Thursday, 23 May 2013


A Man on a Bridge_Bangkok

a collaborative project by Gérard Mermoz & Kuhn Songkran 
H Project Space .  H GALLERY . Bangkok
3 October-2 November 2013.

Whereas the section EXHIBITION provides a visual catalogue of and  windows onto the exhibition, the section ENCOUNTERS ON THE BRIDGE provides a diary of our encounters with Kuhn Songkran (The Man on the Bridge), and of my attempts, with the precious help of Job, student in Communication at King Mongkut University, Bangkok, to communicate with him: replacing language with a playful dialogue with/through objects and gifts, and later through painting, in a spirit of conviviality

During the exhibition I used the gallery both as a studio and as a exhibition space: to add new artefacts, and to welcome and interact with visitors. 

My grateful thanks to:

Brian Curtin, curator of H project Space, who provided hospitality for the project at H GALLERY, Bangkok. 

Nigel Power, for supporting the project; for permission to use a studio at King Mongkut University and for the opportunity to discuss the project with students and staff.

Akararath Songwattanayothin (Job), for his precious assistance and interest in the project, and for helping bridge some of the gaps during our encounters with Kuhn Songkran. 

Arts Council, England, for supporting the project and making it possible.

Kuhn Songkran for inspiring this project.



from 'I  -  It'     
   to     'I   -   Thou'

'But this is the melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It'.

Martin Buber, I and Thou.


View from the bridge 




M. Buber, I and Thou.

The man who experiences has no part in the world.
For it is 'in him' and not between him and the world that the experience arises.

The world has no part in the experience. It permits itself to be experienced, but has no concern in the matter. 
For it does nothing to the experience, and the experience does nothing to it…



The Project focuses on the maker 

and the making 

of enigmatic and enticing objects, that fit under the category of ART BRUT or OUTSIDER ART, or as a grass-root ('organic') version of ARTE POVERA — but which, by their very nature, and given the context in which they are produced, offer a different kind of exemplariness… 

During my stay in Bangkok I hope to be able to meet the person who makes, then discards, these objects — as soon as completed — and, to some extent, bridge (however tenuously) the insuperable gap that separate us, and find a ground for sharing in our common humanity.

As the quotations by Buber indicate, the project resolutely situates Aesthetics under Ethics.

I shall, of course, attempt to make sense — to some extent — of what is happening on the bridge; but through empathy and solidarity rather than through anthropological or sociological enquiry.

Who knows? Our interaction may also humanize what started as a one-sided and 'contrived' (unsollicited) collaboration…

I am very aware that I shall need to tread carefully, in order to avoid any form of appropriation or patronizing. 

Stepping out of INDIFFERENCE — with respect to an individual with whom I/(we all) share a common 'humanity' (irrespective of our social status); and, in my case, an interest in making things — seems preferable to turning our heads away and abbandoning him to his 'fate'...; buying a good conscience by offering him, occasionally, alms of money or food…

The possibility of failure can not be ruled out at the planning stage [from the UK]. 

The result of our first actual 'encounters', in October (when I gave him some new clothes and took his portrait), suggests that some communication (however fragile, tenuous and asymmetric) is possible — across the enormous social and cultural divide — through FORM, if we can 'body it forth'

Comments in the gallery, comments from readers of the blog and personal exchanges with friends and colleagues support this conclusion. 

See section 2: Encounters on the Bridge.

* * *


A homeless individual (both hero and victim of MODERNITY and PROGRESS?), who lives, destitute, in the margins of society, at the heart of an affluent district of Bangkok; on a foot bridge: his adopted 'home'; suspended between a busy highway and an overhead railways (BTS):

The view looking down from the bridge 

where he spends much of his time sitting, watching intently the traffic on the dual carriage-way, below:

Bangkok July 2012

At no time, during my second visit to Bangkok, do I see him interact with others; except as the occasional recipient of alms or, more often than not, of passers-bye's indifference or, perhaps, pity or bemusement'…

(It is impossible to read what goes on in people's mind).

This photo (above), taken a few days before my departure, shows him after a make-shift haircut, sitting on the yoga mat I gave him; an improvement on sleeping onto the concrete of the bridge, as he was before:

Watching the traffic (but is it really the traffic he is so intently absorbed in watching?) from the foot bridge, or sitting assembling found objects that he gathers, seem to occupy his time on the bridge…

The changing expressions on his face suggests that watching the traffic may, in fact, triggers other thoughts, and takes him into other worlds, beyond our imaginings; beyond the literal perception of moving vehicles: cars, buses, scooters, van, taxis, etc. — allegorical version of Ballet Mécanique — We will never know.

