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Bangkok Art Scene 2562

 Detail of  The Curatorman  (2004), by Nawin Rawanchaikul, with portraits of personalities of the Bangkok art scene Courtesy of MAIIAM
 Performance at JAM Café
 Sakarin Kure-On Tatien  (2018, video still) at Bangkok Art Biennial Courtesy Bangkok Art Biennial 2018
 Thanapol Virunhakul The Retreat Gallery Drift  at Ghost:2561
 Outside of Bangkok Arts & Culture Center
 Sanitas Pradittasnee Across the Universe and Beyond  (2018) at Bangkok Art Biennial Courtesy Bangkok Art Biennial 2018
 Installation view of “Beyond the Final Frontier” at Subhashok Art Centre, 2019
 Sornchai Phongsa Alien Capital  (2018) at Bangkok Art Biennial Courtesy Bangkok Art Biennial 2018
 Bangkok Art Book Fair 2018
 Apichatpong Weerasethakul Blue  (2018, Performance) at Ghost:2561
 Chai Siris and Tada Hengsapkul Installation view of “Under The Same Sky” (2016) at Nova Contemporary Courtesy of Nova Contemporary
 Adisak Chocksongsaeng Installation view of “Being There” (2017) at Speedy Grandma
 Dusadee Huntrakul Installation view of “There are More Monsoon Songs Elsewhere” at 100 Tonson, 2018
 Talk series  Soldier/Senility  by Apichatpong Weerasethaku who invited retired-soldiers to discuss the military’s role in Thai society. Photo: October 2016
 Navin Rawanchaikul Installation view of  A Tales of Two Homes (O.K. Store)  (2019) at Bangkok CityCity Gallery
 Tammarat Kittiwatanokun Installation view of  Natural Wonders  (2018-19, series) at Ku Bar Project Space 
 Conversation during book launch of “Artist-to-Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai 1992-98” Installation view at Jim Thompson Art Center, Courtesy Jim Thompson Art Center, 2018
 Installation view of “Platoexpectonum”at Speedy Grandma
 Jon Rafman Deluge  (2018, Installation view) at Ghost:2561

For Spike's fourth installment in a series (after Vienna, Dallas and Copenhagen) of close-ups on the art scenes of various cities, Abhijan Toto presents a cartography of contemporary art in Bangkok.

 

By all accounts, there is an immediately palpable energy in Bangkok’s independent art scene. In 2018, there were anywhere between four and six (or possibly more!) biennales and large-scale exhibitions throughout country happening concurrently or within a few months of each other: the corporate-sponsored Bangkok Art Biennale, the Ministry of Culture’s Thailand Biennale, the artist-run events Ghost:2561, Bangkok Biennial, and Khon Kaen Manifesto – the list goes on. Yet the lack of a single coherent narrative is what marks the scene. The scenes in the city and the country at large seem to be moving at different, albeit entangled, velocities and scales all at once, and are often unable (or unwilling) to agree on their own histories. As curator and scholar David Teh acknowledges in Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary (2017), a definitive canon of contemporary Thai art has yet to be written. 

It would be wildly inaccurate to say that the Thai art scene is “finally” coming to international attention (which usually means that the roving Eye of Sauron of Western art institutions has found another “exotic” location to colonise), but rather, as Teh further argues, citing such figures as Rirkrit Tiravanija, that Thai contemporary art has always developed in the midst of international networks, in both institutional Western and self-organised Asian contexts (the public art and culture festival Chiang Mai Social Installation, which occurred throughout the 1990s, is a prime example of the latter). Perhaps it’s the promise of this year’s elections or new generations of practitioners coming into play that are signalling the return of a cautious hope, but the last year alone has seen the number of project spaces in the city skyrocket, spreading particularly around the Chareon Krung and Sukhumvit areas of Bangkok. This fact may seem surprising in the context of a country ruled by a military junta that took over via a coup in 2014 and with strict lèse-majesté laws, especially given the almost total lack of public funding and market support. An exception to this has been the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center (BACC), helmed by Pawit Mahasarinand and located in the new centre of the city at Siam Square. Last year, however, the city government manouvered to defund the space, a move some believe had to do with it being a prominent space of anti-government protests. The future of the space has thus been thrown into jeopardy, but despite this precarious condition its ongoing flagship initiative, the Early Years Project, continues to showcase some of the most exciting local young voices.

 

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The BACC aside, the current churning of the Bangkok scene is led by a fleet of independent spaces and non-profits – both older, more established spaces and newer ones, as well as a small handful of commercial galleries. The most prominent non-profit institution is possibly the Jim Thompson Art Centre (JTAC), a stone’s throw away from the BACC. Located in the heritage compound of the Jim Thompson House, the Art Centre, set up by philanthropist and collector Eric Booth, who also established MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, is helmed by Gridthiya “Jeab” Gaweewong (who was also one of the curators of the 2018 Gwangju Biennale). An extension is scheduled to open later this year and past exhibitions include 2017’s “Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs”, curated by Cosmin Costinas (Artistic Director of Para Site, Hong Kong) and Inti Guerreo (Artistic Director of Bellas Artes Projects, the Philippines), and “People, Money, Ghosts (Movement as Metaphor)”, curated by Roger Nelson (Curator, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore) also in 2017; that same year, MAIIAM hosted “Serenity of Madness”, a large-scale retrospective of experimental filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, curated by Gaweewong. JTAC is also strongly involved with researching Thai contemporary art history, having recently collaborated with Afterall to produce a volume on Chiang Mai Social Installation. In terms of smaller scale institutions with consistently experimental programs, the Bangkok University Gallery (BUG), run by Fahsai Jayawan, should also be mentioned; Jayawan also oversees the programming of the independent venue CASE Space Revolution in Sukhumvit. 

