BANGKOK — If you’re Thai, it might be a graduation photo hanging in your living room. If you’re German, it might be an Aldi shopping bag.
After successful showings in China and Chiang Mai, “The Invisible Things” will exhibit such common, but easily overlooked, objects as carriers of Thai and German culture at the Thailand Creative & Design Center on Charoen Krung Road starting this Thursday.
The basis of the exhibition is the thought that though we take everyday objects for granted and may even regard them as trivial to our culture, their designs and functions reflect our daily habits and lifestyles – they may offer more insight into culture than even tom yum or bratwurst.
By showing 25 everyday items each from Thailand and Germany, as well as two short films, the exhibition aims to spark reflection over how people from the two countries see each other and themselves.
“What is actually Thai? What is actually German? Is German how we see ourselves? Is German how you see us? The truth lies certainly somewhere in between. It’s the question of perspective,” said Martin Render, who curated the German objects.
“We came up with the simple idea of connecting these common objects, researching the history behind them, and revealing what they tell us about our history, heritage, and tradition.”
Upon entering the hall, visitors will meet two bamboo “houses” that represent typical Thai and German households. Objects are scattered inside and outside, but even a cursory glance will show one difference between Thai and German lifestyles – Thais generally spend more time outdoors than Germans.
“Climate is possibly the biggest reason,” the curator for the Thai objects, Philip Cornwel-Smith, explained. “We actually have three zones for the Thai part: indoors, outdoors, and an intermediate zone.”
The contrast is underscored by a fruit-vendor cart, a bus conductor’s fare-collection box, and a motorcycle taxi driver’s vest, which are spotlighted in the Thai section. The German section contains more household objects, including a Gugelhupf cake mould, a potty chair, and Christmas baubles.
The objects across the two sections are not directly linked, though there are some echoes such as copies of Thairath and Bild newspapers. The German-invented Fanta carbonated drink, now a favorite sacrifice for local ghosts in Thailand, also made it onto the list.
Another visible difference is the improvised nature of several of the Thai objects, while their German counterparts are more commercial with functions set in stone.
“The everyday popular culture [of Thais] on the streets has a sense of improvisation. Possibly the biggest manufacturers of furniture in this country are ordinary people who are not designers,” Cornwell-Smith said. “However, German objects tend to be based on ‘vorsprung durch technik’ [progress through technology], and focus more on quality and efficiency.”
The curators recalled the rigorous selection process for the items, with several pieces they had pushed for ultimately falling short of the final cut.
“I had to exclude things that are very Thai, like pink napkins because they are less common than they used to be,” Cornwell-Smith said after a brief ponder. “Another thing that I wanted to put in that was extremely plain was a colored, fluorescent tube. It has been used as a symbol at temple fairs for a long time.”
Of the 25 items he curated – and the dozens that he crossed out – the farang Thailand expert’s favourite was sai sin strings.
“It’s totally utilitarian. It is what it is – a piece of string that has no color. It is both high culture and low culture, sacred and secular, and definitely relational as it is used in a lot of ways,” Cornwell-Smith said. “You find it in temples where it is used in a formal way to transmit merit from Buddha images. You will also find it in weddings, Issan villages, and even hotels where it is used to welcome guests.”
The exhibition is co-organized by the Creative Economy Agency and Goethe-Institut Thailand.
“The Invisible Things” is being held at the Thailand Creative & Design Center, inside the historic Grand Postal Building. The venue is reachable by a 15 minute walk along Charoen Krung Road from BTS Saphan Taksin exit No. 3. The exhibition is open from 10.30am to 9pm Tuesday–Sunday from Jun. 13 to Sept. 15, before it will move on to the next country. Entry is free. Explanatory texts are in Thai and English.