Chetana Nagavajara


            It may be desirable from the outset to anchor the present paper, “The Ascent to Prehistory: A Thai Case Study”, within the larger framework of the international research project, “Interweaving of Performance Cultures”, under the aegis of the Free University Berlin. The case study from Thailand does not deal with performance culture in the usual sense, but addresses the question as to how the arts of various kinds conspire to “perform” a collective tribute to prehistory. To be more specific, the paper attempts to give a critical appraisal of a collaboration between archaeologists, scientists, anthropologists, art historians, visual and performing artists and multiracial/multicultural local inhabitants around 2 archeological sites(1). The two prehistoric sites located in the district of Pang Mapha in the uppermost Northern province of Mae Hongson, Thailand, evolved from an archaeological excavation project, which little by little acquired a multidisciplinary character, though remaining “scientific” at the initial stage. But how long and how far could a scientific project remain “value-free” face to face with the commanding presence of these majestic prehistoric sites? Besides, human involvement had to come into play, as the researchers soon realized that their quest for scientific answer concerning a very, very distant past engendered as well a need for the preservation of a cultural heritage, the process of which could not possibly go on without the involvement of the local inhabitants, a conglomeration of minority groups who had only not long ago migrated into the area. How to instill in them the consciousness of values linked with cultural legacy became a challenge for this group of archaeological pioneers who could no longer function as pure archaeologists, but had, of necessity, to assume the role of cultural managers and, at times, of community developers. They soon realized that the past could enliven the present.

The next question was how to awaken the local communities to the value of these archaeological vestiges. The archaeological finds themselves possess an undeniable potential to awaken aesthetic and emotional response. The first site at the villageof Tham Lodreveals strata of human civilizations that go back as far as 32,000 years : the deeper the archaeologists excavated, the more distant the past became. ﴾Figure 1﴿

Figure 1 : Excavation at Tham Lod


It was not the visual aspect of the excavation that created an emotional impact, but the process of internalizing the imagined human societies of the past aroused an almost awe-inspiring awareness of an unending human lineage. Such a sentiment certainly has immense aesthetic and creative potential. The second site at the villageof Ban Raihas its visual identity that can overwhelm any beholder, namely log coffins, aged 2500 years old, placed underneath a rock shelter, numbering 23, which constitute a burial site so imposing that at my first encounter, I almost unconsciously exclaimed, “Valhallaim Urwald!” ﴾Valhalla in the Virgin Forest﴿ (2), an echo of the Wagnerian “Ring des Nibelungen”. ﴾Figure 2﴿

Figure 2 : Log coffins at Ban Rai


A German theatre director, who visited the site in early 2010, told me that he immediately thought of the birth of the human race – an age before “human society” as such was born. How could those prehistoric people achieve all this, pitching this majestic burial on top of a mountain, 200 meters above the valley down below? The very act of felling those gigantic trees, transporting them to the burial site, cutting them in halves and sculpting them into a kind of sacophage, required superhuman efforts and skills that could put our mechanical age to shame. To see it, one has to undertake a small expedition lasting one to one and a half hours, depending on the respective age and physical strength of the visitor, along an improvised path hewn into the mountain by the villagers. This is an ascent to prehistory in a physical as well as metaphorical sense.



If laymen like us could not help being shaken emotionally, how would creative artists react to these remains of a distant past? This was what the Director of the archaeological project, Dr. Rasmi Shoocongdej, ofSilpakornUniversity, wanted to know. The idea of creating a framework that would encourage interaction between archaeology and fine arts was nothing new, for the parent university, namelySilpakornUniversity, grew out of an academy of fine arts with archaeology being a subsequent outgrowth. As with most institutional arrangements within Thai academia, the interaction between the two disciplines barely took place, in spite of the physical proximity of the two Faculties, namely the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, and the Faculty of Archaeology, both situated at the original campus opposite theRoyalPalaceinBangkok. The project-based setup of the Pang Mapha experiment was more conducive to cross-disciplinary collaboration. Besides, inputs from artists and scholars from younger institutions, like the Faculty of Fine Arts of Chiangmai University in North Thailand and the newly created Faculty of Music,SilpakornUniversity, were readily forthcoming. All in all, credit must be given to the archaeological pioneers who took the initiative to bring in the arts to buttress the “ascent to prehistory”.

The artists who volunteered to embark on this collaborative endeavour were given a chance to visit the sights, some willing to spend some time imbibing the physical environment and getting to know the local communities. The prime condition for their collaborative work was that all of them had to “take off” from coming into physical contact with the real presence of the prehistoric past, plus a certain familiarity with the local communities. Consultations with the archaeologist colleagues and the curator of the Festival were a matter of course. Only one artist did not deem it necessary to abide by this prime condition, and the work produced was rather remote from the main theme of the project. From then on, each artist had the freedom to pursue his or her own vision. It was agreed that the finished works would be exhibited first at a festival in Pang Mapha and, with certain unavoidable adaptations in the case of some works, for the second time at the National Gallery inBangkok. Individual artists spent varying periods of time at Pang Mapha, depending on the nature of their works, installations, for example, demanding more time on site. Another feature of the project agreed upon by the artists was the involvement of the local communities, including villagers as well as school children. When I visited thevillageofBan Raione year after the Festival and had a chance to interview the village headman and a group of school children, I immediately sensed that the artists and their works had left a deep impression on them, which in some respects has since influenced their daily life. The educational implications of this involvement will be discussed later.

Although most of the artists were Thai, two foreign artists willingly participated in the project, one French and one American. In point of fact, it was not the inputs from the two Western artists that accounted for the “interweaving of cultures”. This is not the place for me to give an elaborate account of the institutional history of modern art in Thailand. Suffice it to say that since the first half of the 20th century, Thailand has been responsive to impetuses coming from outside, especially from the West, and in terms of the education of artists, the role of Professor Silp Bhirasri, a Florentine who decided to settle in Thailand, became a naturalized Thai and founded the first modern “University of Fine Arts”, later to be known under the Thai name as Silpakorn University, could never be underestimated, especially in making modern Thai art communicable to the international public. The works of his pupils gradually became known internationally, not the least through international awards that they have won. The interweaving process has been so seamless as to make it impossible to talk about “imitation” or even “hybrid” in relation to artworks created by Thai artists. The works that grew out of the Pang Mapha project were of this nature, which I shall subsequently illustrate and analyze. One could describe the Thai experience by referring to the French motto, “je sème à tout vent” ﴾I sow whichever way the wind blows﴿, used by French lexicographers who produced the authoritative Larousse Dictionary, meaning that the knowledge derived from all possible sources would also generate further knowledge in all possible ways. It is no exaggeration to say that the works of those artists who made the “pilgrimage” to Pang Mapha and drew inspiration from prehistory could no longer be described as “indigenous” or “autochthonous”: the arts of today do have their place of origin, but their grammar and message are becoming more and more “global”.

