As part of his exhibition Villa in the Slums (through Nov 30), American artist Phil America moved a slum house into the Bangkok University Gallery (BUG) and had local artist Orawan Arunrak fill it with it with small acrylic paintings in order to portray the general lack of awareness of life in the slums. Here, Phil talks to BK about the story behind the installation and his time spent in Klong Toey Slum.

What inspired you to work on this project?
To me it’s fascinating that you have such a divide between people in this society. For example, people look at me and automatically say “you’re Farang.” This would never happen in the West. You cannot say “you’re yellow” or “you’re dam [black]” to others. On the social level, too, the term “hi-so” doesn’t exist anywhere else. The Klong Toey slum is one big and integral part of the city, which was built in the face of denial, without permission. My desire to fully understand the way they live and the reality of the things people in Klong Toey face daily just kept drawing me into it. It can be dangerous, but, to really achieve that, you must be able to face those dangers and look people in the eyes.
It’s not often we see a slum house installed in a gallery; what’s the meaning you’re trying to deliver?
My work is not really about this house; it just represents the final product of what I did. It’s more about the performative aspect which was me living in the neighborhood. The real meaning is the stories behind this house which is something you need to explore to understand, the same way society must learn more about the Klong Toey neighborhood.
Tell us about your work process.
We first spent a lot of time there to find out how things work and to get around things like the mafia and police. It didn’t go too smoothly. At first, they were like, “Why are you here? Are you here to look at us like animals in the zoo?” We had to explain to them that we were there to understand what they are about. Then we managed to get permission from the mafia for a space in the dangerous zone where people do ya baa in the day. We asked the carpenters around the railroad to build us a house the same way it’s built around there. After it was finished we moved it from the railroad to the slum. After the two weeks I spent living there, we moved the house to the gallery.
What is your perception of Klong Toey now?
I think it’s extremely sad that people usually associate happiness with money. By that criterion, we often see these people as underprivileged, but in fact, they have many privileges that many people with money don’t have. They share a really strong sense of community and social relationships. Culturally, they are not underdeveloped at all. There’s more togetherness and cultural richness in Klong Toey slum than in places like Siam Square. Everyone was indeed a part of the community. Many people, like in Phuket, look at tourists as a dollar sign while in Klong Toey, there are things you can’t put a price on.
What kind of impact do you hope this project can achieve?
The fact that we have a third of the urbanized world population living in slum housing is extremely crazy. It shows that the world doesn’t care enough about the issue. This is a problem. I put myself in their shoes to see what they feel and portray what these people have to deal with, both the negatives and positives. Hopefully, it will bring a little awareness to that. That’s the change we hope the work can incite. Hopefully, it can bridge the gap in the society, taking away the world’s disassociation with the slum. 


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