American-Thai historian conjures royal ancestor through century-old artifacts for Design Week

Sirikitiya Jensen poses before her photo at Bangkok Design Week’s Hundred Years Between exhibition. Photo: Bangkok Design Week / Courtesy
Sirikitiya Jensen poses before her photo at Bangkok Design Week’s Hundred Years Between exhibition. Photo: Bangkok Design Week / Courtesy

A crumbling building is the venue for a woman exploring her link to the royal ancestor who built it over a century ago by literally following in his steps.

A highlight of Bangkok Design Week, visitors can tour the 132-year-old Old Customs House to see Hundred Years Between, an exhibition by Sirikitiya Jensen, who last year traveled to Norway to recreate her great-great-grandfather King Rama V’s trip there in early 1900s – thus, the exhibition’s namesake.

Other than the pictures – all taken by Sirikitiya using analog cameras – she also shows letters she wrote to the monarch called Chulalongkorn throughout the venue’s three stories. 

“Great, great grandfather. We have neither met nor spoken; in fact, we have more than a hundred years between us. Yet, your present is my past, and it has brought me to where I stand today. I am to follow the footsteps of you, King Chulalongkorn, on your historic trip to Norway in 1907. Yet, we grew up in different cultures, separated by different lifetimes. And although we may have traveled the same path, we both do so through a different lens of time, space and perspectives,” a part of one letter reads. 

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According to Sirikitiya, she wants visitors to see a more human side of the king through her exhibition. 

“He was a king, a significant figure in history, but at the same time he’s also another human being. I want everyone to see the humanity within him,” Sirikitiya said during the tour.

Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts

Some of that humanity is on display in letters penned by the monarch during the trip three years before his death at 57. 

While time has mythologized the monarch who had an affinity for European tastes and is credited with modernizing then-Siam, he marvels in his letters at seeing the “midnight sun,” talks about being homesick and muses about Viking fortitude.

For the show, the letters are laid out in front of a projector flashing black-and-white pictures also taken by the king himself during the trip.

Sirikitiya Jensen shows her Hundred Years Between exhibition on Friday. Photo: Coconuts
Sirikitiya Jensen shows her Hundred Years Between exhibition on Friday. Photo: Coconuts

“The vastness of the Norwegian landscapes – and its powerful, mythological quality – possesses an extraordinary ability to show us as much beauty and as it can cruelty. In its extremes, nature humanizes us. And it is this thematic link that would bind us both,” Sirikitiya wrote in one of her letters, which are in English.

Sirikitiya’ is the youngest daughter of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya and granddaughter of the late King Bhumibol. Thirty-four, she was born in California during her mother’s 26-year marriage to an American. She’s worked in the Fine Arts Department since 2016 when she moved to Thailand. 

Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts

The exhibition marks the first time in memory that the public has been allowed inside the building built in 1888 in the Western style promoted by the king. Bangkok’s first customs house, it was designed by Italian architect Joachim Grassi, who also built Wat Niwet Thammaprawat and the Bang Pa-in Palace in Ayutthaya. The building is to be renovated by developer U City into a “luxury hotel” slated for completion by 2025.

Tours of the building to see Hundred Years Between are offered by day and night, when it takes on a different character under natural or artificial light. Tours require online registration and are limited to only 20 visitors due to the building’s condition. Expect some very creaky floors.

Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts

FIND IT:

Hundred Years Between at Bangkok Design Week
Old Customs House
37, Charoen Krung Rd, Bang Rak, Bangkok
Now – Sunday, Feb. 9
Registration via Zipevent

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