Seeing him stare in space, I cannot help but acknowledge the remarkable ('heroic', from my privileged perspective?) resilience of that man/person in the face of adversity; a strength that I know I could never muster — if put in the same situation — and which, for this reason, seems 'exemplary'.

From this example, I feel, I/we may learn, if we step down from our confortable bourgeois pedestals:

My ('our' if you accept the invitation) encounter with him invites us to reflect upon, and challenge, some assumptions and expectations that we have acquired (settled with) through years of living PRIVILEGED LIVES, and through CULTURAL CONDITIONING.

In 'I and Thou', German philosopher Martin Buber warned us about about the process whereby, through our own forms of relating, 'every Thou in our world must become an It'

This inevitability is not an absolute; but the direct consequence of our passive acceptance of the fact.

Although 'The Man on the Bridge' does not beg, but awaits alms, I — with a few other passers-bye — regularly give him small amounts of money to buy food, which he gratefully accepts with a greeting. 


One day I stop to give him one of my shirt (a memory of St Martin, from a long lapsed Christian? a Farang 'making (secular) merit' ? [without expecting any gain for his future life/lives? One is enough for me, thank you very much!]; which he seems to appreciate; and wears a couple of days later.  
To perform this transaction, I kneel in front of him (to be on the same level), and ask him (with sign language) if I can take his portrait/picture, as a way of 'breaking the ice'…

On previous occasions, when crossing the bridge, I had noticed that he was making 'things' ['assemblages'] with found material — making them one at a time — keeping the 'work in progress' around his neck; like a necklace or an amulet [partly visible on the photograph above, behind the new shirt] or suspending it on the railing (canal side).

Respectful of his privacy and careful not to disrupt his peace and the continuity of his existence, I ponder over his present and past lives… 

and wonder if there is anything appropriate that I could do to alleviate his tragic condition without disrupting his hard-won (fragile?) equilibrium.

(enters the Good Samaritan?)

The tattoo of an anchor on his right arm, suggests that he may have, once, been a sailor…

Transitional Objects  .  Potential Space

(Winnicott, Playing and Reality)

First conversation/collaboration?

One day, I notice, tied to the railing, evidence of what may be a new construction in the making:

To instigate  an indirect dialogue, through objects, I gather a small, bunch of plastic colored straws and other material that I either found in the street or acquired with drinks, and attach it to the railing — as an anonymous 'gift':

A couple of days later, I notice that the material I left has been incorporated into a new 'composition', hanging from the railing, on the canal side, invisible from the bridge (perhaps to avert the street cleaners' attention/interference?):

To prevent it from being thrown away by the maker or by the street cleaners, I take/'rescue'/'intercept'/'collect' the piece; the first I shall ever be able to see in 'mint condition', without the patina of years of exposure to the elements, dust and else, accumulated on the concrete platform, below.


Earlier on,  looking down from the bridge, I had noticed one of his finished constructions laying below among an accumulation of rubbish, which paradoxically resemble the material he uses for making his constructions. 

There is a paradox, here, if he throws away his 'art material' (if, indeed, he does), as well as his 'works'. 

(unless this 'discarding' is the 'tidying up' work of street cleaners or his own form of archiving).

A colleague who crosses the bridge on a daily basis, and sees the man making his constructions, tells me that street cleaners regularly brush over the material that the Man on the Bridge collects and saves to make his 'works': 

Tying his 'work in progress'  to the railing (keeping it off the ground and out of sight, on the canal side) may be a good way of averting the street cleaners' undescriminating cleaning impulse…


Since the platform, below, is inaccessible (surrounded by the water of a canal, a metal fence and continuous traffic), I improvise a fishing line by re-shaping a paper clip into a hook, which I attach to a rubber band, and a bolt (for weight; to be able to cast the line); then, finally, to a length of string, to try and retrieve one of the  discarded constructions:

under the bemused gaze of two passers-by:

The device works and I succeed in catching and lifting the construction after only two castings of the line. 

Later on, that evening, I photograph it,  its two sides, on a sheet of white paper.
This process reveals the rich variety of colors and textures and its complex organic structure: urban foetus? secular fetish?

click this (and all) image(s) to enlarge

The photograph highlights a quality and lack of self-consciousness and preciousness, rare in art works made by professional artists. 

This construction does not seem concerned to produce a form for its own sake, or to communicate a message to others, but rather displays the meticulous — and enigmatic — process of its own making; letting us surmise about his intentions and motivations.

