Discover the Thai capital's multilayered artworld with author and lecturer Rémy Jarry
The capital of Thailand’s name, Bangkok, hints at the city’s organic nature: Some scholars have suggested that it stems from the contraction of bang (บาง), meaning village, and makok (มะกอก), referring to a plant bearing olive-like fruit. With its rhizomatic structure and bottom-to-top dynamic, Bangkok’s art ecosystem epitomizes this characteristic perfectly.
Chaotic and energetic, the city showcases a genuine contemporary identity, thanks to its juxtapositions and contrasts – tradition and modernity, lushness and urbanity, glamour and rougher edges. With its Buddhist temples surrounded by luxury malls and advertising billboards, the city embodies the contemporary reconciliation between high and low art. Thus, the main characteristic of Bangkok’s art ecosystem is probably its hybrid and syncretic nature, blending traditions with today’s popular culture. Its hectic street culture and intangible cultural heritage – from monks’ chants to traditional tattoo art – have inspired many internationally established artists.
They include Alex Face (aka Patcharapol Tangrue; b. 1981), one of Asia’s most famous street artists, and Pinaree Sanpitak (b. 1961), whose breast-like stupas, recently exhibited at Nova Contemporary and still on show at the 100 Tonson Foundation, examine Bangkok’s traditional architecture while provoking sacred and sensual narratives. The city’s highly ritualized vernacular culture is also addressed in the practices of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (b. 1957) and Korakrit Arunanondchai (b. 1986), who, especially inspired by funerary and shamanistic rituals, have placed it at the core of their work through performance and video art.
Although it evolves within a very hierarchical society, the Thai contemporary art scene is not pyramidal, surprisingly. One can consider it a Taoist ecosystem, in light of the deep imprint left by Chinese culture on the city since the 18th century. This situation offers fertile ground and favors a bottom-up dynamic for all its actors, starting with artists – an aspect that is key to understanding Thailand’s art scene. Sometimes considered to be at the periphery of the global artworld, Thai artists actually stand at its core. They blend resources from different cultural spheres: Indian, Chinese, and Western, among others. In this regard, Navin Rawanchaikul (b. 1971) is an exemplary case, drawing on his Hindi-Punjabi roots throughout his career.
The list of internationally acclaimed Thai stars from successive generations is already long. In addition to Alex Face, Sanpitak, Rasdjarmrearnsook, Arunanondchai, and Rawanchaikul, Vasan Sitthiket (b. 1957), Mit Jai Inn (b. 1960), Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961), Manit Sriwanichpoom (b. 1961), Chatchai Puipia (b.1964), Sakarin Krue-On (b. 1965), Natee Utarit (b. 1970), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (b. 1970), and Kawita Vatanajyankur (b. 1987) can be counted among the most celebrated. There are also important tutelary figures who still have a huge influence over the art community, especially the Sino-Thai self-taught artist and poet Chang Sae-tang (1934–1990) and Thai avant-garde pioneer Montien Boonma (1953–2000).
Although they may not all be from or based in Bangkok, Thai artists regularly visit the capital, where they have become well-known figures through groundbreaking exhibitions and art-related initiatives. In parallel, several are lecturing and training young artists at institutions such as Silpakorn University, Bangkok. They have also displayed a strong entrepreneurial spirit, a common characteristic in Thai society. Several art spaces in Bangkok have been founded, or cofounded, by artists: Gallery VER by Tiravanija, Cartel Artspace by Jai Inn, and Kathmandu Photo Gallery by Sriwanichpoom, a renowned photographer. Thai artists are also often active as curators, both in their own spaces and for other institutions. Arunanondchai, for example, curated ‘Ghost:2561’, the video-art festival initiated by Bangkok CityCity Gallery in 2018.
Curators have contributed to establishing Bangkok and Thailand as artworld destinations. Apinan Poshyananda (b. 1956), the chief executive and artistic director of the Bangkok Art Biennale, has written extensively about Southeast Asian Modern and contemporary art. In 1996, he curated ‘Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions’, a seminal exhibition at the Asia Society galleries in New York City, showcasing young artists from emerging Asian countries. His international stature has enabled him to get the support of leading personalities from the artworld for the biennial, founded by one of Thailand’s biggest conglomerates. Its second edition, which recently finished, featured works by Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor, Yoko Ono, Rasdjarmrearnsook, Tiravanija, Rachel McLean, and Bill Viola, among others.
Gridthiya Gaweewong (b. 1964), the artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok, curated filmmaker and artist Weerasethakul’s retrospective ‘The Serenity of Madness’, which has traveled all over the world since it opened at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, in 2016. It was the inaugural exhibition of this private museum, founded by a Franco-Thai family: Jean Michel Beurdeley, his late wife Patsri Bunnag, and their son Eric Bunnag Booth, who is also the managing director of the Jim Thompson silk-apparel brand.
The role of Thai curators has been critical in a country where anonymity was the norm for painters and sculptors until the end of the 19th century. Indeed, in the Buddhist tradition, artistic creations would be seen as offerings and never attributed. That some prominent Thai artists started their careers overseas rather than in their native country is a result of this attitude. Some also remain more famous abroad than in their homeland due to their opposition to Thailand’s military-backed government.
Bangkok’s art scene has expanded significantly over the past 20 years, especially since the mid-2010s. Around 70 galleries and art spaces participated in the city's Galleries’ Night’ in February 2020. Most are located in the gentrified districts in the city center, such as Sathorn or Pathumwan. Along the Chao Phraya River, there is also the River City mall, which is dedicated to the visual arts and antiques; the Thai branch of Tang Contemporary Art is located there. Further south-east from here, a contemporary art cluster named N22 is home to several galleries (including VER and Cartel), artist residencies, and creative workshops. Located in industrial warehouses, it is characterized by a politically unapologetic approach to art.
While some observers highlight the fact that collecting contemporary art has not been identified as a priority by the Thai elite yet, a few prominent collectors are paving the way. Petch Osathanugrah (b. 1960) appears as a particularly notable representative. The Next-Gen Art Collectors Report for 2021, published by Larry’s List earlier this month, also identifies five important Millennial art buyers in Thailand. One of them is Kanachai “Kit” Bencharongkul (b. 1989), the son of the founder of MOCA Bangkok, Thailand’s biggest private museum. Bencharongkul was appointed the museum’s managing director in 2018, and recently formed a partnership with the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River which resulted in the creation of ART Space by MOCA Bangkok, a gallery located in the lower-ground floor of the hotel that showcases only Thai contemporary artists.
The main challenge Bangkok’s artworld faces is still its fragmentation, despite fruitful and successful collaborations between some of its actors. The pandemic has obviously weakened the city’s art ecosystem, but it continues to evolve, the recent transformation of 100 Tonson Gallery into an art foundation being the latest sign of this ongoing development. It has also proven to be resilient: The recent biennial took place despite the ongoing pandemic, and was even extended several weeks beyond its original end date.
Krung Thep (กรุงเทพ) – the City of Angels – is the official and shortest abbreviation for the city in the Thai language since it became the country’s capital in the 18th century. Thai people rarely use the name Bangkok to identify it. In a way, Krung Thep stands for its spiritual aura, while 'Bangkok' epitomizes its dense urban jungle. A megalopolis of more than 10 million people, the city can count on both to continue its dynamic evolution.
Rémy Jarry is an art historian specialized in Asian contemporary art. He has been a Lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, since 2015 and an Adjunct Professor at the Catholic University of Paris since 2019.