13 May 2009

Corrado Feroci's Museum in Bangkok

a home far away from home

by Tonkao Panin
Upon entering the Fine Arts University in Bangkok, one passes through small gardens and courtyards before one sees, hears and smells art productions of all kinds. Students walk in and out and sit at small courtyard cafes looking at exterior walls that are never left blank but always adorned with ever-changing images. Despite its many public art galleries welcoming visitors, this is only a tiny university occupying only half of a small street block in the heart of Bangkok’s old city. Its location is just opposite to the prime tourist spot, the Grand Palace, thus the university is at once a public arena and a small private universe, depending upon who you are and why you are there. At once tranquil and lively, it is a place one easily feels at home already on the first visit. A hundred years ago, this was not possible. Such a place simply did not exist.

Art education in an ‘old’ country such as Thailand is something surprisingly ‘new’. And the man who made it all possible was brought in from far away, Florence, Italy. In 1923, King Rama VI sent a request to the Italian government for a sculptor to train Thai craftsmen. The man who came for this temporary task but ended up staying in Thailand for the rest of his life was Corado Feroci, a sculptor from Florence who left his family behind for the task entrusted upon him. Feroci first served the Thai government as a sculptor under the Royal patronage, and was assigned to train Thai artisans of various trades. Shortly afterwards, his reputation as a unique art teacher was known, thus he was asked by the Thai government to establish a curriculum and textbooks for the formal training of artists, which never existed before in Thailand. Thus was the first art school in Thailand born in 1937 with Feroci as its first director, known as Silpakorn School of Fine Arts. In 1943, amidst the turmoil of World War II, the school became the first university of Fine Arts, with Feroci as the first dean. He continued working for Thai government, creating 18 famous monuments, and taught generations of Thai artists until he died in 1962 at the age of 70.

Throughout the 38 years Feroci lived in Thailand, he occupied a rather small studio inside the university. It is located near the school’s entrance, on the first floor, allowing him to observe dynamic changes throughout the day. As he was usually the first person to arrive and the last to leave, everyone would see him working, hear him repeatedly singing Santa Lucia which later became the school’s anthem. Feroci’s years in Thailand were dedicated to rigorous teaching as well as artistic productions. Generations of artists and art students regard him as the father of modern art in Thailand. On September 15th of each year, Thai artists and art students commemorate and pay homage to the man, his life and work that made others’ artistic lives and works possible.

Today Feroci’s working space has been transformed into a museum – its name, once Feroci’s studio and now Feroci’s museum, already suggests the past, something that is no longer current and active. Despite the fact that almost every object in the studio is still present, the place seems haunted without its active owner. When in use, everything was simply an integral constituent of the place, acted and reacted in concert with the man who conducted them. They occupied their logical and participatory locations, though not always composed and tidy. Thus the crucial question for the organisation of this museum is ‘how should all the objects be placed in relation to one another?’ If left in their original positions, the objects may emphasise the sense of missing spirit, so much so that they would simply become ghosts that linger in a place of nowhere. If orchestrated into a composed display, the objects may become just nameless antiques, far detached from the life they once lived. How could such a museum be organised to represent both the life it once housed, and the true sense of time and value the objects hold in the present?

The solution turns out to be quite simple. Helped in that it is less than a hundred square metres in size, everything is organised into two layers of story. While the first narrative deals with the past, the second is aimed at the present. Feroci’s actual and active occupation sets the spatial framework for the place. Pieces of furniture act as architectural elements determining the configuration of the place as a whole. One moves and turns within the small space the same way Corrado Feroci did decades ago. Yet, objects are deliberately ‘misplaced’, for while some are in their logical positions, many are not. A number of objects are set to become ‘active’ reminders of the past activities, but many are orchestrated into an overtly museum-like display. Together they create a strangely familiar place, at once real and unreal, given a sense of both being somewhere and nowhere. In other words, it becomes a place that the memory of Feroci both owns and disowns. As we walk into it, the structural configuration made me feel as if we are probing into someone else’s private life, yet looking closely at objects and art works we are suddenly brought back into our own life and time. It is a place that allows both kinds of experience to constantly fluctuate within the same visit.

A few years ago, Romano Viviani, Feroci’s only son came from Florence to visit the school and the museum. Even though the place his father described in the letters was certainly unfamiliar, he finally acknowledged that however small, it represents a dream, a determination, a sacrifice and a hope for Thai art students. This confirmed the presence of the person he remembered. Upon entering the ‘studio’ Viviani admitted he could no longer picture his father in the place, but somehow it was the smell and sound he used to imagine.

Panin, Tonkao. 'A Home Away from Home' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Tonkao Panin and On Site review

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