What I have described above addresses the process of interweaving of cultures in a horizontal mode. What is perhaps more challenging is the interweaving of cultures in a vertical mode. By that I mean the interweaving of prehistory, represented by the archaeological remains, ﴾the technical term “remains” being very much an understatement when we think of the “Valhalla in the Virgin Forest”﴿ with the newly created works of art, perhaps also a seamless interweaving, a spiritual union propped up by the imaginative power of the creative artists, who unlike their scholarly/scientific counterparts, namely the archaeologists, did not have to strive to reconstruct, as faithfully as the evidences would permit, what may really have been ﴾“wie es eigentlich gewesen”﴿, but could allow themselves the freedom to construct an imaginary dialogue(3) with those unknown artisans across an immeasurable cultural and temporal divide. Let us not forget one important factor: the artists cannot acquiesce in self-contentment; the proof of their art is whether they can convince their contemporary public of the worth of their enterprise. We shall come to examine concrete examples of this imagined, cross-cultural and cross-temporal dialogue in the middle section of the present paper.

What remains to be clarified is the concept of “performance”. Obviously, there is no difficultly in subsuming musical works under this artistic category, all the more so because the musicians involved the local people and the school children in their activities. Even most of the works in the visual arts, as we shall see, are of a participatory nature, for example, the road painting called “The Path” by Natawa, or the installation called “The Circle” by Chol Janepraphaphan, became the stage for  improvised performances by the school children. On the whole, the art works, at least those shown on site between 15 February and 2 March 2008, were not normal exhibits that we see in a museum or a gallery, ﴾although their relocation to the National Gallery in Bangkok for the exhibition between 13 and 30 June 2008 necessitated, in many cases, a relapse into the conventional mode of exhibiting.﴿ Performance, as a communal experience, tends to obliterate the dividing line between artists and audience/spectators, and the underlying principle of the Pang Mapha experience was that of participation from all sides. In this sense, the usual generic distinction between performing and non-performing arts was not the order of the day. The artists and the local communities did “perform” in some ways, fully conscious of the fact that their performance was part of a celebratory ascent to prehistory.

I shall now proceed to analyze the important artistic works.



It might be appropriate to begin with music, as a kind of overture. But music in this case was of primeval nature. It was an act of forging a link with prehistory and also of accepting the latter in its own terms. Two musicians went to study “pure sounds” ﴾best expressed by the German prefix “Ursounds”﴿ in the forests and urged their students to come up with compositions that would reflect the pristine purity of the prehistoric world. The students who had visited the archaeological sites attempted to outdo their teachers’ instructions in the reconstruction of primitivism. The archaeologists had collected through their excavations, especially at the village of Tham Lod, a mass of stone tools and had come to the conclusion that it was at this very place that stone tools were manufactured, probably not only for local use but also for distribution to other communities. The technique was simply to use harder stones to flake soften ones into tools. One could imagine the sound of one stone flaking another. But such a sound would represent only the act of manufacturing; it was not yet music, although the sound was man-made. To turn stone flaking into music required that a rhythmic pattern be introduced. One student started improvising a variety of rhythmic patterns: this was music in its primeval form, whereby rhythm had primacy over melody. But rhythmic expression alone would not suffise, so why not take the cue from rock paintings which depict human beings in various postures? The act of sound production was then enriched by choreographic movements in imitation of those rock paintings. Here we have a mutual illumination between music and dance, inspired by the archaeological finds. Thus arose the work entitled “Seeking for Rocks”. When the “show” reached Bangkok, the student had already acquired a level of virtuosity that very much impressed the spectators at the National Gallery. This “rock” music ﴾in its etymological sense﴿ accompanied by a “primitive” dance, could outshine any rock concert of our contemporary age with its loud howling propped by electronic amplification – How artificial, compared to the Pang Mapha version of “absolute music” that would stun the likes of Eduard Hanslick!(4) ﴾I am, of course, aware of the lexicographical difference between the word “rock” as a noun and as a verb!﴿

It might be appropriate at this juncture to make a little excursion into the history of Thai and South East Asian music. It is well-known that the rhythmic vitality – and complexity – of the music of our region is of a very sophisticated order. Even experts in “ethnomusicology” from the West have to admit that it is often impossible to put such rhythmic sophistication into the existing Western notation system. In comparison with Western music, our percussive instruments have a much bigger role to play. They are there not only to mark rhythms; they can carry all kinds of melody. The Thai xylophone ﴾ranad﴿, the Indonesian gamelan, the Burmese circular drums, can serve both melody and rhythm with great mastery and virtuosity. The student who performed this primeval “rock” music was perhaps unconsciously substantiating a theoretical and historical point that from a percussive foundation in prehistory, a highly sophisticated musical culture could over time evolve. Such a creative response may have been accidental in its hermeneutic implications, but the tribute to the past could not have been more impressive, aesthetically and culturally.

I have deliberately given prominence to this particular case of “musical offering” because of its immense symbolic potential. The rock paintings, for example, represent human figures that today could only be seen merely as profiles that look like shadows. So a performance called “Music of the Shadow” was choreographed by Rachawit Musikarun such that the shadow of the performer would appear on the floor, accompanied by a musical ensemble, consisting of a viola, a guitar and a harp. ﴾Figure 3﴿

Figure 3 : “Music of the Shadow”


There were other cases that were meant to involve the local inhabitants and at the same time forge a link with the past. The concept of Phee Man, the omnipresent guardian spirit that is supposed to have wielded influence on the life and living of the people since prehistoric times, was taken up by the musicians and turned into music and dance improvised by the visitors as well as the villagers. Somehow or other, the sacredness of this guardian spirit did not lie in its being positioned far remote from the common run of human life, but rather in its ubiquity that became part of the daily life of the people. In my interview with the school children, they said to me that they were not afraid of Phee Man; on the contrary the spirit was a kind of an intimate family friend. It was in this vein that the visiting musicians and chorographers persuaded the local inhabitants to improvise together a Phee Man Dance. But the link with the past was always present : the log coffins were – we must not forget – associated withPheeMan.The past had not to be revitalized in this case, it was present, or even omnipresent, among the local people.

