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Ong Siraphisut’s 'BREATHE' on East Avenue wants you to take a breather

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If you’re walking East Avenue during daylight hours this summer and fall, you might find your eyes drawn to a shimmering wall facing a pocket park off Broadway. An installation of mirrored stickers affixed to the exterior of the neighboring Rochester Contemporary Art Center catches the light in such a way that it makes a glittering almost-mirage that beckons passersby to pause, look closer, and follow the instructions the work spells out: “BREATHE.”

The work, the latest public art installation presented by Rochester Contemporary, was created by multidisciplinary Thai artist Pisithpong “Ong” Siraphisut, who recently relocated to Rochester with his wife and son. “BREATHE” is Siraphisut’s first public art project in this country, and his second artwork made in response to the pandemic. It is scheduled to be on view through Nov. 15.

The stickers are small diamond shapes that simulate the tiles of a mosaic, not unlike those found on temples and other buildings in his native Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. At first glance they are seemingly abstract, but offer unexpected depth. They reflect the greenery of the park, the red sandstone of nearby Christ Church, the gray of the streetscape, the fleeting images of pedestrians and cars — and you, if you’re facing them head-on.

Only upon focusing on the negative spaces between them and their sheen does the work’s hidden directive to take a breath become evident.

“It reminds us of what we missed, and won’t take for granted: seeing ourselves in the landscape,” Rochester Contemporary Executive Director Bleu Cease says of the piece.

“BREATHE” alludes in part to the impact of COVID on the respiratory system and to the metaphorical feeling that we can breathe again as we inch toward normalcy. It is also a nod to the toxic air quality from the wildfires Siraphisut left behind in Thailand.



Some viewers have connected the word to the social justice movement chants of “I can’t breathe,” originally in response to the police killing of Eric Garner in 2014 and, more recently, to the deaths of George Floyd and Daniel Prude. “That’s there, too,” Siraphisut says.
Thai artist Ong Siraphisut installing his mural "BREATHE," which is made of mirrored stickers that reflect the park, city buildings, and viewer. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Thai artist Ong Siraphisut installing his mural "BREATHE," which is made of mirrored stickers that reflect the park, city buildings, and viewer.
Siraphisut, 42, says his life experiences have influenced his outlook and his work.

After the birth of their son in 2019, Siraphisut and his wife decided to immigrate to upstate New York to raise their new family, with Siraphisut hoping to focus on making art. They were motivated by a combination of the poor air quality and increasing political tensions in Thailand and the fact that his wife is originally from Pennsylvania. They moved into their house in Rochester in March 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

“We planned to go out for St. Patrick’s,” he says. “A week later, that was it — lockdown.”

Stuck at home, and with arts supplies stores closed, Siraphisut began making portraits of his son using materials he had on hand: paper and a charcoal drawing kit.

“Observing the birth of my baby, the drawings became my personal therapy to cope with the pandemic and social distancing,” he wrote in an artist statement. “But every day, I couldn’t resist reading the news. From drawing Birth, I began to draw its reflection — Death.”

For the remainder of 2020 he created portraits of public figures, including many prominent artists and thinkers, who had died from COVID-19. He called his collection of more than 200 portraits “Turmeric & Charcoal,” after the materials he used. Turmeric powder, with its vibrant yellow-orange stain, is traditionally used for cooking and medicine, and represents health and healing. Charcoal alludes to ashes and death.

About a third of the monumental work was featured in Rochester Contemporary’s “Last Year on Earth” exhibition in early 2021.

Much of Siraphisut’s work revolves around connecting with other people.

Before he left Thailand, he created the 2019 work “Elephant in the Room,” which was an image of a white, life-sized Asian elephant on a red background of hammer-printed teak leaves on a huge linen canvas. The design was inspired by the flag of Siam, the former name of Thailand, and is linked to the country’s monarchy and hierarchy. Siraphisut says the work considered the question: What would it be like if everyone was equal?

Back in 2006, when he was just 26, he founded ComPeung, the first independent artist residency program in Thailand. The endeavor, he recalls, exposed him to scores of artists from around the world who represented a variety of disciplines, ages, genders, and backgrounds. They lived and worked together, and he formed strong friendships with many of them.

Siraphisut has traveled widely, counting more than 20 countries he has visited in Asia and North and South America over the past 20 years. He made collaborative public art in some of those countries, including constructing a house made from earth in Japan.

Raised by a devout Christian father and a devout Buddhist mother, Siraphisut says both faiths formed his spirituality and sense of self. When he was about 8 or 9 years old, he recalls, his mom sent him to live the life of a monk for three months — a practice he says is not uncommon among Thai parents.

“You wake at 5 a.m., you wear these robes, and you go to sleep in a tent,” he recalls. “I found it very tough and very memorable, and it helped shape me.”

Siraphisut says that during the lockdown, he and his family were grateful for the natural spaces and parks in the region. Before creating “BREATHE,” he spent some time in the park it faces, tucked between the church and the streets.

“‘BREATHE’ is my attempt to bring people to think about what we forget,” he says. “To breathe, to be alive, and take time to reflect on how lucky we are.”

See more of Ong Siraphisut’s work at siraphisut.com.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at rrafferty@rochester-citynews.com.