Bangkok’s First Biennale: Politics, Temples and Sex

David Belcher, The New York Times, 14 January 2019
The city’s inaugural event has pushed the boundaries of censorship and what constitutes art — and how and where to display it.


BANGKOK — In the waning weeks of this city’s first biennale, original artwork continues to grace riversides, temples and shopping malls where tourists might not even notice anything out of the ordinary. It’s hard to get noticed here in the City of Angels, even if you’re a piece of art all dolled up at a temple.

The more than 200 pieces sprawled across this sprawling city through Feb. 3 are a fascinating testament to Bangkok’s desire to be more famous than infamous — more than a balmy and bewitching megalopolis of food and Buddhist and Hindu temples, not to mention its temples of debauchery.

That very soul that gives Bangkok its world-famous reputation is what’s fully on display in this biennale: the three-month-plus event has unflinchingly paid homage to all things Bangkok and Southeast Asia, of which it is unofficially the tourism and commercial center. It has taken the concept of the biennale and upended it. All exhibitions are free, unlike some biennales that charge more than $30 for entry fees to each exhibition space. Young people have responded, making it the most attended arts event in the city’s history.

Without incident, the exhibitions have taken up residence in some of the most revered sites across the city: there has been virtually no backlash from the military junta that has run the country since 2014, despite content that challenges the political and social order of Thailand. The biennale, entitled “Beyond Bliss,” has been entirely privately funded, which allowed it more artistic freedom, apparently, which has been somewhat unexpected. With postponed elections this spring and the coronation of the new king in May, the biennale has been a well-timed bit of limelight before politics and royal pageantry take over.

Scores of cities now host biennales, the every-two-years-let’s-put-on-a-show idea inaugurated in Venice in 1895. But few seem to have redefined it in quite the way Bangkok has. Seventy-five artists from 33 countries have participated, including celebrity names such as Yayoi Kusama and the performance artist Marina Abramovic. But about half are Thai, and they have pushed the limits of what is taboo in a country many assume is mostly free of taboos. Thailand’s almost flat-out refusal to accept Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, its troubling tensions in its far south between Muslims and the Thai military that have claimed thousands of lives since 2004, the abuse of migrant workers and the growing industrial pollution in the country’s rivers are all depicted here.

More than 20 locations have been not transformed so much as enhanced; sculptures are tucked into corners of shopping malls and bustling temples where swirling colors and textures often upstage many of the site-specific pieces. The long-abandoned 19th-century East Asiatic Building evokes the ones along Venice’s Grand Canal, but with a twist: a European remnant along the ever-shifting and bustling Chao Phraya River that is Bangkok’s jugular vein.

Last month, the typically uber-tan tourists stumbled around with their usual gait, the Silom district still reeled with knock-off watches being sold next to bars full of overly friendly lady boys while Muslim women in burqas and on their cellphones strolled by. But the traffic-clogged streets served up an occasional giant sculpture. The water taxis that connect the tourist dots along the Chao Phraya were viewing platforms for art pieces such as “Zero” by the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset, a vertical, 25-foot-tall image of a see-through oval swimming pool, from which to ponder the river’s ever-expanding skyline of luxury hotels and apartments.

Just a bit farther north are a few temples that embody Bangkok’s Hindu and Buddhist past and present. It is here where the biennale blends in most respectfully and gracefully. Most notably is the Thai artist Nino Sarabutra’s “What Will We Leave Behind,” more than 125,000 tea bag-size porcelain skulls that line the walkways of the Wat Prayurawongsawas temple. They massage the feet as you comb the temple. They glisten. They break. Life underfoot.

Next door at Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn, the touristy Buddhist temple that was restored in 2017 with the finest of detail, several artists have immersed their pieces gently into this vast complex of radiant tiles and selfie-obsessed tourists. And at Wat Po, the reclining Buddha temple across the river, the artist Huang Yong Ping has installed “Zuo You He Che,” a pair of massive legs topped with animal heads carrying scriptures in their mouths. The pieces meld seamlessly into their surroundings to the point that hundreds, if not thousands of tourists, pass by daily, never aware of the modern art infusion.

One of the Bangkok Biennale’s final acts is the performance artist Kawita Vatanajyankur’s “Knit,” a critique on how women are exploited in the work force. She weaves her body in and out of a loom of red yarn around 12 white poles in an oval shape, becoming knotted and contorted. This performance is not being performed in a museum or abandoned warehouse but in the soaring lobby of the posh Peninsula Hotel during afternoon tea — a new spin on how Bangkok’s engine of tourism and its women converge again.

But a more potent depiction of this idea is on display at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center, and it, like a few other pieces, has pushed the limits of censorship in Thailand. Chumpon Apisuk’s video installation “I Have Dreams,” shows sex workers from Chiang Mai directly addressing the viewer, giving a rare voice to the hundreds of thousands of women and men who the country — and its often careless tourists — mostly ignore.


“I have a dream, to build a new house for my family,” one woman says. “Then I can open a small grocery shop.” It’s a simple and earnest aspiration, heartbreaking and heartfelt. Yet it roars from a small video room in a corner of an arts center. Bangkok’s biennale has set the stage for its return in 2020 with the simplest of words and yet the most profound statement of how art can define a city — and redefine what it means to be racy and taboo in Bangkok.