Pinaree Sanpitak

Breast Stupa Topiary (2013). Courtesy Yavuz Fine Art

FROM HER STUDIO in central Bangkok contemporary artist Pinaree Sanpitak could hear the demonstrators on the streets just days before incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government was replaced by a military coup earlier this year. Sanpitak left the house swept up with the emotion of the occasion and along with her 81-year-old mother joined the demonstrators. ‘My mother and I and people from my house and friends all joined the protests,’ Sanpitak recalls.

Sanpitak’s studio home is tucked up a side street, or soi, in central Bangkok close to vibrant markets and street vendors. The current timber-frame house was built in the 1960s on a plot of land where her grandfather had lived. The small courtyard has grown lush over the years with giant trees and tropical vines clambering to dizzy heights. Nicotiana flowers float in bowls of water and unruly plants spill from Chinese dragon pots and inhabit cracks between smooth flagstones; one of her recent Breast Stupa Topiary sculptures punctuates the greenery. To one side of this courtyard is the studio; to the other is the kitchen, which Sanpitak sees as the heart of the house.

Pinaree is one of the most important contemporary artists to emerge from Southeast Asia in the last 20 years. She has exhibited in 17 countries and has work in collections around the world. She was educated in America and attended university in Japan and this cosmopolitan experience has left her fluent in English and Japanese. She is quietly spoken, fiercely independent and despite marching with the demonstrators does not necessarily see herself as a political animal. She maintains that her politics are and have always remained the politics of the body. ‘For me politics is of the body, of the human being, this is politics.’

The closest she has come in recent years to political activism, in the accepted sense, was after the devastating floods that ravaged the country in 2011. She made a huge installation in response to the floods; Hanging by a Thread consists of 18 handmade hammocks from material similar to the Paa-lai printed fabrics distributed with the Royal Relief bags that were given to flood victims. ‘I was impressed by these bags compared to the government bags. They contained this printed fabric. Receiving these bags would have been very comforting for the victims. So I used similar Paa-lai, which I twisted into plaits to make the hammocks. It was my way of showing support and of offering comfort to the victims,’ she explains.

The politics of the body is the idée fixe that has run through Pinaree’s art for the past two decades specifically that of the female body which has led her to be identified with women’s causes and the feminist movement. But while she enjoys being a woman, however, she accepts her work can be seen as gender specific by some. ‘When I work I do not think about if I am feminist of even feminine. Yes, the shape of the female body drives my work, but I am just a person, just an artist working. Naturally what I experience and what I feel I do so as a woman.’

In the early years, her work was photographic based, a genre which progressed naturally to drawing, painting and sculpture with the imagery increasingly moving towards a form of figurative abstraction. Twenty years ago her son was born and with it came for Pinaree a new way of looking at the world. She became obsessed with the shape of the female breast that led to an ongoing exploration of this most nurturing of soft malleable shapes which she could abstract in linear form as in the Black, the White and the Body (1995), or render with a renaissance precision as in Slower (2010).

Pinaree is known as ‘the breast artist’ – one senses to her chagrin. ‘Yes I have been obsessed with the shape of the female breast since the birth of my son – he is now studying in Europe and has left an empty nest. But my work is not simply about breasts, the breast is just the heart of my work and of course stands out and people pick on that. For me my work is actually about the body. I am really fascinated by the human form and that just takes time to explore and see from different viewpoints. The breast is just part of it,’ she expands.

In support of this thesis she refers to Womanly Bodies (1998), an installation of a dozen or more translucent mulberry paper drapes hanging from armatures that subtly resonate with womanly shapes and which move as visitors circulate. The mulberry fibre paper she feels was simply too beautiful to paint over and the kinetic element to the work has resurfaced over the years as in Temporary Insanity (2004), where a forest of soft fabric covered cushions react to movement and fill the gallery space with a trembling intensity and is, says Sanpitak in an earthy no nonsense way, ‘about breasts and balls’.

One of her largest works to date is Anything can Break (2011), a monumental installation exhibited at the 2012 Sydney Biennale that filled a complete gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Thousands of small origami winged parcels and breast-shaped glass globes hung from the gallery ceiling and as visitors moved beneath the work their movement triggered an interactive sound component. Pinaree said at the time the work explores the feminine and the pursuit of a democratic way of experiencing and engaging with art.

That democratic engagement and sharing in art has also manifested itself several times since 2005 in the Breast Stupa Cookery project where chefs are invited to prepare food and strangers are invited to share the food they prepare which is served in breast shaped vessels designed by Sanpitak, but made by local artisans. ‘It is not about showing it is more about sharing and connecting with other people. It is like organizing a dinner party and then, you share.’

Over the two decades since the birth of her son, the shape of the breast has manifested itself in dozens of drawings, paintings, installations, cooking vessels and more recently in her stainless steel Breast Stupa Topiary sculptures, which have a utilitarian function as well as a purity of aesthetic that make them sit comfortably either in a gallery space or outside in a garden as conventional topiary supports. The shapes reflect not only the breast, but also that of a Buddhist stupa and Buddhism, Pinaree says, is naturally embedded in her life and art. ‘I do not follow all the rituals, but Buddhism helps me let go and to take life as it is,’ she says. For Pinaree, life is a meditation on spirituality and womanhood and how the breast and the stupa close the conceptual cycle that begins with birth, fertility and nourishment and ends in a structure that memorialises death.

‘My work is simply about life,’ she says. ‘At the beginning my art would have been about changing attitudes to women, or understanding how differently women looked at the world. Now it is also about trying to get people to use their senses, to ignite them. Sometimes you forget to use a certain sense, to smell or look. That is what I aim for to get people to use all their senses. Then you have an open mind and open heart. It is an ideal I know, but I really do believe things will get better. I have to keep hoping. That is politics for me.’

Recently Pinaree acquired an adjacent block of land where she will construct a purpose built studio ready for occupation by 2016. The current timber frame house built after her grandfather died she explained belongs now to her brother and eventually her aging mother will move back in. ‘We lived in the provinces in the north-east of the country and I would come and visit. I always grew up out of the city until I came back from Japan.’ The two conjoined blocks will allow for lush gardens to spill into each other and for Pinaree to extend the sub-tropical vegetation into an inner city oasis. A new kitchen will also bring its own rewards.

Being feminine and being a woman are two different things in Pinaree’s mind, even though she accepts her work is gender specific each gender she insists must make an intellectual attempt to understand the other. Her earlier work she says was, ‘truly about experience from a woman’s viewpoint,’ but as her oeuvre developed it became more cross-gender focused – she insists the body is as she has previously observed, ‘a site of contemplation and understanding’.

She refers to a talk she gave 20 years ago which she concluded by saying, ‘Woman the mystery, woman the passionate, woman the practical.’ A simple coda to that would be her concluding statement to me. ‘My work is simply about life and I love being a woman.’ With these words she seems to dissipate the mists surrounding the complexity of the female psyche and replaces it with a clarity that defies categorisation.

BY MICHAEL YOUNG

Pinaree Sanpitak is holding her first solo exhibition in Australia, as part of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation Collection + series, until 13 December, www. Sherman-scaf-org.au