BANGKOK — Art imitates life, but can the afterlife imitate art?
Ridicule ensued after mysterious footprints found around a salvaged boat on display at a downtown cultural venue were blamed on ghosts by a venue staffer Sunday in widely reported comments.
But the artist behind the installation said Monday she was surprised to learn her showcase of a coastal ethnic group known as the Orang Laut had been eclipsed by rumors of the supernatural.
“People were connecting the dots on their own. It isn’t about a ghost!” Jittima Pholsawek said in an interview Monday with a laugh.
The boat was part of an exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, or BACC, to honor His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol and his work to improve lives of people across the country.
Jittima was selected as one of the artists, so she chose to display artefacts related to the Orang Laut, an ethnic group whose livelihood has been affected by plans to construct power plants and other coastal developments.
“Our king talked a lot about protecting the environment. In the same way, the lives of ordinary people like the hill tribespeople and sea people directly rely on environment, more so than urban people,” said Jittima, who’s been an artist for 30 years. “They rely on the forests and the sea.”
With local residents’ approval, her team salvaged an old fishing boat half buried in sand on Koh Lanta and brought it to the gallery along with other items in September. She said many have visited her exhibition and given positive feedback.
But trouble began Sunday when several media agencies reported that an unexplained set of footprints were found around the boat. They quoted an unnamed BACC staff member as saying they were likely caused by the ghosts of the sea tribespeople who once owned the boat. The story also included photo of Jittima and other artists praying before the boat.
The news immediately sparked discussion on post-Halloween social media. One popular Facebook page known for debunking ghost sightings mocked the story.
“Wow! Ghosts made it all the way here?” wrote admin of Fuck Ghost. “I didn’t know that modern-day Bangkokians would be like this.”
Jittima said she’s convinced the footprints belong to gallery staff members who often pace around the boat during gallery hours. She also said pictures of her praying to the boat are misleading; Jittima said she was doing it “half jokingly,” and her team put a garland on the boat out of respect for its history, not spirits.
“I’m not comfortable with the news. I don’t mind it that much, but it affects the BACC a lot. It affects their image,” the artist said before adding that she’s afraid her installation might inadvertently become a new shrine. “If more and more people believe this, they might bring their own garlands, and it will be chaos.”
The installation is on the seventh floor and runs through Sunday.