MIT JAI INN in his studio in Chiang Mai, with an artwork that Sawangwongse Yawnghwe painted in Mit’s space. 

Mit Jai Inn

Also available in:  Chinese

Perhaps the best-known artist in Thailand is one the rest of the world has barely heard of. The day before visiting the studio of Mit Jai Inn, I visited MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, one of the most stimulating private institutions not only in Chiang Mai but in all of Southeast Asia. As I explored the permanent and temporary exhibitions, I kept coming across Mit’s name— whether it was an earlier piece that the museum’s owners, Eric Bunnag Booth and his parents, had acquired back in the 1990s, or acknowledgments to him in the wall text of other artists’ work. This only piqued my desire to meet the artist, who, despite being low-profile, has made an important impact on the Thai art scene. 

Driving to Mit’s studio is not straightforward. My taxi driver zigzagged through a variety of villages in the outskirts of Chiang Mai—Northern Thailand’s largest city, known for its cultural heritage, misty mountainous landscape and laidback charm. Along the way, we passed all kinds of sites, from vast rice paddies to an airplane junkyard, and I feared we would never find the studio. Finally, after the driver’s third phone call with Mit, I spotted the artist on his dust-covered, black motorcycle waiting at the juncture of a nondescript back road. He led us down a dirt path perfectly shaded by palm trees, and a couple short turns later I found myself in front of a vast indoor-outdoor painting studio. 

Emerging from the car, I was intoxicated by the peculiar mix of sticky tropical air and linseed oil. Then came the pure visual overload of six-inch-tall mounds of colorful pigment arrayed on a vast work table—imagine encrusted miniature volcanoes of every color imaginable, from acid-green to walnut-brown and mango-orange. These rainbow mounds never completely dry out (Southeast Asia is always humid) and come to resemble Play-Doh, the kind of glop you want to stick your fingers into. It is these piles of paint that form the magical quality of his tactile, open-ended works. 

It’s not surprising that Mit’s canvases—both massive and miniature, and as paintings and objects—have the same magnetic quality that lure people in. For instance, he often presents his artworks, which tend to be painted on both sides, as rolled-up scrolls, placing them upright on the floor and partially unwound so that you can still see the color and texture from all angles. He frequently encourages viewers to pick up and touch his work. 

Now 58, Mit first studied painting at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, the country’s leading art school, before attending the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. In Austria, he worked as an assistant to the late Franz West— one of the leading European artists of the late 20th century, known for his playful, free-spirited sculptures often referred to as “adaptives.” In many ways, Mit’s years in Vienna were his most formative. When he returned home in 1992, he co-founded the Chiang Mai Social Installation Project—together with other fellow artists including Uthit Atimana, Montien Boonma and Araya Rasjarmrearnsook—a radical but short-lived annual public art festival that lasted six editions. They exhibited their art, both physical and ethereal in the form of performances, temporary installations and abstract videos, in a vast array of public settings—from Buddhist temples to cemeteries and the steps leading up to the old town night bazaar or a local dental clinic. Mit mostly stayed behind the scenes. He helped with the organization and anonymously presented his bold, colorful paintings to audiences of Buddhist monks and the general public. Beyond the festival, Mit gained a reputation for embracing collaboration and nurturing the next generation of Thai artists that was coming of age in the late 1990s. In fact, when I told Mit that I was traveling to Chiang Mai specifically to see him, his immediate response was to tell me that he and his girlfriend would take me around to visit other artists’ studios—and all throughout my day with him, he insisted that I look at other artists’ work rather than his own.

