Still Alive

by Liliane Zumkemi

Curatorial Statement

Hair Comb, a fish’s whimsical claim,
Thoughts of my lady, beauty’s flame
After shampooing, her hair sways,
Soft and fragrant in the light of day.*

The aforementioned composition stands as the oldest historical documentation mentioning the name “Pla Wee Ket,” or Platytropius siamensis, thus providing evidence of the presence of this fish species in natural water sources. Similarly, the various freshwater fish referenced in the same composition reflect the intricate relationship between humans and animals amidst the rich natural resourcesof Thailand’s central plains.

While it was once a prevalent native species in the Chao Phraya River since the late Ayutthaya period (18th Century), the existing biological evidence is now scant. Despite archival photographs dating back over half a century and preserved fish skeletons in the Kasetsart University Museum of Fisheries (Natural History) and the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, no live specimen has been sighted since the late 1970s. In 2011, the InternationalUnion for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially declared Platytropius siamensis extinct.

For over half a century, this aquatic inhabitant has vanished from the collective consciousness, unlike the majestic Schomburgk’s deer or the enigmatic Javan Rhinoceros, whose extinction, though lamented in Thai lore, still echoes vividly through our conversations and tales.

What distinguishes one extinct species from another in people’s memory? When it comes to Schomburgk’s deer, perhaps it’s the striking elegance of its antlers, renowned for their beauty and rarity. For many, the extinction of Schomburgk’s deer embodies a poignant natural tra-gedy, attributed to the most egregious human interventions in Thailand.

Yet, concerning Platytropius siamensis,despite its distinct traits, including lengthy whiskers evoking the likeness of a woman’s hair, from which it derives its moniker, its widespread presence as a staple food among communities residing along watercourses for generations might have diminished the awareness of its importance or the impact of its extinction among the populace.

As long as the narrative remains relatively obscure within Thai society, the adage “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” might not entirely capturethe tragedy of Platytropius siamensis. Similarly, we have yet to perceive it as a poignant “lesson” in heightening awareness regarding the environmental repercussions of human actions.

— Sarana Wiriyaprasit, curator

 

* Prince Thammatibes, Royal barge songs (c. 1715–1755)

Artist Statement

My ancestors were Alpine nomads. They ascended the mountain heights with the growth of the grass in spring and descended again with its drying out in autumn. As a small child, I spent hours watching the wild animals and plants. As an adult, I observe how the glacier retreats, which plants begin to dominate, which trees prevail, how the ticks climb up to higher altitudes, and how some animals are now rarely seen.

For my 3-month Artist-in-Residence in Bangkok, I explored a local topic in an audiovisual way. A topic that concerns us all: the extinction of species and at the same time an experience of being able to get in touch with an extinct species. In May 2023, the Platytropius siamensis found me and that is how this installation came about.

The installation “Still Alive” consists of lines of ceramic fish hung upside down on a thread. They form a cylindrical space with an entrance that invites the audience to enter. The numerous ceramic parts resound as they move and touch each other. They play a melody. Every moment is unique because each fish moves around its own axis. “Still Alive” always manifests itself differently in form, color, and sound.

How many fronts and backs of the fish show up at the same time and at what angle? Is the eye drawn to the fish’s eyes? Do we search for a pattern? Does that even matter? What associations, thoughts, and questions does the sound initiate? A visit to the installation “Still Alive” is a lasting and time-suspending experience in today’s fast-paced world. This installation was produced in a slow and respectful manufacturing process. I worked with local teams:

Explore together, stay curious and flexible. Sharing experiences, adventures, and memories together.

My sincere gratitude to all those involved in “Still Alive” and to the visitors for sharing this collected experience and memory.

— Liliane Zumkemi
Bangkok, 14 February 2024

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Artist

Liliane Zumkemi was born in the Swiss Alps. She graduated from Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Art in Switzerland. Her ancestors were Alpine nomads and she sees herself as an artist/visual researcher. She lives and works in a cooperative artist studio living space in Basel and in a cottage at 1,665 meters above sea level.