The Southeast Asian Art File

SEP 21 1996

Harmony the buzzword at Philip Morris art awards

BY SUSAN TSANG

MOST art contests are organised to support the arts. Yet many of these are rather isolated affairs for artists, who send in their pieces and only see their fellow competitors at the prize presentation.

The Philip Morris Asian Art Awards, however, stress cohesiveness.

The arts received very good support, with prize money at US$227,000 (S$320,000), the largest amount awarded in an Asian art competition.

More important, perhaps, is that artists from all over Asean were brought together for the finals in Bangkok, held last month. The 35 finalists had been chosen from national-level contests held earlier in the seven individual Asean countries, with Vietnam taking part for the first time.

Finalists, supporters and judges were all housed in the same hotel. For the first meal, seating arrangements were picked out of a box, and everyone had a name tag which they had to wear over the four days of the event.

However, the mood was kept light, and the itinerary was filled with activities that were not too strenuously artistic -- the serious business had been done earlier, in getting to the finals.

In Bangkok, the idea was simply for those taking part to mingle and make useful contacts with other artists in relaxed circumstances.

So the time was filled with tours of the Grand Palace, and river boat trips which allowed participants travelling together to pick up information about the art scene in each other's countries.

When the prizes were given, three Thai art students took out the three top awards.

Sakchai Uttitho, 28, won the main prize with his piece Life Upcountry No. 6. His naturalistic rendition of baskets in a storehouse spoke of poverty and overcrowding to the Philippines' art critic and competition judge Emmanuel Torres, though the light in the painting also spoke of hope.

Sakchai said his piece represented the agricultural life of his parents. He planned to use his US$10,000 prize money to further his art studies.

The programme at the finals also included an excursion to the home and private museum of abstract-surrealist Prateung Emjaroen.

Prateung, 69, began his career drawing cinema billboards, but is now one of Thailand's top painters.

In a sprawling leafy compound in Thonburi, criss-crossed by canals, Thai dancers and a band welcomed the finalists.

Prateung's agenda was equally festive -- a tour of his studio and museum, an elaborate lunch, and finally a light-hearted mass-painting exercise in which the finalists decorated a small canvas each. The individual pieces were then mounted together on a wall.

Singapore artist Thomas Yeo, who was one of the judges at the national level of the competition, said that paintings produced at such short notice should not be studied too seriously as art, but they did achieve the aim of contributing to the togetherness of the occasion.

And what an effective trip this turned out to be.

The Philippine artist Henri Cainglet, having rubbed shoulders with his Asean counterparts, and admired the work of a Thai master, was one who found the event inspiring.

"It gave me some new ideas, and I'm definitely going to work harder to make it to next year's final," he said.