Time in Place: How One Thai Artist’s Printmaking Is Both Preserving and Advancing Thai Culture
Amorn Thongpayong (อมร ทองพยงค์) is an award-winning Thai visual artist who explores themes of place, transition, history, tradition, and memory through mezzotint printmaking — a technique that uses an engraved metal plate, which has been roughened and scraped smooth by hand, to create volumes of light and dark shades. While mezzotint was originally used to reproduce valuable paintings throughout 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Thongpayong has applied the technique to capture and preserve traditional Thai architecture and increase his audience’s consciousness of time.
The past and future coincide in cities and towns across Thailand, where canals, wooden dwellings, and street markets continue to transform into paved roads, high rises, and parking lots. For many Thais, these changes are signs of prosperity — even Thongpayong doesn’t identify as a conservationist. Perhaps that’s what makes his work timely, urgent even. He imprints the past in service to the collective memory of future generations.
These impressions would have remained closed to a foreigner like me if I hadn’t met Amorn while working at a nonprofit in Chiang Mai. It was 2016, and Amorn, who had taught himself mezzotint while studying art at Chiang Mai University a few years earlier, had already established himself as one of the most awarded and widely recognized printmakers in the country. He also happened to be my neighbor, and a friendship quickly grew during our chats at the coffee shop his wife managed in our neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Later, Amorn’s proclivity for deep conversation over a glass of whiskey, and his generosity in bringing me into the world of Thai art and culture, further enriched my experience living in the North, a region known for attracting artists and craftsmen of both Thai and international descent.
Catching up over Zoom in June, Amorn discussed with me the eternal self-reliance of artists, the practical roots of Thai art, and cultivating extended concentration through artistic practice.
This interview has been translated from the Thai and edited for length and clarity.
So, tell me a little bit about your background as an artist.
Printmaking opened up new possibilities in art for me. I was intrigued with the prospect of experimentation in mixing inks, using water in oil, oil in water, etching, engraving, Intaglio, framing, that other more traditional forms don’t utilize. I have to admit that part of the appeal of mezzotint printmaking for me was the lack of exposure it had in my printmaking program, and more widely the lack of practitioners in Thailand in general. It was common for my peers to specialize in wood-cutting, lithograph, etching; but all of those disciplines had been so well developed by professionals already. Aside from its novelty, I simply liked the aesthetic common within mezzotint prints I had seen, as well as the fact that I could practice this technique in spaces outside of a crowded studio.
You mentioned part of the appeal for you came from the fact that mezzotint printmaking was a less well-known form of printmaking. Can you explain how you’ve developed your own style or aesthetic within this discipline?
At first, I focused on abstract images, which was a response to my inner world of tumultuous thoughts and feelings as a young man, as well as playful interplay of techniques that were novel and exciting to me. In my inner life as well as in my work, there was a lack of balance. Everything was reactionary and was characterized by following ever-changing impulses and desires.
Later, when I realized this, I began to go through a self-reflective transformation and the subjects of my work changed. I started to focus on traditional Thai architecture — structures that I was exposed to in my everyday life and had been since childhood. I had memories of buildings from that time that bore similarities to the ones I was seeing now in adult life. In short, I had a history, an existing relationship with these structures. I believe this is why one of the by-products of my work is the focus on themes of history, tradition, and the passage of time; because I loved the idea of capturing the facade of a building in a print that in 20 years might be replaced by a condominium or a parking lot.
It seems your work tells a story that remembers the past, lives in the present, and looks toward the future. It also highlights the changes that people undergo across generations.
Yes, I agree. But the goal was never to save these buildings. I’m not a conservationist. Even I built a new house for my family because I recognize that the needs of the people change. This is a way for me to transmit what has been for future generations to see and enjoy. It is a great picture of what mezzotint was originally designed to do, which was to reproduce beautiful oil paintings to reach a wider audience. This is one reason that printmaking in general has such value for me, for its potential to reproduce a piece of media for more people to enjoy or use later.
I started to focus on traditional Thai architecture — structures that I was exposed to in my everyday life and had been since childhood.
Time in Place | Amorn Thongpayong | mezzotint | 2017 | 100x250cm
Could you give American readers some context regarding Thailand’s historical relationship to art?
I think that art in Thailand has its roots in very practical skills. Thailand’s art history is undoubtedly most populated by craftsmen and artisans that work with their hands.
Thailand’s art has of course been heavily connected to Buddhism for a long time; it is common for temples here to hire artisans to decorate the courtyards or paint murals on the grounds. For a lot of our history, Thai art was created in response to the spread of Buddhism, and the adoration and faith that Thailand felt towards Buddhism.
The art created in Thailand now is not as closely connected to Buddhism compared to the past. With a growing middle class, it is possible for more artists to find support pursuing different disciplines, especially in the North.
Are there aspects of your work as a mezzotint artist that are also related to religion or spirituality?
For the most part, my work focuses on architectural structures. Religious belief isn’t central, but sometimes there is Thai Buddhist, Chinese Buddhist, of folk religion iconography inside a structure. But spreading religious belief is not a main goal of mine.
Working on a piece for an extended period is like meditation for me, but this isn’t a 100% spiritual meditation. It’s more about extended intentional concentration, about being alone with yourself. It forces me to stay with myself in settled quiet, to continually evaluate myself, and to continually analyze myself too.
In your opinion, what aspects of Thai culture are communicated or transmitted well through mezzotint printmaking?
One aspect of our culture that I think is communicated through mezzotint is our preference for elaborate detail. I think this aspect of Thai aesthetics is communicated through many forms of art, not just mezzotint. When you look at our weaving work, you can see how each thread is consciously threaded to create intricate patterns. Our woodworkers add minutia to a piece that shows their dedication to beauty. Mezzotint is also a technique in which meticulous detail can be tastefully expressed. I think each national identity, and each culture, has an aesthetic that they value and appreciate most, and for Thais, it’s all about the details.
One of the by-products of my work is the focus on themes of history, tradition, and the passage of time.
How has your work and your pursuit of creativity been affected in this present moment, amidst a global pandemic?
Honestly, it hasn’t changed very much. Visual artists, by and large, are less perturbed by crises like this one, because in a sense, we live in crisis everyday. We don’t know when the next buyer will come around. We don’t know if we will get the grant funding we need to finish a project, or the exposure we need if we aren’t invited to this or that art exhibition. I would say many are used to this lifestyle.
But one good thing about being an artist in a pandemic is that you don’t have to rely on anyone else to get your work done. You aren’t waiting on supply chains, renting equipment you don’t own, or having to go through lengthy processes that rely on others to get your job done — I just kept etching, carving, pressing, and framing as if it was any other year.
AMORN THONGPAYONG (อมร ทองพยงค์)
Amorn Thongpayong (อมร ทองพยงค์) is a Thai international-award-winning mezzotint printmaker. He holds an M.F.A. in printmaking from Silpakorn University. Thongpayong’s mezzotint prints have been featured in exhibitions around the world and have received multiple international awards. Thongpayong was born in Chonburi, Thailand and currently resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand with his wife and son. For more information about Thongpayong and his work, visit the artist’s Facebook page Mezz Press Chiang Mai Printmaking Studio.
Adam Love lived and worked in Thailand for 4 years, during which time he also undertook various freelance translations of medical inventories, graduate studies, and description blurbs for Thongpayong’s work to be featured in international catalogs and art exhibition brochures. He is currently stateside for an extended furlough and is a Fellow in the 2020 Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop.