My story here in Thailand is one based on water. Whether it be surfing on the southern coastlines, working with traditional dyes, or casting a line into freshwater, I have, and probably always will be drawn to water. My hometown Bangkok, sits strategically in the country’s Delta, a meeting point of trade and culture. And, looking at the history of my homeland as a design practice, has become a ritual of “retracing my roots” in hope that I can see my world from new perspectives.
A friend and collaborator on this project, Wit Pimkanchanapong, shares my fondness for finding connection with home and history. An architect by training, Wit has had a rich and diverse international career as an artist. His artworks are a sort of mixed media patchwork of ideas, using materials in very clever ways to communicate with us.
In recent years, Wit has been making boats and exploring his homeland by water. I first met Wit at his boat shed, tucked away in an old temple on the Chao Praya River, just north of Bangkok. He took me on my first 14km kayak trip in one of his skin-on frame kayaks, built himself from local Rattan and cloth. That trip opened up a totally new dimension to Bangkok for me. A landscape that I wasn’t familiar with, but had been somehow waiting for me.
As part of our collaboration with Quaker Marine Supply, I had the privilege of chatting to Wit about his art practice, boat building, and how this life on the water has changed his world view.
An Interview With Wit Pimkanchanapong
Tell us about your art practice and how it’s evolved over time.
I was trained to be an architect but I never built or made any architectural drawings at all. When I was young, I found that it was so time consuming to build and make architectural projects. Now I think I was wrong. Now I need more slow-paced projects, but it’s too late. I focused on installation work. The term is ‘soft architecture’, and my practice led to various temporary buildings, structures, three-dimensional objects, installations, lighting designs, and scenery design… my work was continuously evolving. Before that, I had been dealing with moving image and animation.
When I was young, I felt impelled to make fast, more immediate work. Animation, quick design, graphic design, are quite instant. And as I started to grow, I soon realized that I couldn’t continue doing weekly projects at that fast pace. So, I started to become more solid – I transitioned into installation work, soft structures, light structures, and so on. My work became more technological, working little by little with robotics. All while keeping a foundation, and sense of confidence from my architectural roots.
Why build kayaks?
About 5 years ago I took to the water to explore. I found that there were too many unseen places and fascinating things in the water, particularly here in Thailand because we have always been told that we are a water-based culture. Although we were told this since school, I never went down to the river. I wondered, ‘why don’t I go down?’ At the time I was cycling a lot, I would often tour around Bangkok by land. The safest bicycle paths wound along the river, unlike highspeed roads that cut through the landscape. I saw a lot of beautiful rivers, why don’t I use them? I was born here, I had the right to do everything here, so why not?
Exploring Bangkok’s waterways completely lost me. It felt like suddenly Thailand became 5 times bigger - there were too many rivers to explore. As I convinced friends to come along, it became difficult to buy boats. We had manufacturing limitations here, and overseas boats were too costly and difficult to bring over. So why not build our own boats? At first, I moved towards traditional teak wood, but it was impractical – and too heavy. I also bought a few collapsible kayaks that you can build on-site. They’re nice but expensive and take time to build. And then I came across ‘skin-on-frame’ boats. They are really early forms of boats, built by Innuit people. It’s very basic. If you have wood, and animal skin, you can make one. It’s as light as high technology carbon fiber. You can’t achieve a 12-kilogram boat like this with plastic, and carbon fiber boats cost about 150,000 baht (US$4000), but skin-on-frame boats … you can do it!
So that was how the kayak building project began, because of the limitations of the boats available here. The skin-on frame kayaks answer every need that I have.
Tell me about the materials that you’re using for your kayaks.
There are a lot of manuals to build skin-on-frame boats, but most of the instructions say to you use lightweight wood. Apparently in Thailand we also have wood for boat building but it had been long forgotten. In English it’s called Burmese Cedar, similar to red cedar, very light and rot resistant. We still have some lumber yards that collect this wood. A furniture designer friend of mine told me about a particular lumber yard. When I enquired about wood for boats, and they said they had one lot of Burmese Cedar that his mum kept in the case someone wanted to build a boat. That was like destiny waiting for me.
Another part of timber is more heavyweight but it needs to be bend-able. In the West, they use ‘green’ Oak which means it’s not dry, but we cannot find it here. There are a couple of alternatives: some people use bamboo. I tried to use Teak, and kiln-dried Oak soaked in water for 10 days, but it broke. Also, I tested bamboo. Bamboo needs to be kiln dried, or it will rot. It’s also difficult to mill it because there are nodes in the middle of the wood. I came across a rattan furniture making video and saw the way they steam bent the Rattan, similar to steam bending Oak - so I tested it out, and it worked! I think the reason why Rattan isn’t widely used among other boat builders is because it’s very Asia-specific. It only grows in few countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines. And it’s not even wood, it’s a vine. Maybe Thai wood is too strong, so we just use vines to build things. And it’s light. If you want to precision cut it or if you put Rattan in a planer, the planer will break because the fiber is so strong. The properties matched the needs for the boat, so, maybe it was a bit of luck. Another problematic thing was the canvas. This was something that needed to be imported, in fact it’s made in China. But if you’re like me and only need a small amount, the minimums are too high. That’s one of the reasons why I started to talk to you Lauren! To help me source the fabric. Now we order from a company in America who use a specific kind of fabric for building boats.
How can you relate art and design to this practice of kayaking? How did they change how you see the world?
I myself have changed. When I started to explore my country, it became another world to me. Isn’t that what art is about? So now I want all of my friends to experience this too. That’s what drives me. Water here is everywhere.
The building process connected me with the mother of the lumber yard owner, and when I go to the canal, my kayak is a conversation starter. The locals always ask me, “oh, what kind of boat is this?”. It has re-connected me to my country in a very immediate way and it was right under my nose. This water culture of ours is very unique to this region, and we share it with our neighbors Laos and Cambodia. Isn’t this art? Looking back to my past works, so much of it required an audience’s interpretation to draw meaning from it. With kayaking, a single trip can change your perception of space and country. This answers every need of art. We are using another vocabulary to deliver this, boating, exploration, communication and gathering. Artists or architects are most happy is when they can transport their audience or users to another space. This is what I do. I bring people into another world. You build a little piece of architecture that floats, that has connection to its surroundings, that has its own heritage. It fulfills me as an artist and architect. Through this new experience, many of my creative friends have certainly grown from it. They have been able to benefit from the environment, the culture, and build respect for other people. That is art.