This article by Patpon Sabpaitoon was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand. An edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.
Thai people don’t talk about sex. We are extremely well-known for our sex industry, but conversations about it remain largely muted. We’ll deny it — forcefully — if you confront us with it.
Thai society appears to be preoccupied with morals and ethics. Here, even the slightest hint of a sex-related topic is deemed lewd and inappropriate. Those who consider themselves “decent” often assert their moral superiority by expressing disapproval of anyone in the sexual creation industry and by condemning individuals who openly embrace their sexuality.
Where sexual desire is treated as taboo, kinks and unconventional sexual preferences are seen as near-sacrilegious deviations. If you have such preferences, you are expected to keep them hidden in the shadows. Those who wish to flaunt them often find themselves relegated to obscure corners of society.
But all sorts of sexual fantasies have found a home at Krubb, a sauna catering to the specific needs of gay men in Bangkok. Inside, on the walls of a dimly lit corridor behind a rusted door, hang photographs of men engaging in various kinks — Shibari (erotic bondage), dog costumes, and more.
These images are the work of 26-year-old Patthakarn Sadubtham, an emerging queer artist. He aims to challenge societal norms by bringing taboo subjects to the foreground through his photography, which focuses on unconventional sexual desires.
The sauna, with its six floors of entertainment spaces, may seem like an unusual place for art. However, it is a perfect environment for an artist whose works embrace themes of loneliness, longing, and sexual fantasies, largely inspired by his love for the male form. This passion is evident in the graphic photographs of male genitalia dangling daringly on the wall.
Patthakarn's work often defies conventional gallery spaces. Nevertheless, it had managed to find its way into three exhibitions: two in Bangkok and one in Phayao.
The exhibition BoyXTherapy at Krubb marks his solo debut. The building, which houses a sauna, fitness area, and two floors of dark rooms set aside for all imaginable sexual activities, has been transformed into an impromptu art gallery for pieces that center around kinks and desires that live in the shadows.
Suppressed yearnings have been transformed into a hazy, incandescent exploration of lust, human desire, loneliness, and melancholy, all draped in the romanticism of cinematographic storytelling.
“I love male bodies; I think they are beautiful. I feel comfortable working with male models. But when it comes to female bodies, it's different. I just don't have the same level of comfort,” he explained.
Growing up gay in Lopburi province, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. He couldn’t escape the influence of prudish Buddhist society. However, he was fortunate that they never criticized him for being himself.
Discrimination against the queer community is still ubiquitous in Thailand, and Patthakarn realised that other queers haven’t been so lucky. He tries to use art as a medium to alleviate the hardships that many gay individuals, some still compelled to remain in the closet, have had to endure. He believes that his work can help to normalize taboos. He hopes that his efforts will empower queer artists passionate about sexuality and sexual themes to step forward and express themselves.
The erotic photographer employs melancholia as his weapon, blending it with sexual desire to offer a glimpse into a forbidden world inhabited by sexual creators and those who partake of their creations.
“One can be simultaneously melancholic and sexually aroused,” he explains, describing the theme of his work.
His statement is manifested in two artworks on the wall: blurred photographs of two men, their bodies pressed together in a dimly lit red room, radiating desire. The artist explains that his aesthetic was largely influenced by the films he observed and studied during his years as a film student at Chulalongkorn University.
In a country where sexual desire is seen as a taboo and unconventional sexual preferences almost a sacrilege, artist Patthakarn Sadubtham is challenging societal norms through his photography, which focuses on unconventional sexual desires.https://t.co/yHdhcw4Odp pic.twitter.com/rXKfElEP3Z
— Prachatai English (@prachatai_en) September 7, 2023
Through his work, he has become a part of the sexual creators’ circle, even falling in love with a sex creator and artist who served as the muse for some of his exhibited work. This closeness has opened doors to opportunities that allowed him to gain a deep understanding of the challenges faced by Thai sexual creators, who often bear the burden of societal judgment and the stress that comes with their profession. With this insight, Patthakarn also advocates for the overlooked issues that this marginalized community faces: mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases, and the difficulties of accessing proper healthcare.
Before becoming a full-time artist, Patthakarn worked in a series of substantial but mundane jobs, including roles in commercial entities like production companies and film studios. He also freelanced as a social media content creator before making the decision to fully focus on his art.
Patthakarn is aware of the practical and realistic challenges that artists often face, especially in a nation that tends to prioritize careers in law and medicine over the arts. Arts majors are sometimes viewed as destined for a life of financial struggle and perpetual hardship.
Consequently, he made the pragmatic move of seeking his mother's blessings and potential support in case his artistic endeavors didn't succeed. Fortunately, it didn't fail, or at least he perceives it that way. While he enjoys the success he has achieved, he still yearns for more.
In the Thai art scene, apart from financial struggles, the issue of seniority also poses challenges. Patthakarn pointed out that young queer artists often experience discrimination from older queer artists who believe that younger artists are inferior because of their shorter apprenticeships.
As a young artist, Patthakarn encountered connoisseurs who approached him not to criticize the nudity in his work but to reprimand his artistic judgment. Some have expressed disdain for his youth, criticizing him for exhibiting at such a young age.
According to Patthakarn, the lack of support from peers, coupled with the discrimination mentioned earlier, can be discouraging for young queer artists who aspire to pursue the profession full-time. He, himself, remains undeterred by this reality. He firmly believes that in the realm of arts, age is not the determining factor. If you possess talent, then you have talent, and seniority should not take precedence. He quipped, “Even if you are more senior, you've still got to wait in line.”
The young artist acknowledges that his art may sometimes veer into the realm of the obscene, but that, for him, is acceptable. He believes that aesthetically, there may not be a significant difference between art and pornography. This doesn't pose a problem for him. His limit, he emphasizes, is not defined by decency but by consent.
“I'm willing to push the limit, but it ultimately boils down to consent. If both parties agree, then it's okay. If not, it ends there,” he explained. He went on to remark that if viewers are offended by his works, it's not his concern.
“It's the audience's responsibility to deal with their own feelings towards arts,” he asserts.