‘History Class’ by Sutee Kunavichayanont, photo © The Substation

Sutee Kunavichayanont’s History Class consists of 14 wooden school desks, on which the artist has etched images of events from Thai history that are often excluded from textbooks. The installation is currently on show at the Substation in Singapore, but when Sutee made History Class in 2000, the desks were placed around the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, and passers-by were encouraged to make rubbings of the etchings.

‘People are not afraid of the work,’ Sutee told me when we spoke last month. ‘Because they’re old desks, they bring back happy memories of being in school and being young.’ Elements of play and feelings of nostalgia were being used to evoke such horrific events as the Thammasat University massacre of 1976. The killing of dozens of students by state forces and far-right paramilitaries followed a week of protests against the decision to allow the former military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn to return from exile in Singapore. Sutee says he made History Class to raise awareness of the massacre and other parts of Thai history that are unfamiliar, or fraught, or have been cynically framed.

‘When people participate in the work,’ Sutee says, ‘rubbing, memorialising, they begin mixing stories.’ In Thailand, as across much of South East Asia, there is no right of assembly and the media are either tightly controlled or actively manipulated. ‘History does not belong to the state or the government but belongs to the people,’ Sutee argues. ‘They have authority for their own history.’

During the economic boom of the early 1990s, artists such as Vasan Sitthiket and Manit Sriwanichpoom – Sutee’s near contemporaries – began to attract attention in the West. The bust of the Asian Financial Crisis at the end of the decade added further cultural cachet. In the era of the Seattle WTO protests, History Class was art that spoke to ‘resistance’, and to the concerns of broadsheet liberals, looking for reports from the front line of rapacious globalisation.

The passers-by at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok were increasingly replaced by international art audiences. The contrasts between the craftsmanship of the etchings and the explicit imagery caught the attention of the Chinese press. In Istanbul, commentators noted parallels between the issues raised by History Class and Turkish nationalist historiography. The work was shown in Australia, Japan and the UK. Sutee was commissioned to make international versions, including one that detailed the Suharto government’s atrocities in Indonesia in the 1960s. For the iteration at the Substation, History Class depicts atrocities committed across South East Asia in 1965. What had been a work addressing the particularities of Thai history has become a method that can be universally applied.

‘It’s not political art in the Western sense, something walled off like “war art” or “protest art”,’ according to Iola Lenzi, the curator of the Substation show. ‘Instead you’re being quite forcibly inserted into the artists’ engagement with their everyday circumstances. The work has urgency and acuity because there are few other ways to speak back critically to the status quo.’

The cliché about political art is that the imperatives of the political moment overwhelm the art, but the story of History Class illustrates some of the limitations of this perspective. If Sutee had approached the 1976 massacre in a more overtly political way he would probably have run into trouble. But after it was established as a successful piece of art, History Class was freed to become a politically effective work. Textbooks in Thailand now acknowledge past bloodshed. There is more openness about recent events.

Yet the atrocity at Thammasat University has never been investigated, and no one has ever been held responsible. History Class looks a lot less daring to radical critics today than it did twenty years ago. Elements of the original installation have even found their way into the collections of the Singapore government.

‘Political conflicts among Thai people are more polarised, images from 1976 have been manipulated as a political tool, a political weapon,’ Sutee says. ‘Some people say “the person behind the ’76 incident was blah, blah, blah,” but for me, actually, I don’t know what is the truth.’

Since the turn of the century, part of the Thai state’s response to moments of national crisis, such as the 2004 tsunami and the political unrest of 2010, has been to stage big budget contemporary art events. Very few Thai artists have been able to opt out of them, and the networks of dependence they create.

Sutee’s recent work provides a starker illustration of the difficulty of untangling the relationships between political cycles and artistic production. In 2013 he produced a series of pieces attacking the corruption of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, to raise money for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). In Thailand it’s impossible to be neutral about the PDRC, but the most neutral way of explaining it would be that faced with a choice between the Shinawatras and an unelected government, the PDRC reckoned that an unelected government was the least worst option. Sutee’s critics in Thailand now brand him as (at best) a fellow-traveller of the extreme right. His defenders argue that he was focused on opposing the corruption of the Shinawatras.

In recent years, agonising over the least worst political option has become a familiar experience throughout the West, too. But in Thailand the least worst did not entail electing Emmanuel Macron; it ultimately led to rule by a military junta. During the months of unrest in 2014, protesters were badly injured as they slept at the Democracy Monument.

For a period in the 1990s, as in the 1970s, Thai history could be written as if it were leading towards a liberal form of democracy. No longer. Now installed in a gallery, History Class is like an artefact that has travelled through time from the South East Asian front of Fukuyama’s end of history. ‘The way the desk is displayed in the Substation exhibition is the opposite to the original idea,’ Sutee admits, ‘but with the right lighting in a gallery space it looks like a theatre prop, interesting and dramatic and beautiful.’