Another feature of music-making deserves further analysis here. The visiting musicians engaged the local inhabitants in music-making by involving them in a dialogue, whereby a local tune was taken up by one visiting musician and improvised further on a Western instrument, say, a harmonica or a guitar. In turn, a senior local musician elaborated further the initial tune by making it more complex. After such an exchange had gone on for some time, a certain degree of intimacy and even mutual trust grew, and the local musician began to unfold his art in a more and more sophisticated manner, as if to convey the message to the visitor that good things could only be shared among friends. Thus, an aesthetic framework proved to be conducive to the bringing of cultural divides.  In this way, a horizontal relationship was established between the hosts and the visitors who supposedly fell under the spell of the guardian spirit,PheeMan.



The village of Tham Lod has been known to outsiders including tourists for some time on account of the natural beauty of the cave with a river running through it, as well as some prehistoric remains of human habitats.  But the recent excavation at a site adjacent to the cave may not have attracted the attention of laymen as much as the log coffins at Ban Rai. Yet in terms of archaeological research, the excavated site has yielded an immense treasure house of archaeological finds that will take years and years to systematize and analyze. To the archaeologists it was a thrilling experience to discover that digging through layers upon layers of earth was like undertaking a journey through the various ages of mankind, at present reaching as far back as 32,000 years. The physical “descent” into prehistory is, metaphorically speaking, like climbing the tree of knowledge ﴾of course, not in the biblical sense﴿ or an acquisition of greater insight into the distant past of mankind. How would an artist partake of the fruits of this gay science? ﴾I am here echoing Nietzsche’s “fröhliche Wissenschaft”.﴿ Chalermchon Jitjindar, a visual artist from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiangmai University, had no difficulty in travelling back to prehistory with his archaeological colleagues. He created an installation called “Sequence”, consisting of a pathway flanked on both sides by transparent PVC sheets, leading towards the excavated site at Tham Lod. ﴾Figure 4﴿

Figure 4 : “Sequence”


Chalermchon at first interpreted the multi-layered history literally by representing the various layers on both sides of the path. Furthermore, he wanted to turn the act of representation into that of reconstruction, and an archaeological reconstruction at that. Whereas the technique of anastylosis used in reconstructing historic monuments is to put back, as far as possible, fallen stones into their ﴾supposedly﴿ original places, one cannot do that with prehistoric remains. The artist in this case had to proceed in a more symbolic manner. Instead of using artificial paints, he went back to the materials of various colours that the archaeologists had dug up,  consisting of iron ore, pounded stone and plain earth,  and used them to paint the various strata of the ages of man, successively, that is to say, in a sequence. Walking on this path that led directly to the excavated site, the spectator would thus be making a journey through the various ages to one of the most ancient prehistoric sites inThailand and might even have a feeling that he was being received ceremonially, as the aesthetically wrought work of art could give him that impression. This is certainly a rather ingenious “time machine” à la H.G. Wells, turned upside down.



To scale the heights of the mountain at Ban Rai to the Phee Man log coffins may be a physical effort that adds aura to the “ascent to prehistory”. Would it be possible to bring down prehistory within our reach? Natawat Nisyan, who prefers to use his artists name “Natawa”, a graduate of SilpakornUniversity, tried to give a very straightforward affirmative answer. Art could provide a propedeutic to the actual ascent by offering a “down-to-earth” pathway to the prehistoric site. There already exists a scantily paved road leading into Ban Rai, which local villagers use as their route for transporting agricultural produce to the main market in town. The artist had no intention of adorning the country road as an act of beautification; he merely wanted to make the ascent to prehistory more relevant to the theme of the project. In Thai culture, an approach to a sacred place, say, a temple on a hill or mountain top, is usually flanked by beautifully wrought balustrades or sometimes by sculpted mythological snakes, the nagas. Our contemporary artist was never short of innovative ideas. The path to the sacred place itself should be decorated; so the road leading up to the village at the foot of the prehistoric site of Ban Rai was painted with decorative patterns adapted from designs used by the local inhabitants for their clothing or other adornments, as well as those derived from rock paintings. ﴾Figure 5﴿

Figure 5 : “The Path”


The patterns and the colours were of course designed to constitute a work of art, and when reexhibited as paintings at the National Gallery could really stand or their own.  According to traditional Thai belief, what you have under your feet is lowly. The decorated road surface could be treaded upon, a kind of “red carpet”, normally used to receive dignitaries, was now proffered to the villagers and visitors as their pathway. “The Path”, as the work was called, had a destination, the holy rock shelter high up on the mountain. The link with prehistory was not forgotten. Besides, the materials used to paint the roads surface were normal paints mixed with coloured soil from the locality and the prehistoric site. Children of Ban Rai rejoiced in treading, walking, jumping on this fanciful pathway, whose decorated surface would soon be washed away when the rainy season came, as if to confirm the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of things. As we shall see in the case of other artworks, this group of artists operated with a sense of modesty, and that humility might have been partly conditioned by the sense of the past, and in this particular case, of the past which is awe-inspiring. Paradoxically, the prehistoric past seemed to be vested with the power to remain present, through the ages, and recognized as such by the artist who in his own small way was trying to forge a link with the past.



            I have opined above that humility could prove to be a driving force behind artistic creation. This is substantiated by the work of Prokpan Phongnam. Overwhelmed by the majesty of the log coffins, he gave himself some time to “recollect” (his) “emotion” in “tranquillity” (5) and came to the conclusion that the best way to pay tribute to the greatness of those prehistoric vestiges would be to make offerings in the same form, very much reduced in scale, but outdoing the original in terms of number. Let us think of the number of candles lit in hommage to a great Buddha image: a small man can hardly compete with his great ancestors in scaling the same ritualistic heights, but can repeat his act of veneration many times. What emerged from such philosophical rumination were small glass coffins ranging in size from 1 to 8 centimetres, numbering over 1000 pieces, which the artist produced from his workshop. ﴾Figure 6﴿

Figure 6 : Glass coffins


Deeply reflecting on an emotional (and probably also spiritual) experience and searching for a concept on that basis is the essential quality of any serious artist, but the act of creating involves craftsmanship (which, alas, many “conceptual” artists have lately neglected.) If “difficulty” can be considered an artistic principle (as elaborated by T.S. Eliot in “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” of 1932-33), Prokpan went further than making his own artistic genre more difficult; he deliberately imposed a discipline upon himself by learning a new craft, that of glassblowing.

