Venice of the East? Bangkok's inaugural biennale showcases challenging Thai art
Contemporary art in Thailand has rarely enjoyed support from outside the private sector. And while the public infrastructure required to promote artists or assist galleries is nascent, the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) shows that the creative industries are able to rally the resources required to host a broad-ranging program of events.
The biennale, which opened this past weekend, isn't centered around one venue but, rather, spills out across temples, abandoned buildings, malls and public squares. The events' organizers are private companies and individuals instead of state officials or national institutions -- though this is often the case for art biennales.
Centered around the theme "Beyond Bliss," the program features dozens of artists across 20 venues. Among the latter are a number of major religious sites and tourist destinations along the Chao Phraya River, including the temple complexes of Wat Pho, Wat Prayurawongsawat and Wat Arun.
"We intentionally planned for BAB to be all-encompassing in its scope," the biennale's artistic director, Apinan Poshyananda, told CNN the day before the public opening. "The idea of placing some of the art along the river and within major heritage landmarks was particularly important for us. We wanted to signify a journey, both for the artists and the visitors, and create a parallel with the Grand Canal of Venice: We have the potential to become a valid counterpart to that biennale."
While international names like Marina Abramovic and Yayoi Kusama are likely to draw the biggest crowds, the focus on Southeast Asian -- and particularly Thai -- artists helps differentiate the event from its peers.
"First and foremost, BAB is a platform to put local artists onto the international map, as well as introducing them to Thai people," Poshyananda said. "That's why it matters: The ambition is to flex our cultural muscles, and position Bangkok -- and Thailand (more broadly) -- as a major art player."
There's a long way to go. Although a number of contemporary Thai artists have attracted international acclaim in recent years (in 2017, illustrator Phannapast Taychamaythakoolcollaborated with Gucci, while emerging artist Pannaphan Yodmanee won the Benesse Art Prize), and private galleries have opened in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country, the sector has remained relatively niche.
And if the government's modest budget towards contemporary arts is partly to blame, so is growing state suppression. High-profile acts of censorship, like the forced removal of political photographs from a Bangkok gallery last year, could pose a threat to the sustainable growth of Thailand's art market.
The state's role in the new biennale has been limited, although organizers say that national and city authorities provided some financial and publicity support, as well as granting venue permissions and facilitating talks with the city's Buddhist monks (who had to approve any artwork placed in their temples). Poshyananda said that the program benefits from its relative independence.
"Not having to 'prove' or owe anything to the government gives us the opportunity to be more daring in our program," Poshyananda said. "This is purely an artistic showcase -- we want the liberty to keep it that way.
"We don't want to tell artists what they can and can't do. And we want to be here again in two years, and two years after that. Relying on a regime that might change doesn't allow for that kind of planning, particularly budget-wise."
One of the biennale's curators, Adele Tan of the National Gallery Singapore, added in a phone interview: "An event like BAB can help people reach across boundaries by tackling ideas they might not have been exposed to otherwise. The funding might be private, but its effect is set to ripple through the public domain more than if we had government money behind it. We've created conversations between artists, visitors and spaces."
The biennale's most interesting artworks, installations and site-specific interventions are certainly bold in their subject matter. Many of them address the religious, political and social issues affecting Thailand today, revealing an eagerness to confront the constraints imposed from on high.
Nino Sarabutra's "What We Will Leave Behind?" is a case in point. The site-specific work sees 125,000 unglazed porcelain skulls covering a walkway around the white bell-shaped stupa of the Wat Prayurawongsawat temple, whose walls are traditionally stacked with the cremated ashes of monks.
The miniature skulls are artistic extensions of their surroundings -- a play on life and death. Visitors are invited to step on and move them as they circle the temple's corridors reflecting on both mortality and the legacy of the everyday.
Elsewhere, mixed works by the Muslimah Collective, a group of four Muslim female artists from southern Thailand, where a violent conflict between insurgents and the Thai military has raged since 2004, are poignant in their use of drawings, textiles and etchings to portray the consequences of violence.
Kawita Vatanajyankur's project "Performing Textiles," for instance, explores working conditions for Thai women. Through a series of visually captivating video performances, in which she transforms her body into the knitting needle of a spinning wheel or a mop submerged in a bucket of dye, Vatanajyankur addresses the stresses and dangers of working in the textile industry.
"My art aims to create social awareness around urgent issues," she said. "If people come here and take anything from it, maybe that's a way to change the state of things moving forward. That's why BAB is important."
"The event has put the spotlight on a series of topics that are hardly ever discussed publicly," said curator Luckana Kunavichayanont, the former director of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), which has dedicated an entire floor to the biennale. "There are exhibits tackling sex work, religious conflict in the south, migrant workers and female labor exploitation."
One of the biennale's advisors and the director of the National Gallery Singapore, Eugene Tan, sees the event as marking a new chapter for contemporary Thai art.
"BAB is a significant milestone in the development of art in Thailand and the region, coming at a pertinent time when the arts landscape in Bangkok is witnessing a certain dynamism," he wrote over email.
Whether this will encourage a shift in official attitudes towards art remains to be seen, though Kunavichayanont appears confident. "The number of visitors that BAB is set to attract (and) the window it offers to artists -- all these aspects are set to shake things up, and show authorities the potential contemporary art can have."
Bangkok Art Biennale runs until Feb. 3, 2019