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Interview: Hanspeter Ammann

Hanspeter Ammann is a video artist, a photographer, a film maker, a practicing Freudian psychoanalyst, and an owner of Shanghai Studio.
By Apr 1, 2010 Arts


Hanspeter Ammann is a video artist, a photographer, a film maker, a practicing Freudian psychoanalyst, and an owner of Shanghai Studio.

Before opening the beloved Shanghai Studio four years ago, Ammann worked extensively in video and installation art, and since the early '80s his work has been featured in festivals and galleries all over Europe. He splits his time between Europe, Bangkok, and Shanghai, and this Friday he returns to Shanghai Studio to open a photo exhibition called "Two Brothers".

A provocative and arresting series, the images in "Two Brothers" depict Torn and Khamron -- two brothers that serve in the Royal Thai Air Force. This photo show stems from Ammann's 2007 photo book, "Tam the Boxer" and ongoing film project inspired by the chaotic and tragic life of a Thai kick boxer called Tam [pictured above].

SmartShanghai sat down with Ammann at Anar Bar, as he went from Coca Cola to Gin and Tonic, talking about "Two Brothers", art at Shanghai Studio, and moments of discovery.

A frank and cavalier individual, Ammann greets life's bullshit with whimsical dismissal. Go see his show, say nice things about it to him, and buy him a drink. Event details right here.

Here's Ammann's portfolio page on the web.


SmSh: So...

Ammann: So it all started with him. He was a Thai boxer, my Thai boxer. He had an amazing life. He was a boxer and then he had an accident and he couldn't box anymore, so he eventually got into prostitution. He had two children that lived with his mother, and you know... he started to prostitute himself. First with women, then with men. And then he got into the mafia, into the gang thing, which is what a lot of boxers do. And then he got into drug abuse as well...

When I met him I was quite amazed by his looks. But not about his beauty, more so his ambiguity. He has a very beautiful body but a very beat up face, you know. So I made a photo book of him, which is in Chinese and English. It's called "Tam The Boxer". If it interests you in any way, we have some copies at the Studio -- we had a launch here in Shanghai and a launch in Thailand. It's just sort of an art book.

SmSh: What year was this?

Ammann: That was 2007. And the book was quite successful, and so I thought I should turn it into a movie. So that's how it started and that's when I met the two brothers. We shot half the movie with Tam, but during that time he was arrested by the police and put into prison... he was really... well, we couldn't work with him anymore.

But in the story of the movie, which was a documentary on the boxer, part of the movie is he's working as a gigolo, and he goes back to his village to find his children -- his two sons.

But anyways I was in the middle of this movie and this guy couldn't work anymore, so I had the option of giving the whole thing up, but while I was not knowing what to do, I met one of these guys, who you see in the exhibition, and he had a brother -- they work for the Royal Thai Army -- and so I managed to rewrite the script so that we follow them as being the adult versions of the two boys. So that's how this whole thing connects.

SmSh: And so how did the photo collection come to be?

Ammann: Well, before I was going to ask them to be in the movie I asked them to come over to my place in Bangkok. They were very shy at first. Both of them don't speak a word of English and my Thai... is better than my Chinese but still not very good [Laughs.] But I saw them in the lobby and I was mesmerized by them in the same was I was mesmerized by the boxer. So we took the elevator from the lobby to my apartment, and these are the images from that elevator ride. The blue background in sort of the background of the elevator -- in really shitty light, horrible conditions. But I've always worked that way. Technical perfection and precision have never really interested me. I feel it's more life-like when it's not perfect, in my opinion. And then we did some shots in my apartment and some shots outside, just to see if we could use them for the movie.

So the exhibition is about that moment of discovery, if you want. It's something that's always fascinated me -- being there at the right time and having a camera and just doing it. There's a lot of people technically better than I am and have the expensive gear, but if you're not there when it happens...

But it's a modest show in a way, in that it doesn't claim to be technically advanced.

SmSh: What was it about these shots then that made you want to display them in a show?

Ammann: Well, people have a lot of fantasies about them. Gay people think, "oh, wow that's a nice example of gayship" [Laughs], but women are more critical and ask more questions like who are they, are they really brothers.. blah, blah, blah. They set off a lot interpretations and fantasies. And then people have to revise their fantasies. And the whole thing is, of course, in the context of this movie, which is about to be done. We just got money from the Swiss government. We're more than half way through, and I have a trailer actually which will be playing on the shitty monitors at Shanghai Studio [Laughs.]

SmSh: So you’ve been involved in the art shows at Shanghai Studio for the last few years?

Ammann: Yeah, when we opened Shanghai Studio four years ago, my idea was to have a place where creative people could meet. I was always very fond of Andy Warhol and The Factory, which was why we called it the "Studio". But we wanted to have sculpture and painting and so and so, and we always wanted it to be a creative area where people could meet.