 

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In Bangkok’s independent scene, the district N22, named for its location at Narathiwas Soi 22, has become a hub for young and experimental practitioners. Sharing a warehouse with a fish-sauce factory in the middle of an upper-middle class neighbourhood, N22 is home to the studios of artists Takerng Pattanopas, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, and Kamol Phaosavadi, as well as non-profit and commercial spaces including Tentacles, Gallery VER, Cartel Artspace, and Artist+Run. Each location has a distinct approach: VER, founded by Rikrit Tiravanija, shows mostly mid-career and established artists in the Thai scene, such as Phaosavadi and Wantanee Siripattananuntkul in its main room, and younger, more experimental artists in its project space; Tentacles, directed by Henry Tan, hosts the city’s only open residency program and is dedicated to supporting a new generation of artists in Thailand, while simultaneously maintaining an incredibly international program; Cartel, established by artist Mit Jai In, acts as a platform for leftist politics and projects which are critical of the current regime; and Artist+Run, initiated by artist Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, focuses on new experiments in painting.

 

“In Thailand, every five years, just like Germany has documenta, we have a military coup d’Etat”

 

Not far from N22, near Lumphini Park – once a popular protest site – is Bangkok CityCity Gallery, established by Akapol “Op” Sudasna and Supamas “Luktan” Phahulo. Named after a lyric written by artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, the gallery has increasingly taken on the role of a non-profit institution, most significantly by launching the Ghost:2561festival, the first edition of which took place in 2018. Curated by Arunanondchai, the video and performance art series brought established names such as Hito Steyerl, DIS, Samson Young, and Boychild together with younger Thai practitioners such as Chulayarnnon Siriphol and Thanapol Virulhakul, and took place in multiple venues across the city, including N22 and the Subhashok Art Centre – not to mention it was also free and open to the public. Aside from CityCity’s impressive line-up, which recently included solo shows by Pratchaya Phinthong and Navin Rawanchaikul, the gallery also hosts the Bangkok Art Book Fair, an important forum for self-publishing in the region and beyond. 

 

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On Chareon Krung Road in Chinatown, the project space Speedy Grandma, run by artist and designer Unchalee “Lee” Anantawat (who also manages the independent publishing house POOP Press), is another site shaping contemporary movements in Bangkok, having for a long time given space to young artists who didn’t necessarily fit into the institutional landscape. Significantly, Anantawat and small group of artists also initiated and ran the guerrila, rhizomatic Bangkok Biennial, which occurred from June to October 2018 and became a site for younger practitioners to release a great deal of pent up energy. Organised via an open call, the Biennial had “pavilions” across not just the city, but also internationally, including projects in Pattani, in southern Thailand, as well as in Europe. Several spaces that began as pavilions eventually became project spaces in their own right, such as Sangnual lap (run by Napat Vatanakuljaras) and CONDO Artspace, in the outskirts of the city. The Biennial also tapped into the energy of existing artist-run spaces such as JAM Café, one of the most important places in the city for experimental sound practices and whose exhibition programme brings together artists of multiple generations. 

 

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The independent art scene has provided a significant space for navigating Thailand’s complex, and often oppressive, political reality. An important example of this is The Reading Room, an art library and multidisciplinary project space, located in Silom and headed by Narawan “Kyo” Pathomvat, whose programme brings together artists, cinephiles, activists, and academics of a leftist persuasion. The Reading Room recently concluded “Solidarities”, a discursive and screening series aimed at connecting student movements across Southeast Asia. WTF Gallery and Café, directed by Somrak Sila and located in Sukhumvit, is another important space dedicated to dissident voices, with shows that offer commentary on contemporary Thai politics. Such projects have included “Proxy”, curated by Josef Ng, and “Conflicted Visions”, which featured work by artists like Miti Ruangkritya and Pisitakun Kuantalaeng. Showing or discussing politically charged content does not come without its consequences however; both directrices have faced military surveillance and censorship. 

With the long-promised elections – the first since the military junta took over in 2014 – finally around the corner there is a feeling of cautious optimism in the air, and a feeling that being critical is possible again. But as Gaweewong, with her characteristic sense of humour, said to me during an interview, “In Thailand, every five years, just like Germany has documenta, we have a military coup d’état”.

 

ABHIJAN TOTO is an independent curator and co-director of the Forest Curriculum. He is based in Bangkok.

Part two of this feature on the Bangkok art scene, three interviews with Gridthiya “Jeab” Gaweewong (artistic director of JTAC and Founder and Director of Project 304), Unchalee “Lee” Anantawat, (founder and director of Speedy Grandma),  and Narawan “Kyo” Pathomvat (founder and director of The Reading Room), can be read here.

 

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Links

 

100 Tonson
Website

Bangkok Art Book Fair
Website

Bangkok Art Biennial
Website

Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre
Website

Bangkok CityCity Gallery
Website

Bangkok University Gallery
Facebook

CASE Space
Facebook

CONDO Artspace
Website

Early Years Project
Facebook

Ghost:2561
Website

H Gallery
Website

JAM
Facebook

Jim Thompson Art Centre
Website

N22
Artist+Run
Gallery VER
Tentacles Artspace
Cartel Artspace

Nova Contemporary
Website

The Reading Room
Website

Sangnual Lap
Facebook

Speedy Grandma
Facebook

Subhashok Art Centre
Website

Tang Contemporary
Website

WTF Café and Gallery
Facebook