The material he uses is freely available and of no value to those men who coomb the streets daily,  in search of material that can be sold to recycling companies.

Several days  later I re-photograph the piece:

The construction is rather enticing, and the possibility that it was (deliberately) discarded (if, indeed, it was) as soon as completed, suggests that its raison d'être is not primarily visual or artistic — in an object-led way and a commodity sense — but belongs in a different dimension:  not 'Outsider Art', but outside of Art, Commerce, Competition…

The 'human dimension' of that experience, which could easily be appropriated and re-defined as 'Art Brut', 'Outsider Art', etc. is what interest me, here — as an artist and as a human being. What the project will attempt, in non-reductive ways, is not to 'understand' the 'works', but rather to better empathize with the maker.


Re-photographing the 'object' against a white ground makes the object and the process of its own making more legible.

Beside contributing colors and textures (materiality) to its visual appearance, the material (things, fragments) it is made of, cleverly provides the means of binding and holding its components together as well.

Further examination of the assemblage suggests that an inventory of what each construction is made of (treating it as anthropologically significant urban litter) could be used to devise alternative typologies of urban waste, that, in turn, may be used to develop micro maps of the city and of the activities that take place within it; and perhaps also its future, in the manner of the ancient Etruscan  haruspices… 

This symptomatic reading of the material these 'assemblages' are made of may, thus, open — at micro level — perspectives that may build bridges with Michel DeCerteau's investigation of the Practice of Everyday Life and Baudrillard's critical  reflections in System of Objects and other texts.


Another 'abandoned' construction, which lies under a thick coat of dirt and dust bound by less appealing substances, blends with the concrete greyness of the platform, below, and strangely reminds me of tribal (Dogon) fetishes I have seen, coated with a thick crust of blood and millet from years of ritual offerings, which gradually erase their human form: 

THe object used on the invitation card (before cleaning)


'To produce is to draw forth, to invent is to find, to shape is to discover'

'In bodying forth I disclose. 
I lead form across — into the world of It
The work produced is a thing 
among things, able to be experienced and described as a sum of  qualities. 
But from time to time it can 
face the receptive beholder in its whole embodied form'.


However problematic, asymmetric and short-circuited by social, economic and cultural differences it may be, the dialogue I plan to instigate when I return to Bangkok in September 2013, will need to be mediated by a sensitive Thai speaker/s; by gifts, and also by using body and sign language; as during one of my early encounters with him, when alms to buy food were given.

Most importantly, it will be facilitated by divesting myself of any sense of superiority associated with being an artist and coming from a privileged background.

(There is a secular relevance to the teaching of St Francis of Assisi…)


Kneeling, smiling and using signs to ask whether I could take his portrait, prior to taking it, seemed to break the ice and light his face up with a surprised smile; an 'opening' up to — or at least acknowledging — the (friendly) presence of a ('familiar'? but unknown and intriguing) stranger:

From then on, I give him alms for food every time I see him; but have no means to establish whether or not he recognizes me.

Careful not to disrupt his peace and the continuity of his own existence, I did not try to communicate with 'forced', loud and expansive signs, but simply wondered about (and enpathized with) his present and his past lives.


The tattoo of an anchor on his back suggests that he may have been a sailor, in a previous life…

What happened  in between?

When recently questioned, he told us that he had never been on a ship.


The project attempts to bridge the enormous, social, economic and cultural divide, between ourselves and this 'Other' (that we encounter everyday and block out of — or keep in the margins of our consciousness); reinforced by the barrier of language and the gap opened, on the one hand, by the vicissitudes of a life marred by tragedy (that may have affected his 'sanity'), and, on the other, by our privileged destiny as members of the affluent society. 

I anticipate that the project may end up as a series of tentative and doomed attempts at bridging these gaps, for good intentions alone do not change the world. Taking stock of the experiment, will no doubt provide material for reflecting about boundaries and how they may be bridged.

Can these fragile attempts avert transforming this 'other' — A Man on a Bridge, in Bangkok — into an 'IT' and retain his identity as a 'THOU'? 

This is the stake of the project.


Work in Progress will be presented between 3 October and 2 November at H Project Space, H Gallery, in Bangkok and will be documented simultaneously, on this blog, [],    

which will both document and extend the project by other means, indefinitely.

The project will start with an installation in the two upstairs rooms of the gallery. It will consist of, initially,  four 'assemblages' presented in the form of a memorial; inviting visitors to ask the questions: 'What is this? What are we looking at? What are we seeing?'

Go to section: EXHIBITION.

Do leave your comments below or in the exhibition section (preferably constructive).

Thank you…

Gérard Mermoz

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