And so the first shows we were nobodies, so the first shows I did myself. The first shows I would photograph people who came to the bar, and people would see themselves in the exhibition and think, "oh, well, I have to come, I'm in the show" [Laughs.] But gradually we had more local people and more international people too, which we could exhibit.

SmSh: Have you been directly involved with the exhibitions there over the years?

Ammann: Yeah, and it hasn't been easy to do because I'm based in Switzerland where I have my family and I travel a lot. And actually, you know at the beginning, Shanghai Studio wasn't meant to be a gay venue, and it just kind of happened like that. But, you know, it's a city of 20 million people and back then there were only maybe four gay bars, so we thought, 'why not'. And so the exhibitions we always wanted to do were not mainstream pleasing postcard stuff.

We had one fantastic exhibition once. We had a guy traveling in eastern Europe, and he's gay and into that kind of gay kitschy thing, and so he went to Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, all these places, and bough cheap copies of Michelangelo's "David" and all these renaissance replications -- but horribly, horribly, done -- but wonderful when you look at it with the sarcastic eye.

But it was incredible. They were so badly made, like the arm would by coming out the wrong place and the dick would be somewhere, I don't know, at the knee or something. It was a fantastic thing.

I've just never liked, and I guess I still don't like, art galleries. They're all very stiff and everyone's nervous, and everyone wants to be selling. We never sell much. Most of what would happen would be that things get stolen [Laughs.]

SmSh: That's a good thing though. You should take that as a compliment.

Ammann: Well yeah, but they would come back you see, and we have video cameras right, so we would go to them and say, "you know, is it possible you have a picture at home". And they would say, "Me?! NO!"

But, we would say, "but we think you do, actually, because we have you on a security camera taking it."

And then they would say, "Oh yeah! Oh yeah!" [Laughs.]

But anyways we've never been about making money. It's about putting it there and stimulating people. We think that people aren't so simple-minded that all they want when they go to a bar is to get pissed and to go home with someone. We believe that if we can find a way of speaking to people we can create a more lively community. That's why the TV monitors are there, because at the very beginning I was trying to promote video art, which is of course very childish, and even internationally nobody is really interested in it.

But we had a projector, which is, of course, gone because somebody stole it [Laughs.] But we still have our TVs which nobody in the world is going to steal because they’re so bad.

SmSh: Where is the film going to end up? Are you looking at festivals or that kind of thing?

Ammann: I have a producer in Switzerland, but you can't actually submit your project as a director anymore. You have to professionalize it. It has to be a production company that submits stuff to guarantee that it will end up in a theatre. I have enough material that I like very much, but in order to get money you have to write a decent thing and you have to justify everything you do. And you have to write a bunch of bullshit, which I find difficult to do.

So I have the material, but now, as I say, I have to justify everything to a panel. I think maybe things were easier in the '70s and '80s when I was growing up. All you needed was an idea. But now, I had to appear in front of a panel of a bunch of people, and you have 15 minutes time and it's just so nasty. In the end we got it, I don't know how, but... in the end it's not enough to have good material, you have to sell it and you have to know who you are selling it to.

Now I have a production company to do all that stuff, but now I'm and employer and contracts and all that stuff. Better than not doing it of course, but it can be very tiring.

SmSh: I have a friend who's a sound installation artist in the States and he says he spends about 20% of his time working and about 80% putting together grant applications.

Ammann: Yeah, but the good thing about Shanghai Studio is that I own the place and do what I want. [Laughs]. I don't have to suck anybody off, I don't have to be smart, I just do it!

But yeah, the shows that we do, we're trying to be playful so people aren't intimidated. It's not high brow attitude.

SmSh: So what are the personal background of the Two Brothers?

Ammann: They're very, very, very poor -- coming from the northeast of Thailand, which if you follow the news, is in a very messy situation politically. These are the "red shirts" -- the construction workers, the waiters, the working poor, people look down on them. They're not treated well. But I’ve been fascinated by their culture -- they have their own language, their own music, and they're actually very closed off up there. Tam is from the same background and I had a romantic thing with him, and he would actually bring me to his village to meet his family and so on. But he introduced me to all of this.

And it's amazing to find these people with such an amazing existence. The brothers are soldiers, earning maybe 2000 baht a month -- 50-60 euros -- they have no access to ordinary life, and they're abused in their life. If you look at the pictures carefully you can see bruises on the arms of one of the brothers, and again, though it's not about pathos or whatever. People take to the pictures their own interpretations. Gay people see them as lovers but they're not, but I like that ambiguity. I like ambiguity. I don't want to teach anything. I just want to share what I saw. In that space, in the elevator from floor zero to floor four.

And some of the pictures will be stolen, I'm sure [Laughs.]


"Two Soldiers" is this Friday at Shanghai Studio. Event details here.


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