Thailand consistently ranks among the top ten countries in the world with the worst air pollution. Blankets of air pollution cover northern Thai cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Lampang. Every year, for at least a few months, breathing becomes so difficult that facemasks and in-home air purifiers become staples amongst those living in these polluted cities and surrounded countryside. The beautiful mountain ranges of the north become almost impossible to see due to the illegal bushfires that pepper the forests. The poor air restricts people from normal outdoor activities by irritating their eyes, nasal passages and lungs. So, what are local people doing about this crippling air situation? Who is stepping up to address the endless circle of smoke?
Chiang Mai visual artists have started taking action.
A collaborative group of contemporary artists and concerned air quality groups banded together over the last few months to present the city of Chiang Mai with a powerful multi-venue art exhibition on Sunday, February 14th. According to the group’s exhibit statement, the public exhibition “aims to shine a light on the widely-accepted issue of dust and smog pollution from reckless burning of materials, which has grown to become a global crisis in recent years.”
The bold group of over 65 artists is made up of Chiang Mai University professors, big-name local artists, gallery owners as well as ametueur street artists. The collective showcased their work via paintings, video installations, performance art, sculpture, music and mixed media at over six locations around the Old City. Each artist used mediums of their choice to express their views on the air quality issues in Northern Thailand in venues such as The Meeting Room, Dream Space Gallery, Seescape Gallery, Jing Jai Warehouse, Three Kings Monument and The Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center.
“The objective is to make art be a medium to reflect the problems of the smoke crisis in Chiang Mai,” said local artist and CMU Professor Yupha Mahamart. “Art for air is a public exhibition and it focuses on the process of participation, critique, mutual awareness, understanding, knowledge cooperation as well as some interesting suggestions on the region’s environmental crisis,” she added.
Mahamart’s documentary video installation located in the Jing Jai Warehouse was a direct expression of her personal relationship with the air issues she’s been facing in Chiang Mai, “I may have always heard people around me talking about the dire pollution situation and just let it go. But for me, it is the constant focus of taking action. I raised awareness with my family first and now I’ve broadened the incubation of these responsibilities to others through my university professions and through art projects like Art for air.”
Mahamart and the rest of the collaborative group made sure their voices were heard loud and clear. The group invited Chiang Mai Governor, Charoenrit Sanguansat, to attend the exhibition who was then chauffeured around Chiang Mai by the artist collective to view each participating venue. Each artist explained their concept and meaning behind each of their art pieces. The governor listened to each artist as he made his rounds around the city. A swarm of media closely followed him as he strolled the exhibition venues.
The last stop on the governor’s art tour ended at the famous Three Kings Monument. The Art for air group organised seatings, food, drinks and activities. From 6pm-10pm the Governor, as well as the rest of the public, enjoyed contemporary dance, stage plays, performance art and live music. Hundreds of people took to the monument for AQI information, support and entertainment.
While the Art for air finishing ceremony commenced at 10pm, the organisers are aware that the real work is just beginning. There’s determination to find answers to these air issues even though the organisers and their supporters voice difficulties about the future of air quality. One local artist attendee, Sahahpanh Prapaipanich, said, “As an artist, I really like the way that artists try to use art as powerful tools to express their own voices as best as they can with their own practice,” he said about the art’s impact. “I believe this exhibition will help the situation somehow for sure but it is hard to predict how far it could affect our society. The exhibition is quite huge, so it could advertise the seriousness of air pollution in Chiang Mai. This is a group of artists who not only see beautiful things but also try to use their artistic abilities to raise awareness and question our society’s living situation in air pollution.”
With air quality awareness as Art for air’s main objective, the artist feels confident that they have met their mark. The current exhibition will be held from February 14th to April 30th and organisers welcome the public to come enjoy, learn and participate in the multiple venues stationed in and around Chiang Mai.
While the group’s next move is currently uncertain, exhibition artist Yupha Mahamart said, “While I am not aware of the group’s next plans, I know that my team and I will continue to work on art in response to the community.”
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