The Chinese Museum at the Chateau de Fontainebleau, about an hour's drive from Paris, is filled with artifacts gifted—or looted—during the reign of Napoleon III. Within walls lined with oriental panels, the trove of ceramics, gold, jade, and ivory gleams under a chandelier.
Back in December, Thai artist Arin Rungjang visited the Fontainebleau. Along with an assistant, he was there to 3D scan a 154-year-old replica of a crown, given by Siamese King Rama IV to Napoleon III in 1861. The scans were later used to create a replica of that replica, which would form the centerpiece of his newest work, Mongkut.
"Mongkut" means "crown" in Thai and was also the name King Rama IV went by in the West. Rungjang's Mongkut was to be an attempt to re-historicize the artifact and reflect on the role of the monarchy in contemporary Thai society.
Then, on March 1, the crown was stolen from the museum as part of a heist that disappeared more than a dozen other items.
While it was obvious Rungjang had no connection to the theft, a different kind of trouble was brewing back in Thailand. The ruling military junta has become more intent than ever on seizing sweeping powers and silencing dissenters. According to ILaw, a nonprofit that records human rights abuses in Thailand, since the coup last May at least 690 people have been summoned for cases relating to freedom of expression, and 142 are facing criminal prosecution. In late March, a Thai man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for posting Facebook messages allegedly critical of the royal family.
Following the theft, with news of the missing crown all over the news, Rungjang and his work were cast under the spotlight at home.
"To approach the crown—it's the highest symbolic form," the exhibit's curator Erin Gleeson said. "So it's already super sensitive... But now, all the Thai newspapers, on the cover of every newspaper, was the story of the crown."
The royal headdress, studded with pearls, rubies and emerald, came to Fontainebleau at the height of 19th-century European imperialism in Southeast Asia. Siam, now modern Thailand, was flanked on the east by the French in Cambodia and Laos, and on the west by the British in Burma.
"So, dealing with that, King Rama IV wanted to negotiate with their power," Rungjang said. For diplomacy's sake, the king ordered two replicas of his royal habits: The first was offered to Queen Victoria in 1857, and the second was presented to France.
"For me, this idea is really interesting, of sharing power into another copy and extracting it out of context," the 39-year-old artist said.
He said Fontainebleau allowed him one day to film at the chateau.
"Nobody was there except one person who worked at Fontainebleau who was sitting and watching us that we don't steal anything," Rungjang said, adding that the room was secured with CCTV and sensors.
When news of the heist broke, Rungjang and his team were finalizing the exhibit at Paris's Maison d'Art Bernard Anthonioz, as well as finishing an accompanying book.
"We were going to press with the book the day of the theft," Gleeson explained a week before the exhibit opening. "So I haven't been sleeping, and neither has he."
"What I expected before was changed now," Rungjang said. "First, we thought the project was just in art—contemporary art—scene. But now it's not just in the art scene, it's in the political scene."
Amidst the chaos, they reviewed all text and redacted passages they felt were sensitive due to the heightened media scrutiny and tense political situation in Thailand.
Since ousting former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup last May, the junta has cracked down on activists, intellectuals, and artists. And it's only getting worse.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha lifted the order of martial law that the country had been in for ten months—but followed that up by invoking Article 44 of the interim Thai constitution, meaning military personnel can suppress any acts deemed harmful to national security through methods such as arresting people without warrants, detaining them without charges, and censoring the media.
That's a tricky climate for Thai artists like Rungjang to operate under. Coeli Barry, a lecturer at Mahidol University's Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, said the current situation is "even worse" than martial law, precisely "as it will have a bearing on artistic and other forms of expression."
"It's a very controlled state at the moment," Rungjang said. "I try to avoid talking about politics."
Yet the artist is excited by the controversy surrounding the crown and its theft, as it highlights the role of art in constrained societies like Thailand.
"It's even more interesting when it disappeared, when it was stolen," Rungjang said. "The good thing is it really, really makes us realize that the art world is not just alone. Contemporary art is really connected to the society, to politics."
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