Armed with his glass coffins, he made the ascent to prehistory again and placed those small offerings beneath the log coffins at strategic places, strategic not from his own standpoint, but from the points of view of visitors to the site who wanted to see both the prehistoric originals and the artworks of this small man. The visual artist, whether by accident or by design, conditioned every beholder to a choreographic act. The glass coffins automatically became a choreographic  script, whereby an onlooker who wanted to examine these minuscule exhibits had to bend down, thereby performing a kind of traditional hommage, and naturally could not help looking up to the original log coffins in order to ascertain to what extent they were similar or different. Again the analogy with a Buddhist’s paying respects to an image of Buddha in a temple comes to mind. Fervently respectful of these prehistoric remains, the artist did not perform an act of paying respects on his own; he created a potential community of worshippers through works of visual arts that crossed over into a choreographic domain. The humility of a small man thus became contagious and pervasive. The transfer of the artworks to the Bangkok Exhibition naturally lost the ceremonial seriousness of the original setting. The pubic only saw glass coffins bereft of its holy environment. It could not have shared the experience of how a small man could stage a great tribute to the distant past.



I have deliberately quoted Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s famous formulation out of context.(6) We are not dealing here with Greek antiquity, but we are addressing contemporary art, a contemporary art that knew how to learn from a very remote “antiquity” of sorts. The American artist, Valentina Dubasky, who had been Artist-in-Residence at Silpakorn University, was deeply interested in South East Asia, its culture and its arts. Her interests were many-sided, and she primarily went to Tham Lod and Ban Rai for 3 weeks to conduct a project on “Ancient Botanicals & Flora, Fauna and Forest Archaeology”(7). Besides, she was steeped in Buddhism. Her paintings on the theme of the log coffins were not done on site. Again this was the case of “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. It was known that the paintings were made after she had returned home to theUnited States. An unmistakable serenity pervades these works, in spite of the bright colours used, which in some paintings contrast starkly with the black background. ﴾Figure 7﴿

Figure 7 : “Log Coffin at Pang Mapha”


One could detect a childlike naivety that characterizes the works, certainly inspired by rock paintings at Ban Rai. But there is nothing artificial or contrived about this return to prehistoric antiquity. Not unlike the glass coffins described above, hommage began with humility. Memories of the Ban Rai burial had been internalized; the artist’s “reading” of these monumental remains was tempered by sobriety. They were neither glorified, nor “cut down to size” in an act of hommage through art. Dubasky, somehow or other, created an intimate rapport with prehistory.

If you have not made the ascent to the “Valhalla in the VirginForest” and enjoy Dubasky’s paintings just like other artworks we see in a museum of modern art, you will never really sense its monumental character, for the work of art has here disarmed the original and made something personal of it. Yet one cannot deny that this intimacy is not devoid of a sense of greatness, but it is a “silent greatness”, as if it were speaking gently to us across the ages. Simplicity is the strength of these works, but it is a simplicity marked by nobility and dignity. Dubasky’s artistic offerings are of a kind that runs deep into one’s consciousness. A Thai Buddhist would most probably replace Winkelmann’s dictum with his own analogy: “This reminds me of a Sukhothai Buddha image!”(8)



            While we are still in the field of painting, we may as well take into consideration a huge canvas, entitled “Heaven in Ban Rai”, by Amrit Chusawan, a senior artist from Silpakorn University, originally forming part of an installation consisting of mixed media, exhibited in and around a village silo at Ban Rai and subsequently at the National Gallery in Bangkok.  Amrit’s work was meant to speak as a voice of conscience. One could immerse oneself in a distant past under certain conditions and for a period of time. The Art Festival, which was the culmination of the happy relations between the people of Pang Mapha and the archaeologists and their colleagues, was a reaffirmation of the existence (and viability) of a small rural community within the context of contemporary Thai society. After all, most of the works of art created in, or for, Pang Mapha would qualify for any prestigious contemporary exhibition anywhere in Thailand (or even abroad as well), as the Bangkok exhibition did confirm. But the source of inspiration, anchored in prehistory, in a way, universalizes its message.

Be that as it may, the artist did not want to forget the local community and its precariousness vis-à-vis the onslaught of our contemporary consumer society. The painting depicts in the foreground an idyllic rustic scene with a small river running through. In the background appear ominous structures, high-rise buildings that almost block the flow of that river. Strangely enough, there is a small aperture in the midst of the concrete jungle that accords the river an exit. ﴾Figure 8﴿

Figure 8 : “Paradise in Ban Rai”


The artist did not want to be totally pessimistic and pleaded through his work for a coexistence of the traditional world and the modern world. But this coexistence rests on one condition, namely that the modern sector must be prepared to acquiesce in a compromise: the river shall not be damned (in whatever sense of the word!) The river is primeval, older than all man-made things, yes, older than those venerable log coffins. It precedes prehistory and reaches back to pre- pre-, prehistory. The message is potent indeed: fine arts are often more radical than archaeology. The painting was exhibited at the village of Ban Rai in a singular way: it was hung on the outer wall of a silo, a spot easily seen by passers-by, a very concrete reminder of what could come and not necessarily what was to come, depending on the will of the local people (and the authorities). Aesthetically, it worked as a Verfremdung(9) to the environment of a remote village of theprovince ofMae Hongson, thus inciting the onlookers to stop and think about the consequences of the possible changes brought about by our contemporary society.



The term “garbology” was invented in the 1960’s by waste collectors and later acquired academic status when the study of refuse and trash was developed at the Universityof Arizonaunder the guidance of William Rathje.(10) Although the new discipline addresses primarily the problems of garbage in modern societies, it must have learned a number of lessons from archaeology, which attempts to reconstruct the way of living of ancient people by way of analyzing the trash that had been left behind. Naturally, garbology has attained a level of sophistication that has turned it into a science of waste management which can benefit our contemporary society.

