The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art 

Serpentine Gallery, London, W2: Yoko Ono: To The Light, 19 June – 9 September

The first London exhibition of Yoko Ono’s work for a decade, To The Lights surveys the 50-year career of an artist who may, after her lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Venice Biennale, have finally succeeded in turning the spotlight away from her marriage to John Lennon and onto her art. Featuring key works, archive material and new installations, films and performances, the exhibition will draw out enduring themes in Ono’s work, not least her faith in the sixties’ ideals of ‘peace and love’, seen in new participatory project SMILE, which uses multimedia to collate the smiles of those who view her work.

Film    

BFI Southbank, London, SE1: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry + Q&A with Alison Klayman, 17 June

Alison Klayman’s timely and engrossing documentary follows dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei over three years, from the Tate Modern sunflower seeds installation of 2009 to his two-and-a-half month detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011.  Klayman gains unprecedented access to Weiwei at a time when his social networking activity and growing international reputation are met by intensified government censorship. Catch this sensitive and ultimately celebratory film at BFI Southbank together with a Q&A with Klayman.

Theatre 

New Diorama Theatre, London, NW1: Borges and I, Idle Motion Theatre Company, 19 – 23 June

Fringe success Idle Motion return with their award-winning show about Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and I interweaves scenes from Borges’s life and writings, which lend themselves to Idle Motion’s distinctive blend of prop-based visual and physical theatre, honed since the actors’ met at school. The multimedia show portrays Borges on the brink of blindness, and features fantastical imagery from labyrinths and tigers to a love story and universe of libraries.

Music

Barbican Hall, London, EC2Y: Sir Simon Rattle/Vienna Philharmonic, 17 June

Grab a ticket to see Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the Third Symphonies of Schumann and Brahms in a programme of musical borrowing. Brahms’s romantic, evocative work, written in 1883, borrows from Schumann’s symphony, known as the "Rhenish" after a happy visit to the Rhineland with his wife Clara. Rattle’s much-publicised tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic has seen a focus on the German Expressionist canon, notably at the Proms in 2010. Here he conducts the dramatic and challenging Six Pieces for Orchestra by Webern, who continued the German musical legacy by borrowing from Brahms, with an orchestra no less renowned for its skill and sound.

Festivals  

Various UK locations: London Festival 2012, 21 June – 9 September

Thursday sees the start of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the four-year Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Olympic Games. The festival will be Britain’s biggest, with some 12,000 events and performances of dance, music, theatre, film and much more across the country. Highlights include the World Shakespeare Festival and Big Dance 2012, the country’s largest ever celebration of dance. Events to mark the opening include The Voyage, an interactive spectacle from 21 – 24 June in Birmingham city centre; a pyrotechnic firework extravaganza above Lake Windermere on 21 June; and the Peace One Day Global Truce concert in Londonderry. Visit the website to download a brochure.

Thinker and dissident: Ai Weiwei is the subject of a new documentary (Photo: Peter Parks/Getty Images)
Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder