Navinland Cinema

Navinland Cinema

Words: Steven Pettifor


Presented as old-fashioned movie billboard paintings combined with life-size fibreglass figures of real and fictional characters, there is little doubt that the manner and presence of Thai-Indian artist Navin Rawanchaikul’s art has immediate and broad accessibility. Accompanied by witty popular Thai and Japanese Manga style comic books, interactive board games, and a bonanza of site-specific merchandising, Rawanchaikul’s multifaceted exhibition projects are industriously manufactured by his workshop collective Navin Production.


Internationally recognised, 37-year-old Rawanchaikul is best known for creating an imaginative brand of installation and interactive art that delivers novel methods of introducing contemporary art to the community at large. Melding art and life, Rawanchaikul often uses public vehicles such as taxicabs to unfurl universal metaphors for life’s journeys.


Almost perpetually in transit with a hectic exhibition schedule as well as dividing his time between his home town of Chiang Mai where his studio Navin Production is based, the Thai capital Bangkok, and his adoptive home of Fukuoka in Japan, Rawanchaikul considers himself somewhat nomadic. The son of first generation Indian immigrants to Thailand, he has never been fully accepted as a Thai citizen, but he also feels just as much an outsider in Fukuoka where he lives with his Japanese wife and daughter.


Bridging the divide of high and mass art, the utilisation of definable Asian media genres like Bollywood style film, classic movie billboard painting, temple mural art, and throwaway pulp comics, imbue his work with a distinct Pop-cultural sheen that proves alluring to both Asian and international audiences. Each medium performs specific functions as effective and light-hearted tools for communicating with, as well as conditioning viewers to, otherwise unconventional situational art.


But for Rawanchaikul, the use of such impressionable media forms is more about their being functional site-specific tools for mass communication and access, as well as invigorating art forms that have lost out to modernity, infusing them with a contemporary edge and giving practitioners opportunities to make their craft relevant once more.


Also typical to Rawanchaikul’s approach is the importance placed upon community participation and connectivity. Considered carefully from a site-specific geo-cultural viewpoint ahead of any exhibition, the artist incorporates everyday culture relevant and current to the chosen environment at that particular instance.


Such deliberations are integral to his first exhibition in India, Navinland Cinema, which has evolved from his 10-minute music video Navins of Bollywood. Embarking upon his first short film as Rawanchaikul journeyed for the first time to his ancestral land of India, and teamed up with Mumbai-based director Naren Mojidra to play the lead role in the 2006 mini-musical style production, Navins of Bollywood.


Full of humour, the movie’s simple plot revolves around Rawanchaikul traipsing the streets of India connecting with various Navins in the hope of finding himself. Using personal experience to define identity, the story combines the painting of a movie billboard by a group of Mumbai's last movie billboard painters with the story of a lonely artist's quest for connection and community in an increasingly fragmented world.


Rawanchaikul and project co-author Tyler Russell initiated the burgeoning Diaspora theme by searching Navin’s first name on the internet, which in Sanskrit means ‘new’. They discovered a global diversity of Navins that included Indian television comedian Navin Prabhakar, a Texas-based Ska band Navin’s Thermos, and NaVin Wine from Slovakia. The intended aim is to unite all these disparate Navins together in a harmonic communion dubbed Navinity. The collective derives solely upon the basis of a name, devoid of prejudices to race, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, or disability.


With the intended goal of creating a virtual Navinland, Rawanchaikul and Russell have been busy forging links with Navins the world over, starting with the formation of a pseudo political party, the Navin Party, which first started campaigning at the 2006 exhibition Aren’t You Navin?. Initiated through sympathetic collaboration the fake caucus is an ironic response to the commodified saturation of identity driven art that has found favour with international curators, museums and institutions.


Part anthropological experiment, aside from weaving more common art themes to identity and Diaspora, Navin Party is as much a reflection on the shifting mechanics of a contemporary society living in the virtual age. Today fervent nationalism and tribalism are still pervasive, but are increasingly blurred in a more global domain where new relationships and communities are forged through cyberspace.


For its first screening in India Navins of Bollywood airs at Sakshi Gallery, set up to function as a temporary movie theatre with a small partitioned viewing room set up with casual floor cushions. A large movie billboard painting unravelling the film’s plot occupies one wall of the gallery, while at the centre of the space is a life-size Perspex model of Rawanchaikul attired in his film costume and holding a “Navin” placard in Hindi, with multiple translations in various languages scattered across the floor.


Beside the hyper-real plastic figure of Navin is a stack of giveaway limited edition comic books entitled Who is Navin? A mainstay medium to artist’s oeuvre that first manifested in the 1997 cartoon strip Navin and his Gang Visit Vancouver, Rawanchaikul appropriates the universal genre of comic books to infuse playful narratives as analogies to his broader concepts. Peppered with vernacular dialogues that intentionally contradicts highbrow art speak, his Manga influenced comics satirically feature cameos by artists, curators, and gallery owners, familiar to the given locale.


The 48-page pulp production Who is Navin? layers the artist’s loose biography with the storyboard of Navins of Bollywood. Opening with his childhood in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, the story follows a disillusioned adult Rawanchaikul, who despite being a successful artist still doesn’t really understand who he is as an individual. He receives a mysterious letter from a Navin Sunder in Mumbai, which simply states “Are you Navin?”. Intrigued, Rawanchaikul sets off on a journey to India to discover this anonymous Navin, along the way crossing paths with numerous characters sharing the same forename.