Without any knowledge or even having heard of the science of garbology, Thawee Sereewas of Chiangmai University, in an interview given to me one year after the Festival, arrived at the same principle about reading from garbage the way of life and the mode of living of a community. His artwork entitled “Traces of Life from City to Village” consists of household items mass-produced by our modern industry, sold to consumers nation-wide, used and discarded indiscriminately by the villagers in such a remote area as Ban Rai. The process of artistic creation itself was of a performative nature, for the artist went around in the village, wading through the shallow river that ran through it to collect trash, under the perplexed eyes of the villagers who were not very sure of the purpose of this act of garbage collection. The sorting of the collected articles was carried out meticulously as though they were archaeological finds. Some items were exhibited in the open air in cupboards, some were placed on the bridges across the river Lang, not haphazardly, but with a certain unifying thread that aimed at conveying the message as to how people lived their daily life in this community. ﴾Figure 9﴿


Figure 9 : “Traces of Life from City to Village”


What was more interesting than the individual exhibits themselves was the concept behind the work. The artist’s thinking had a temporal dimension. That he chose to stage his installation on three concrete bridges was in itself a hermeneutic indicator. A bridge is a link, normally in spatial terms. In this Thawee was aligning himself with “The Path” of Natawa, that is to say, he was investing a spatial construct with a temporal meaning: those bridge carry the road that led up to the burial site, thus linking the present with the past. Having cast a retrospective look at prehistory, the artist now turned his attention to the future, and a very distant future. In centuries to come, posterity might come to Ban Rai for an excavation and find the trash left over from the 21st century, as present-day archaeologists have done with prehistoric remains. These trashes are of significance to future archaeologists in finding out how people in the 21st century live.

In a way, Thawee was rehearsing in advance the collecting and systematizing of archaeological finds that would happen in many centuries to come. That garbage can become something valuable to future scientific research is a succinct parody of the archaeological practice itself. That his installation consisted merely of trash also functioned as another parody of contemporary art in its noblest sense. In another way, his was a conceptual art, for the underlying aesthetics was not dependent on the beauty of the exhibited objects, but more on the beauty of the thinking that could turn garbage into a work of art, linking past, present and future. From prehistoric archaeology through the modern science of garbology to installation art based on the trash of Ban Rai, one can see that the end of this centuries-old lineage culminated in the act of aesthetic creation.

But beyond aesthetics lies everyday life. One year after the exhibition, I went to Ban Rai and had a long conversation with the village headman, himself member of a minority people who migrated into Ban Rai over a decade ago and now mastered the Thai language to perfection. He maintained that Thawee’s presence and his installation work left a deep impression on the villagers who now appreciated the orderliness of a community free of garbage. So the arts have their practical utility as well.



            Of all the installations exhibited in Ban Rai, “The Circle” by Chol Janepraphaphan, a graduate in sculpture from Silpakorn University, was the work that seems to have attracted special attention both from the visitors and the local inhabitants. Pitched in the open air in an open field  surrounded by mountains, this circular structure made of bamboos with a coffin-like boat, weighing as much as 45 kilograms suspended in the middle, required immense physical effort that the artist could not bring up on his own. ﴾Figure 10﴿

Figure 10 : “The Circle”


Fortunately, the collaboration from the villagers was forthcoming, starting from providing the artist with bamboo poles of similar size, pitching them into the ground and tying them together. But the most demanding feat of “engineering” was the suspension of the boat in the midst of the circle, a combat against gravity. This monumental tribute to the historic burial 200 metres up the mountain was a man-made offering of considerable physical dimensions that performed three functions at the same time, namely, first to “domesticate” the holy relic of prehistory within the context of the present-day local community by erecting a new sacred monument within reach of the common man; second, to prove a significant point to our contemporary art world that craftsmanship and skill still constitute an indispensable component of artistic creation in an age deluged by much delirious “conceptual art”; and third, to interpret the message from prehistory in such a way as to anchor it in a spiritual foundation of great philosophic depths, in this case, in Buddhist philosophy.

From the physical point of view, this “Stonehenge of Pang Mapha”, though a newly created structure, looked extremely imposing amidst the natural environment, especially at sunrise. But as in the case of the guardian spirit, Phee Man, the local people did not hold it in thrall, and the Festival organizers invited school children to stage an improvised “ritual”, whereby they entered the circle in a swimming gesture, then assembling at the middle of the circle to lift the heavy boat/coffin, thus reiterating the point about man, in an act of piety, transcending the limitations of gravity. It was a “performance” of strangely dignified spontaneity. The children may not have had this philosophic aspiration in mind, but one could not really deny the hermeneutic potential of their symbolic gesture.

Secondary school children in Thailandhad as their compulsory reading in Thai literature the Vessandara Jataka, a narrative on the previous life of the Buddha before he attained Enlightenment in his last life and entered Nivarna. In a famous episode known to most people, Prince Vessandara speaks of his arduous efforts to perform good deeds, including the sacrifice of all that he possesses and loves, in order to reach Enlightenment, and thus to help to free his fellow human-beings from the yoke of worldly attachment. That difficult process is likened by the Prince to a ship battling the rough seas to reach its goal. In “The Circle” by Chol Janeprapaphan, the prehistoric coffin became a boat or a ship precariously suspended in the middle of a circle, reminding us of the idea of Sansara, or the cycle of birth and rebirth, which Buddhism tries to transcend through human, and not superhuman, efforts as represented by the performance of the school children in the act of outdoing the pull of gravity. We are not to interpret this as a Promethean rebellion against unjust godly power, for the artist places his trust in the redeeming spiritual power of Buddhism. In this work, the ascent to prehistory has borne fruits in the form of a descent from prehistory to the level of the common run of humanity that is capable of making a second ascent to spiritual heights. One stoops to conquer.



Not far from the “Stonehenge of Pang Mapha”, another artist, Chalermchon Jitjindar, whose “Sequence” has already been analyzed above, set up his installation on a vast terrain in the midst of a valley, consisting of a square enclosure of white transparent PVC, divided into a number of square cubicles. ﴾Figure 11﴿

Figure 11 : “Form of Space”


According to the information given to me by the Project Leader, the artist had not been asked to create a work that would relate specifically to the Ban Rai archaeological site, but to adorn the open-air space used for installation works in his own particular way. The work somehow or other was well integrated into the environment. It was of the size ﴾2x10x10 metres﴿ that could be seen from afar, a white structure flanked by the mountains on all sides, the colour white giving the impression of purity and innocence. With or without the intention of the artist, it added aura to the general tenor of paying hommage to prehistory.

Perhaps one can interpret the meaning of a work from its function. It was again the school children who offered a lease of life to this installation work. They made of it a labyrinth, in which they played a game of hide-and-seek, accompanied by improvised movements, dancing in and out of one cubicle to another. The static structure came to life through human contact, enhanced by a performative act on the part of the children, not a solemn ritual as was the case with “The Circle”, but a more playful, childlike physical expression.

Talking of stop-gaps, many Thai will readily think of ballast, known among Thai people as “Ab Chao”, and visitors to temples inBangkokwill have noticed the presence of innumerable Chinese-like human figures made of rough stones, certainly not meant to be objects of worship. Occasionally, one might see garlands, or flowers, or even burnt jossticks placed on one of these statues. Some self-appointed worshipper has been at work, praying to the stone statue as if it were a deity in the hope that he or she might win a lottery prize! The worth of an object thus lies in its function. What was used by Chinese traders as weighty objects to prevent their ships from rocking in the high seas has become a sacred object!

So the installation “Form of Space”, originally exhibited in a hall in a Chiangmai department store, then invited to Ban Rai to perform the modest function as a stop-gap, transcended its original role after having joined the company of worshippers in the ascent to prehistory.



The untitled work of the French artist, Hervé Robillard, consisted of a series of photographs enlarged to the size appropriate for being exhibited in the open air at Ban Rai. The valley surrounded by mountains, lit by sunlight, especially at dusk or dawn, provided an ideal setting for these works. Fellow artists, those involved in the organization of the Festival as well as the public have been racking their brains as to what the main figures in the photographs represented. Some have come up with the identification with garlic. It may not be as straightforward as that. ﴾Figure 12﴿

Figure 12 : (Untitled)


My thinking, again as a Germanist, has veered towards Goethe’s idea of the “Urpflanze”, a primal plant which could only be conceived in the imagination and which had the potential to generate all subsequent plants. Such a concept would be in consonance with the common mission of the ascent to prehistory. This primal plant predates all the prehistoric remains either at Tham Lod or at Ban Rai. And why do they stand upright? Any Buddhist shall not fail to think of lotus flowers placed before a Buddha image or before the entrance of a temple: we always place them vertically, as if to designate an upward movement suggesting our faith in Buddha’s teachings that would pave the way for an individual’s rise from a lower to a higher status, like a lotus flower beneath the water surface which could rise above water through good Karma. Robillard too had joined the pilgrimage of the ascent to prehistory and had brought along representations of the Urpflanze as a token of worship, his version of the lotus flower, but much, much more ancient than prehistory itself, going back perhaps almost to the zero point in the scale of time.



It will noticed that the works of the artists I have described so far are related to prehistory in different ways. From the point of view of the public, we may find it difficult to judge as to how closely or how far those work relate to the original archaeological sites or remains. The ascent to prehistory undertaken by the individual artists may have been expressed in modes and forms that make for differing degrees of apprehensibility on the part of the public, the last two artworks described above being somewhat enigmatic. Yet one thing was certain: we cannot deny that they all want to communicate their response to, and experience of, those monumental prehistoric vestiges.

Araya Rasdjamrearnsook’s video art was even more problematic. The artist had not visited the two prehistoric sites and did not take part in the Festival. Her work was exhibited for the first time at the Bangkok Exhibition only for 2 days before being voluntarily withdrawn. Araya is a distinguished artist with international repute, having exhibited internationally and representedThailandat the Venice Biennale. Her recent works reflected her obsession with death, occasioned by the death of her mother, and this obsession had carried her artistically (and perhaps also ethically) very far indeed. Three prior works, all in the form of video art, had dealt with death in very interesting ways. The first took the form of her own poetry reading to corpses in a mortuary. The second showed her adorning corpes with colourful dresses. The third began to cross over into physical cruelty, being a video recording of animals just before being butchered in a slaughterhouse. The work presented within the framework of this “ascent to prehistory” was very personalized, being a 10-minute video film of the death of her beloved dog, struggling and howling in its final moments, a bloody scene in the literal sense. A special room was allotted to this exhibit, but the recorded howling was so loud as to overwhelm the entire Exhibition. ﴾Figure 13﴿

Figure 13 : (Untitled video presentation)


It would appear that the artist associated the burial at Ban Rai, which she had not seen, with the concept of death, that is to say, she transformed the majestic “Valhalla in the VirginForest” into an abstract concept. The second step was to find what T.S. Eliot called “an objective correlative” to express that concept and her own feeling towards death. Alas, the “objective correlative”(11) that she found was unable to communicate either any connection with prehistory or any aesthetic sense that could be appreciated by the public. In the Keynote Speech that I gave at the Opening Seminar in connection with the Bangkok Exhibition on 14 June 2008, I was trying to analyze the dilemma facing the artist: my thesis was that cruelty could very well constitute a component of a work of art if it was elevated to the level of “philosophical cruelty”, (as the Polish critic Jan Kott demonstrated in his seminal work, Shakespeare notre contemporain, of 1963). What Araya had produced was still at the level of “physical cruelty”. The artist was in the audience, and on that very day she withdrew her work from the Exhibition, probably out of dissatisfaction with the lack of an adequately sophisticated receptivity to her innermost feeling inherent in this very innovative work of art. I was not playing the role of the spirit medium for the Phee Man of Pang Mapha; I was merely acting as a mouthpiece for the general public who had been thrown into utter confusion in an age that the “no longer fine arts” were beginning to dominate the art world.

I have used a slightly amended quotation from John Keats’ famous “Ode to the Nightingale”(12) as caption for this section of the paper in order to drive home the point that art can transform human experience, however dismal or fretful, into something uplifting. On the whole, the artists who had come into contact with prehistory had also come to terms with it, accepted it as it was, and from then on took off to look for their own creative modes to address this legacy. But prehistory was not to be taken literally. In whatever artistic genres in which they might have been working, the artists were conscious of their mission that their task was not to reproduce, but to recreate, prehistory, transcending its physical, spatial and temporal confines in order to give to the present a liberating force that would free it from its humdrum existence. But the past demanded a price, an immersion of the artistic ego in the world of yore so that the artist will reemerge with a new creative force. As I have said earlier, humility was, on the whole the hallmark of the “Pang Mapha Paradigm”.



I shall devote the final part of the present essay to discussing the implications of the Pang Mapha project that may be vested with some general validity, transcending the experience of a group of scholars and artists and of a local community. This could best be done on a point-by-point basis


  1.   It has not been easy to arrive at the title for the present paper. I was at first thinking of “Framing Prehistory”, but the term “framing” has been used in recent years by Poststructuralists in their own particular ways that do not correspond to what I had in mind. I then, being a Germanist, landed on “Inszenierung der Prähistorie”, which I tagged onto the project submitted as the first version in the introductory booklet produced by the Research Centre as “Staging Prehistory”, the English term “staging” being a narrowing down of the more comprehensive meaning of the German term “Inszenierung”. In any case, the original title placed the emphasis more on the work of the artists than on the awe-inspiring archaeological heritage, which was the source of inspiration for them, and besides would tend to lapse into the one-time convention of the apotheosis of the arts and the self-aggrandizement of the artists. As already mentioned, almost all the artists created their works in deep humility vis-à-vis the grandeur of the prehistoric remains. In consultation with the Associate Director of the International Research Centre “Interweaving Performance Cultures” of the Free University Berlin, I finally arrived at the title, “The Ascent to Prehistory”, which should capture the spirit shared by the artists and scholars.
  2. It is worth observing that few of the artworks created for Pang Mapha could strictly be subsumed under the rubric of “performing arts”. Be that as it may, most of them sought an alliance with other arts that arose from the nurturing ground of performance culture. Installation works, in particular, lent themselves to such an alliance, as in the case of “The Circle” and “Form of Space” being enhanced by the performances staged by the school children. From another angle, “Sequence” proffered an invitation to the public to “perform” an entry into the world of prehistory, (and we must not forget that the proposed journey could lead as far back as 32,000 years!), whereas Natawa did succeed through his work “The Path” in persuading the villagers, especially the children, to walk gleefully on his painted road. Our would-be “garbologist” attracted the attention of his public not only through his finished work, “Traces of Life from City to Village”, but prior to that, through his act of assembling and putting together the garbage from Ban Rai, the process of artistic creation being thus of a performative kind. Performance may not have been that carried out by the artist himself, but the artist could conduct his participatory art in such a way as to condition his public to perform for him, as was the case with the glass coffins of Prokpan Phon-gnam.

Why this urge towards the performative? A simplistic answer would be the framework of the Festival which needed to capture the attention of the public from outside who was there only for a short while. There is no denying that a performance is a unique experience shared by the artist and the public, an experience that cannot be repeated. Thus all the arts cannot help aspiring towards the experiential uniqueness of the performing arts. Yet there is more to it than that in the case of the ascent to prehistory at Pang Mapha.

All the artists who came into contact with the prehistoric vestiges of Pang Mapha were inevitably awe-stricken both by the sheer age and the majesty of the prehistoric remains. All of them were conscious of the minuteness of their own existence and the transciency of their works when faced with the encounter with time immemorial, and perhaps also of time immeasurable. As I have said before, the “prehistoric lesson” has made them all humble, and humility becomes an artist, (for a change, one might say!) Each of them was thus allotted a minute fraction in the scale of time, of which he or she had to make use through artistic creation, the performative being the most effective mode of expression. The invaluable lesson drawn from the Pang Mapha Paradigm is that the consciousness of transciency vis-à-vis the immensity of time is paradoxically an inducement to artistic creation.

  1. Prehistory is by its very nature immune to nationalism. The simple fact that it predates the birth of all nations and is closer to the birth of humanity makes it an ideal breeding ground for a sense of common humanity beyond cultural and national divides. Besides, the inhabitants of Pang Mapha are multiracial, consisting of various minority groups that occupied and still occupy the border areas with Burmaand were not long ago absorbed into the Thai state. Living under the shadow of these prehistoric sites seems to have been a boon to these ethnic groups, for they now have a common and “neutral” ancestry, and the absence of a continuous lineage from prehistory to the present conditions them all not to take the prehistoric legacy for granted. The work of the archaeologists and their colleagues was welcome by the local people, and the presence of the artists and the ensuing Art Festival made the villagers conscious of their cultural heritage. When I interviewed the school children at Ban Rai, they manifested their pride in having a part in the preservation of such an important prehistoric site. On the day of my second visit in February 2009, the villagers were busy repairing the bamboo railings along the path leading up to the log coffins. We no longer have to talk about cross-cultural cohesion among the local people; it would seem that immersion in the common prehistoric heritage could obliterate racial and cultural differences, a perfect interweaving process.
  2. It might be appropriate at this juncture to bring up for discussion the educational implications of the project. The prehistoric remains had always been there; the local people were aware of them, but they could not relate to them, apart from associating them with the guardian spirit,PheeMan.So archaeology opened up new vistas. Apart from the scientific advances made by the excavation – this particular group of archaeologists having been successful in enlisting the cooperation of colleagues from various disciplines – the archaeologists have never overlooked the significance of the local communities and have tried to involve them in the process of preservation and animation of the sites right from the start. This in itself was an educational undertaking, for it never shied away from the difficult task of instilling a sense of value related to a cultural heritage in the local people. Both the excavation an Tham Lod, (a village already known to visitors because of its cave), and the rockshelter with its log coffins at Ban Rai could not have easily become a commercial success, Tham Lod offering just an empty excavated site with the archaeological finds stored elsewhere, and Ban Rai demanding a physical feat of climbing to the height of 200 meters above the valley. So both scientific esoterism at one place, and tremendous physical demand at the other, have protected them from facile touristic exploitation. The villagers knew that they could not become rich overnight. They were content at least that archaeology had opened up their villages to the outside world.