Beyond Mit’s charming modesty is both a passion and an irreverence toward his personal art practice. As a child, he attended a Buddhist monk school. As a young man, before venturing into art, Mit was a professional boxer and still resembles one, with his lean yet muscular physique and charismatic personality. In many ways, his monastic routine has a similar physicality and structure to an athlete’s. He works every day in his studio, which is attached to his home—he then takes an afternoon nap for two hours and wakes up at 7:30 pm, before working nonstop until 6 am. He naps again for about three hours and at 9 am he oversees his assistants, who cook up Mit’s own secret recipe of homemade white paint that he calls “magic powder,” which is baked in the sun and the wind. They also grind his piles of pigment and prime his canvases. As we walk among three massive worktables that serve as his palettes—imagine paint served up as a wedding buffet—he encourages me to touch the heaps of color. Little tubes of what he calls “artists’ paint”—actually conventional, factory-prepared oil paint—are littered sparingly among the mass of his own bespoke materials. He also shares this special concoction with other young painters in Chiang Mai, and explains that it can be applied to both oil and acrylic. “I treat the oil paint with my magic powder because readymade paints bought at art supply stores kill the light and it is too rigid a material.” He creates his colors by squeezing a miniscule amount of manufactured paint into the thick globs of his own mixture. Smiling, he explains, “It’s like the way they used to do it in Europe in churches.” And probably Buddhist temples too. 

Next to these larger-than-life palettes is a larger-than-life stage, an elevated platform that could easily be transformed into an outdoor public theater. This platform acts as his “easel,” as well as a space for other artists to work, whom he welcomes with no strings attached. When I was there, artist Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, who lives primarily in Amsterdam, had new paintings underway for his presentation at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in December. 

Mit invited me to take a look at his own works in progress, and told me that I didn’t have to take off my shoes and that it was fine to walk on his paintings—it’s part of his artistic process. Strewn over the massive platform were faintly dotted, room-sized, unstretched canvases measuring ten by seven-and-a-half meters resembling oversized carpets gone wild. Tacked onto the walls were works that look like targets for paint-ball parties with colorful paint joyfully exploded all over the canvas, while others are so thickly impastoed—in wildly hued combinations of horizontal and vertical stripes, like technicolored candy canes—that they could function as stucco walls. Some of Mit’s canvases are draped overhead on the supporting beams for the studio roof and its pillars in what appears to be a huge drying rack.

This dizzying, totally immersive potpourri of colors, patterns, textures and scents could very well be a single installation piece. In fact, during the 2018 Biennale of Sydney, artistic director Mami Kataoka invited Mit to re-create his riotous studio in a former shipyard on Cockatoo Island. That newly commissioned work, titled Planes (Hover, Erupt, Erode) (2018) featured a similar worktable (albeit significantly smaller than the one in his studio) filled with paint and a makeshift shallow pool of linseed oil, synthetic oil, water and alcohol. Over time, the spirits evaporate to slowly reveal a galaxy of pigment, like a large petri dish cultivating living color. Alongside this were 11 of his kaleidoscopic cloth banners of anarchic color hanging from rafters about one meter from the ceiling.

Before his participation at Kataoka’s Biennale of Sydney, Mit had remained largely under the radar of the larger commercial art world. The artist explained to me that for him, it was more important to be part of an artistic community, rather than working in solitude. “I only just openly accepted that I was ‘Mit Jai Inn’ after the military coup in 2014 and the massacre of hundreds of rural people in the middle of Bangkok in 2010. As an activist, I realized I needed to be somebody in Thai media and art circles in order to stand up and declare myself a red-shirt artist.”

Since Sydney, he has been approached by a number of galleries in Asia with invitations to present his work. The work I casually trod across will be part of his Taipei debut at TKG+ gallery in October, coinciding with the Taipei Biennial. Other pieces will head to a group show at Roh Projects in Jakarta in September and another solo show at nonprofit Gesso Art Space in Vienna in November. 

While many artists might have been fretting over making new creations for two looming solo exhibitions, Mit urged us to head into Chiang Mai center to meet some fellow artists. For Mit, the collective aspect of the festival he co-founded many years ago is a way of life—one that has sustained him since the 1990s. It’s his own process, one of no limitations that is more important than the process of completing a “finished” work of art. Or maybe it’s just a way of letting the oil paint slowly dry.

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