The Perils of Utopia: Sakarin Krue-on’s Terraced Rice Fields Project

By David Teh


In 2007, the Thai artist Sakarin Krue-on attempted to construct terraced rice paddies in front of Schloss Willemshohe in Kassel, Germany, for the exhibition Documenta XII. One of the major events on the international contemporary art calendar, Documenta happens every five years and is known for showcasing critical and conceptual art from around the world. Set up by artist and curator Arnold Bode in 1955, it emerged from Germany’s post-war soul-searching, its founding premise “to reconcile German public life with international modernity and confront it with its own failed Enlightenment.”** Its geographical scope has since broadened, as contemporary art reached out from its Euro-American centres in the 1990s. The last Documenta (XI), under Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, was a major watershed in this process.

Sakarin was the first Thai artist to exhibit at Documenta. His Terraced Rice Fields project invoked notions of communal labour and traditional farming techniques. Working with a team of Thai and European volunteers, the artist effected a major physical transformation of a hillside in Kassel’s Bergpark, once the botanic garden of Landgrave Wilhelm IX. But the project’s failures yielded more interesting results. The irrigation system failed, leading to a set of formal changes and compromises, but also to a kind of accidental archaeology of the site, revealing aspects of its wartime history. Over the German summer, the terraces produced only a handful of rice. However, these grains were brought back to Thailand and re-sewn on a plot in Ratchaburi Province, west of Bangkok. For the project’s homecoming, a second crop was then sewn in a temporary paddy at Ardel Gallery of Modern Art in the suburbs of the capital, as part of an agro-educational workshop for children.

In responding to the project, I would prefer to register some of my reservations about it, rather than add to the chorus of voices, both curatorial and critical, that judged it (fairly, I think) to be a valuable experiment. The following critique addresses the context of the work – the way this and other such projects are framed and received, in Thailand and abroad – more than the work itself.

This article was originally written in English for Aan journal. It was translated into Thai and published in Aan issue 2 no.2 (October-December 2009)