By bringing the arts to bear on archaeology, the Project Leader admitted that she was giving expression to a change of orientation in the “science” of archaeology. This particular aspect of higher education and research has been discussed elsewhere.(13) What concerns us here in terms of education has to do with those school children who had enlivened the Art Festival of 2008 in many ways. The “artists-in-residence”, particularly at Ban Rai, had enlightened the youths in two ways. First, their works of arts represented some forms of interpretation of the prehistoric sites. From them, the school children had learned that the arts themselves were a hermeneutic act; and those who read meaning from the artworks were performing also a second hermeneutic act. The artists have turned the village into a hermeneutic community – with a focus. What a better education could the visitors have given to the local people within a limited period of time? Second, the children had been taught the skills in dance and especially in visual arts. The impression made on them was so great that they requested their local teachers to continue to give them art lessons, which they did – willy-nilly – without having had any formal training. The schools would very much like to have an art teacher, who would serve several schools at the same time. My intervention with the Department of Basic Education has so far fallen on deaf ears.

  1. As the main thrust of the present essay has to do with how the arts have drawn inspiration from an archaeological legacy and what they have given back to those sources of inspiration, it is only appropriate that the final words should be given to the arts. As we have seen above, our case study does not address questions normally associated with exhibits in a museum of modern art. As the archaeological remains are to be appreciated in situ, so the artworks were created, if not exactly on the archaeological sites, at least in their immediate vicinity, as in the case of Ban Rai, in the village and on a open field below the burial site. A public, namely the villagers, was there on site, not merely as beholders of the artworks, but also as collaborators in the process of creation. In this sense, prehistory engendered the creation not only of the arts but also of human fellowship, and the prime movers of the project, the archaeologists, knew full well that “archaeological heritage management” normally involves human participation. But they further “complicated the matter” by bringing in contemporary artists (of various nationalities) to enhance and enrich this heritage management; they were engaged in adding a creative component to the usual preservation and animation of archaeological sites. The responses of the villagers, and especially the school children mentioned under point 4 above, have far-reaching implications in the sense that once one has awakened a creative urge, it has to be sustained in a continuous process. The ascent to prehistory contributed towards a vivification of the present, represented by local communities that would not stop creating even after the artists had departed. The lure of contemporary art was irresistible and contagious. Yet in some respects, it remains an idiom rather alien to the locals, and they need further initiation.

Our case study testifies to the fact that a one-shot affair is inadequate, and mechanisms must be devised at various levels –local and national, private and institutional– to further the creative urge in the people, which had already been manifested in prehistoric times.(14)






(1) The nature and process of this unique collaboration is described by the Project Leader, Associate Professor Dr. Rasmi Shoocongdej, Head of the Department of Archaeology, SilpakornUniversity, in the article. “Remains, Science Art”, in: Obliterating the Frontiers of the the Arts: Festschrift for Chetana Nagavajara on His 72nd Birthday. Bangkok: Amarin Press 2009, pp. 123-160. ﴾In Thai﴿ See also: Rasmi Shoocongdej, “Archaeological Heritage Management at Ban Rai and Tham Lod Rockshelters in Pang Mapha District, Mae Hong Son Province, the Northwestern ﴾sic﴿ of Thailand”, in : South East Asian Archaeology International Newsletter, Issue No. 23, September 2008, pp. 9-14. ﴾on line﴿ ﴾In English﴿.


(2) In Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, the giants make a pact with the gods and build for them a castle called “Valhalla”, an embodiment of gradiosity and majesty, although the gods, headed by Wotan, are plagued by greed and resort to all kinds of ignoble strategems that account for their own downfall, represented by the last opera of the cycle, “Twilight of the Gods” ﴾Götterdämmerung﴿, with Valhalla crumbling under a devastating fire. I am using the name “Valhalla” to represent something beyond the normal human scale without Wagner’s moralistic undertone.


 (3) By “imaginary dialogue”, I mean a communication or exchange of ideas which does not have to take place in real life and is sometimes “staged” by scholars who engage people in a dialogue across temporal and spatial divides. I have used the term in some of my previous works, for example, “An Imaginary Dialogue: A Comparative Look at Contemporary Thai and Western Poetry” ﴾2002﴿, in: C.N., Fervently Mediating: Criticism from a Thai Perspective.Bangkok: Chomanad Press, 2004. pp. 255-270. ﴾in English﴿


(4) The Austrian music critic, Eduard Hanslick ﴾ 1825-1904﴿, championed “absolute music” which communicates purely through sound.


(5) William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads ﴾1800﴿.


(6) The famous formulation appears in Winkelmann’s work, Gadanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst ﴾Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture﴿, 1755.


(7) Rasmi Shoocongdej, “Archaeological Heritage Management …”, Op. cit., p. 13. ﴾In English﴿


(8) It is generally recognized that the finest Buddhist sculpture in the form of Buddha images originated in theKingdom ofSukhothai ﴾1238-1419﴿. Worldly elegance and otherworldly serenity are perfectly combined in the works of this period.


(9)  The term “Verfremdung” was introduced into dramatic art by Bertolt Brecht
﴾1898-1956﴿ to signify a dramatic technique which aims to create a “distancing effect”, whereby the audience is prevented from lapsing into an illusion produced by the action on stage, but on the contrary is conditioned to stop and think ﴾critically﴿ about what it is seeing.


(10) See William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage.New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.


(11) T.S. Eliot, “Hamlet”, in: Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Edited by Frank Kermode.New York: Harcourt, 1975, pp. 48-49. “… a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”


(12) The relevant passage in Keats’ “Ode to the Nightingale” reads as follows:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

                        I have been half in love with easeful Death,

            Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,

                        To take into the air my quiet breath,

﴾ lines 51-54﴿


(13) Rasmi Shoocongdej, “From Tham Lod Rockshelter to Ban Rai Rockshelter …Towards Breaking through the Baodaries of Archaeological Methodologies”, in: From Different﴿ Horizons of Rockshelter ﴾Catalogue of the Exhibition at the National Gallery, Bangkok, June 13-30, 2008 ﴿, pp. 12-51. ﴾ In Thai﴿


(14) I wish to thank the Project Leader, Dr. Rasmi Shoocongdej, her colleagues and some of the artists, who, through interviews, gave me most valuable information and guidance. The village headman, the villagers, teachers and school children in Pang Mapha were also most cooperative. Although I could not be present at the Festival in February-March 2008, I had earlier visited Pang Mapha and also made another trip there in February 2009. Video recordings of the Festival have naturally proved to be of great help to me.


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