Eventually the story leads him to a spiritual encounter with Guru Navin Mahaprabhu, who encourages the artist to unite all the Navins of the world and to establish the Navin Party. The comic concludes with Rawanchaikul venturing to meet his old artistic mentor, Thai artist Inson Wongsam, who passes him a strange ancient medallion that he was given during his tour of Pakistan back in the 1960s. Recovered from the Lost Kingdom of Navin, the discovery of the medallion leads Rawanchaikul to set upon his next quest to uncover the lost civilisation.


For Rawanchaikul, reconnecting with the inspirational figure of Inson Wongsam is much more than a convenient plot device. Since the first manifestation of his series Fly with Me to Another World began in 1999, veteran Thai National Artist Wongsam has appeared repeatedly in Rawanchaikul’s art.


In the early sixties, penniless art graduate Wongsam drove a Lambretta from Thailand through India and Pakistan, eventually arriving in Europe. Using a stack of woodcut prints as barter for lodgings, Wongsam didn’t return to Thailand until some 13 years later. His worldly travels have become the stuff of legend for younger Thai artists, especially Rawanchaikul, who created a life-size Perspex model of the artist riding his scooter.


Relating Wongsam’s intercontinental artistic journey to his own metaphoric search for belonging, Rawanchaikul infuses post-modern generational parallels between the two artists and their connectivity to India for the latest adaptation of the billboard painting Fly with Me to Another World.


Instigating the goal of self-actualisation through the expansion of the Navin Party has been largely spurred by scouring the internet, the results of which are relayed through the periodic publication of The Navinist newspaper. A logical continuation of the faux politicking, in the previous 2007 geo-specific project Navin Party Beijing, Rawanchaikul and Russell appropriated and reconstituted communist propaganda artwork to emphasise the absurdity of world politics today.


In an economically driven era of post-colonialism, much anticipation has been placed upon emergent Asian heavyweights China and India becoming influential 21st century world leaders. Staging back-to-back exhibitions in both countries, as a part of Navinland Cinema, Rawanchaikul and Russell display a series of woodblock prints and a video work, Quotations from Comrade Navin, which parody Chairman Mao Zedong’s iconic rallying posters from the Cultural Revolution.


At the 2007 exhibition the 9th Congress of the Navin Party, Rawanchaikul was farcically positioned in the role of the “Great Leader” at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, handing out free copies of a small red book with Mao-style pseudo proclamations on the goals of Navinism. Further perpetuated by a series of ceramic busts depicting Rawanchaikul as the emblematic party chairman, the artist’s actions drew the wrath of the Chinese police, who promptly arrested and questioned Rawanchaikul.


Despite living in a more connected world and contradictory to archetypal communist doctrine, the Navin Party project levels that humanity is increasingly obsessed by the cult of the self and the power of the individual. Defining this upsurge in selfishness as ‘nominalism’, it is argued that the community spirit, which is often at the core of his art interventionist projects, is in terminal decline.


The fictitious Lost Kingdom of Navin, seemingly yet another of Navin Production’s signature fantastical narratives, has Rawanchaikul leading his Navinist brethren on a search for a mystical ancient city somewhere along the old Silk Road trade route. Ironically blurring distinctions between communism and capitalism, Navin Party’s quest to rediscover their lost kingdom is a lamentation to lost tribes. Historical referencing is employed to critique the contemporary, particularly how nationalistic ideologies are still pervasive though this seems redundant bordering on the ridiculous within a more global society.


In the large movie billboard painting Lost Kingdom of Navin, the artists re-contextualises a similarly aligned recent composition featuring treasure hunters on a global quest. Centred round Chairman Navin as a crusading Indiana Jones-style hero, this new version whimsically pokes fun at India’s art and media world through the inclusion of characters that comprise the local cognoscenti.


The painting’s star cast features notable figures from India’s modern art development, including M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, Nalini Malini and Subodh Gupta, which he places alongside prominent Navins and party cadre. Mimicking an idealistic movie script, the artists’ rallying cry is to the harmonic existence and friendship of seemingly disparate tribes.


Intended to question the present and future role of contemporary art and those involved in its commodification and marketing, the painting is a re-visitation of Rawanchaikul’s earlier Super(m)art series, a collaboration with German art historian Helen Michaelsen. Initiated in 2002, the interactive installation sceptically criticised the proliferation of biennale “franchises” being set up across the world, and the connection-based mentality of art organisers.


Through the inclusion of the Quotations from Comrade Navin prints with their overt Chinese associations, Rawanchaikul and Russell draw obvious analogies between the rising artistic profiles of Asia’s two burgeoning powerhouses of China and India. Amidst growing international debate upon the comparative commercial validity of each country’s leading practitioners, Chinese artists are currently leading the charge in international auction sales.


Despite lagging behind, there is much anticipation as to the soft power of Indian art and its long term sustainability, with some speculators predicting that Indian contemporary art will eventually surpass the Chinese market. Whatever the outcome, nomadic Rawanchaikul will no doubt continue on his artistic campaign trail, and in the process intersect, satirise, and question the role of individual, national and international arts agendas.


Navinland Cinema

Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai

March 26 - April 12, 2008


Steven Pettifor

Writer-artist Steven Pettifor was born in 1968 in London. He studied Fine Art at both Wimbledon School of Art and Liverpool Polytechnic (now John Moores University), where he graduated with a BFA in 1990. He migrated to Asia in 1992, and currently lives in Bangkok. A regular commentator upon art from Asia, Pettifor has contributed to several international newspapers and journals. Presently he is the Thailand Editor for the international bi-monthly publication Asian Art News and the quarterly World Sculpture News. In 2004 he published Flavours - Thai Contemporary Art, since then he has also undertaken several curatorial commissions. 


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