the power of his work.

And the depth of the ancient traditions that still guide it. Puan especially seems to me to stand for the all the makers and the builders and the monarchs and the smiling jewellery bedecked apsara that you can still see on the walls of Khmer temples.

Alanna Maclean

Puan Jiewthong with work by Gill Lumsden