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About the Art: Translation Column

Mit Jai Inn’s sculptural paintings thrive in abstractions and calculated ambiguity

This piece is part of Transpacific Literary Project’s monthly translation column.

For the inaugural year of the Transpacific Literary Project’s monthly translation column, we are proud to pair the column’s essays with Thai artist and activist Mit Jai Inn’s sculptural paintings. The column launched today with Jeremy Tiang’s essay “Now They See Us,” featuring a section of Mit’s painting Junta Monochrome 2.

Mit’s paintings, four of which will be featured in the column—Junta Monochrome 2, Junta Monochrome 5, Patch Work 2, and Untitled EP5—stand out for their materiality. The splotches on the Junta Monochrome paintings look like they might start dripping anytime, and their thick swaths of color and sheer scale attest to the painstaking labor of artmaking. The materiality and visible labor of Mit’s paintings resonate with the art of translation, an art form that is hyperaware of its medium, language, and is constantly negotiating the (in)visibility of its labor.  

Mit Jai Inn, Patchwork 2. 2019 Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Silverlens.

Patch Work 2 (2019) merges painting and weaving, with the weaves and weft left on the floor, as if the painter was interrupted mid-work. For Studio International, David Trigg writes:

Formed from six layers of canvas, Mit’s trademark substrata are stiff enough to not require a stretcher but pliable enough to be folded and manipulated. In the wall-mounted work Patch Work 2 (2019), variegated strips of the material are woven into a quilt-like grid. Snaking, looping and sometimes dangling on the floor, these painted ribbons disrupt the revered geometry of the modernist grid. 

Mit’s work is what artist and writer Ariana Chaivaranon terms as “allusive yet legible… thriving in abstractions and calculated ambiguity.” Take, for example, the colorful Junta Monochrome 2 (2016) and Junta Monochrome 5 (2016), which call attention to the irony of their names and the contemporary conditions they refer to. An article for Bangkok Post notes that Mit made the paintings in the series while feeling disgusted with the situation in Thailand, “a junta-ruled country where things are either black or white.”

Untitled EP5 goes back to a common motif of Mit’s work—the changing nature of the sky. In a country where the sky’s blueness symbolizes the unchanging power of the monarchy, Mit paints dawns and dusks, a reminder that the sky is not always blue. In a country with draconian lèse-majesté laws, art like Mit’s can challenge monarchical power.

Mit Jai Inn, Untitled EP5. 2022 Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Mit Jai Inn.

Mit’s art practice marries politics and aesthetics beautifully. He has given away his art for free to encourage community-building. In Vienna Apartments (1991), for example, viewers could take one of the exhibit’s hundreds of painted objects in exchange for opening up their apartments for one day so strangers could see it. In the exhibition’s reprise, Bangkok Apartments (2022), exhibition-goers promise to volunteer locally in exchange for free art objects. By facilitating audience action through his paintings, Mit’s work brings the world-changing potential of art into the real material world, bringing new futures that much closer.

More about Mit Jai Inn adapted from his website:

Mit Jai Inn was born in 1960 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he now lives and works.

Mit Jai Inn studied art at the Silpakorn University from 1983 to 1986, and at the University of Applied Arts Vienna from 1988 to 1992. Upon his return to Thailand in 1992, Mit co-founded Chiang Mai Social Installation with a group of artists, scholars, and social activists.

Defying conventional boundaries of painting, Mit Jai Inn enacts multiple histories and treatments of the medium through a physically rigorous and repetitive labor cycle of mixing, applying, overlaying, and eroding pigment. His paintings come into being at his outdoor Chiang Mai studio, where he gives turns to the vibrating spectrum of sun and moonlight, with nocturnal interludes under white fluorescent light. His colorful, densely layered work takes on a wide range of topographical variations and moods, ranging from somber amorphous blotches and pastel-crafted stripes to neon all-over dots.

Mit Jai Inn, Junta Monochrome 5. 2016 Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Silverlens.

Mit’s largely solitary studio practice is rooted in perception, with relational intentions. Emerging in Berlin and Vienna in the late 1980s, Mit began a vocabulary of serial forms intended to counter aspects of formal painting and its market and exhibitionary frameworks of their time. Mit’s paintings were unstretched and unframed, mostly two-sided, touchable works that populated public spaces and galleries alike. Embedded in Mit’s painted forms are reactions to aesthetic, social, and political histories. These include divisions between so-called Western and Eastern canonical painting, the sacred-secular intimacy of color, the shifting political states of Thailand, and site-specific reflections dedicated to the nations, spaces, and public spheres his works inhabit.

He has exhibited internationally, including The King and I, TKG+, Taipei, Taiwan (2020); Sunshower: Contemporary Art From Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2019); Light, Dark, Other, TKG+, Taipei, Taiwan (2018); 21st Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island, Australia (2018); Sunshower: Contemporary Art From Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan (2018); Medium at Large, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore (2014); All Our Relations, 18th Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, Australia (2012); Tropical Nights — Lost in Paradise, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France (2007); Dong-Na, Singapore Biennale, Singapore (2007); Soi Project, Yokohama Triennale, Yokohama, Japan (2005); and Chiang Mai Social Installation, Chiang Mai, Thailand (1992–1996).