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When Contemporary Art Lands In A Highway Rest Stop

In Switzerland, a provocatively mundane location for top avant-garde art. But can you find something more important than a full tank of gas?

Some 30 works of art have been installed inside the rest stop
Some 30 works of art have been installed inside the rest stop
Jill Gasparina

MARTIGNY — There may be no location seemingly less appropriate for an art exhibition than a highway rest stop. Visitors are often in a hurry and far from the state of mind that an encounter with works of art requires. As for the spaces themselves, they're a long way from the large and enclosed white cubes we usually find in museums.

And yet, the decision to organize the fourth edition of the Valais contemporary art exhibition La Triennale at the rest stop Saint-Bernard, is far from absurd. First of all because the gas station has long been an object of interest for artists, since the 1960s. Second, because the American mythology around roads has a particular echo in the Swiss canton of Valais. And finally, because a rest stop is an excellent metaphor for a cultural world that's increasingly in pursuit of events such as biennials, triennials and the like, which wind up visited at the speed of light.

The Triennale commissioners were particularly clever to use the entire site. Some 30 works of art, from Swiss as well as international artists, have been installed inside the rest stop and its immediate surroundings. Well-known among the locals, the site offers an unusual, and curiously photogenic landscape with its two ponds, surrounding mountains, a cable car, power towers, a wind turbine, orchards, an industrial poultry farm, and even a military fort. "You have the whole Valais region inside one square kilometer," says Simon Lamunière, one of the three commissioners.

Spending more than 20 minutes is uncommon

The location brings together so many of the themes of a changing society, and especially that which regards our relationship to entertainment, nature, trade and tourism. What place can art have in these transformations? Should it be more "event-driven"? More commercial? Can it touch everybody?

By way of answer, a series of works offer an ironic vision of the "high-speed tourism" society. On the car park, Laurent Faulon's burnt and glossed Mitsubishi takes center stage amid functioning cars, while a series of tents installed by Jérôme Leuba offer a dystopian fiction.

Inside the station's shop, visitors will find a Jaguar that François Curlet turned into a hearse. It's the same car used in the 1971 movie Harold and Maude, in which a young suicidal man falls in love with an 80-year-old woman.

It's easy to appreciate the sweet paradox of using a space normally devoted to consumption for an exhibition, but we must also admit that the rest stop's daily activity often interferes with the access to the works on exhibit, and which aren't always highlighted, or even visible. The most convincing works are really the ones visitors can find outside.

Organized like a paper chase, the exhibition takes the visitors along the pond, where they can see Lang and Baumann's floating structure, then to the orchard until the natural reserve where the rivers Dranse and Rhône meet. There are also works the evoke the absence of body, like Delphine Reist's empty boots or Fabrice Gygi's Autoportrait, which seems to be resting away from prying eyes.

Spending more than 20 minutes in a rest stop is uncommon. But the experience the site offers is worth it. Even if the background noise from the highway is always present, it somehow also helps to progressively move us away from civilization.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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