Friday, November 18, 2016

The King Cinema - Shwebo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

"There has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins."
 - J.B. Jackson, Historian of Vernacular Architecture.

The definition of a "ruin" referred to in the above quote may not be applicable in the case of Shwebo's King Cinema. Ruinous aspects certainly do apply, but most of those are in appearance only. While no longer an operational movie theater, the building is still very much alive. 

 "King Cinema," written in English, molded onto the back side of the theater.

The front of the King Cinema, with its colonnaded veranda.

The King's worn down look combined with architectural aesthetics that have long been relegated to antiquity do suggest a ruin. Case in point, the entrance area. As with many older cinemas in Myanmar, entrance to the auditorium is accessed through a series of wooden doors situated along the length of the theater. In the case of the King, those doors are set back behind a colonnade, giving the structure an almost regal look, reflective of its name, perhaps. 

So while not exactly a ruin in the traditional sense, The King Cinema's neglected vintage makes it a vessel for what J.B. Jackson would call "religiously and artistically essential." Fascinating, to put it simply. 

The area behind the colonnade is now used as a staging ground for sacks of dried beans. 

For the past 15 years or so, The King Cinema has been serving as a warehouse for a nut and bean distributor. Sacks of legumes awaiting export occupy space that once held rows of benches and beholden cinema goers.

Some interesting architectural details include exposed truss beams and tree trunks for wall supports. 

Old wooden chairs of the King Cinema, piled up high to make space for storage.

A man working in for the nut and bean dealer shows off some the goods. 

Workers empty sacks of raw beans into a huge pile on a tarp. Once the pile is big enough the tarp will be tied off and put into a container for shipping.

Tree trunk wall supports and other stuff.

The King Cinema was built in 1951.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Art and community meet at the cinema

The ravages of time have been gentle to Songkhla City. The centuries old seaport has largely been spared the mass reconfiguration of its built environment that have done so much to strip the charm out of countless Thai urban areas. Road widening, demolition of historic buildings and the accompanying paving over of history have only slightly altered the fabric of Songkhla. 

That's the good part. 

The less than good part - but by no means bad - is that the town has suffered the gradual effects of disinvestment. As economic opportunities moved to Songkhla's much larger sister city Had Yai and further afield, so departed much of the town's youthful vitality. Buildings that once housed thriving businesses and workshops were shuttered, while others lingered on thanks to the help of capital accumulated during more prosperous times. The city slowed down, but it didn't die. Not enough to cause it to crumble.

The Saha Cinema - built in 1930.

Of all the pieces of vintage architecture that make up the streets of old town Songkhla, there's perhaps none more interesting than the long dormant Saha Cinema - at least from a social stand-point. To the average passerby, the structure would hardly register as a movie theater. Its lack of architectural elements common to the structural type, combined with the fact that it is mostly made of wood (a material hardly common for the building type) places it under the radar of all but the most discerning observers. But to long-time residents, the Saha Cinema is a well known, if not legendary piece of the town's recent past.

That sentiment didn't elude world renown artist Navin Rawanchaikul. In recent years, the Chiang Mai native has turned his focus to using art as a way to create community dialogue, particularly those with a long past and deep heritage. Songkhla fits nicely with that criteria.   

After visiting Songkhla earlier this year at the invitation of a friend, Navin took note of the beautiful if understated townscape snugly situated along a narrow peninsula between The Gulf of Thailand and Songkhla Lake. The town's historic value was instantaneously clear to him.  

Having grown up in Chiang Mai, beside what was once that city's largest movie theater, Navin's artistic style was deeply influenced by cinema art. As a matter of necessity,  he took in the work of the theater's in-house billboard painter en route to school on a near daily basis. The larger than life movie cut-outs created to advertise films were forever etched in his mind, and would find utility in the decades to follow. 

The Saha Cinema covered in Navin's mural installation, dedicated to Songkhla and its denizens. 

Making use of those artistic machinations by employing some of Chiang Mai's former movie billboard painters, Navin sketched out a plan to reinvigorate Songkhla with art. Actually, it's a little more complex than that, but in a nutshell that's exactly what happened.

The logic behind this project was to weave the town's social history together into a billboard sized visual narrative that could be hoisted up onto the town's erstwhile central gathering point - The Saha Cinema. New color to an old building, reflecting the town's various personalities in a painting style once reserved for the movies.

In true anthropological form, Navin and his team collected oral histories and photographs from Songkhla's residents, using the two to cobble together a multi-paneled billboard depicting local people and locations. For the old cinema, the result was night and day. Instead of the usual indistinct look brought on by years of neglect, The Saha Cinema had regained some of its old flair. 

As for the town itself, the feeling of renewed pride and regeneration is afoot. With the aid of Navin's project, perhaps all the more so. 

Navin Rawanchaikul (wearing sunglasses, standing to the right of the framed picture) and members of the Songkhla community, post in front of Navin's Songkhla townscape collage on the last day of his exhibition.