20th Aug. 2015 I arrived in Bangkok to continue work on self-organized & artist run spaces. With travel support from UKS, The Young Artists Society of Norway, I aim to map out the local art scene through visiting art galleries, cultural institutions and other cultural platforms. The plan is to try to speak to as many local cultural producers, artist, gallery holders, curators etc. My time is limited, but I hope to find out what is happening in the city, why it seems so hard to enter as an outsider, what the level and quality is of the exhibitions and the critical discourse. I will write about the spaces as I go, these writings and reflections will necessarily stay on the surface a bit, due to time restraints and limited pre-knowledge about the local scene. It’s not easy to find much information about the identity and characteristic of the Thai art scene, if there even is an overarching one.
On the first day, I visited the SIAM Society and BACC, two of the more prominent institutes in Bangkok, but they represent an entirely different part of cultural life in the city. The SIAM Society was founded under Royal patronage in 1904. Its holds a museum, a library, a bookshop, conference spaces for meetings and lectures. The library is free for all to visit, but you have to pay a fee for using computers. The collection focuses on the history, natural and cultural heritages of South-East Asia. Most lectures seems to be focused on anthropology, archaeology and history of sites, buildings as well as the botanical richness of the East.You can apply to become member, once accepted the membership fee is very high for normal Thai laborers. The Society also organizes study trips to historical sites in Thailand such as for example to Ayutaya, as well as international locations such as Iceland. The cost for such travels seems to me so high that only very few percentage Thai could consider joining. The library is a treasure in its own right, with much specialized literature and it’s a calm oasis to escape from hectic Bangkok to work or just sit and peruse through books. Unfortunately I doubts that locals would know about the place, let alone set foot, inside. There is a quite high threshold to cross, due to its exclusive and elite feel. As I heard from a local artist, ‘The Siam Society was never made for the Thai people, it was made for foreigners and it exoticizes South-East culture and history’. However I think it is great that there was/is an attempt at conserving local culture in such a way. Last time I was here, I found an incredibly interesting Anthropology book called Reflections on Thai Culture, written by William J. Klausner.
The BACC, represent the heart of the contemporary art scene. It’s a building, like many art buildings in Europe, which is quite recognizable in form, on the inside reminiscent of the circular twirling shape of the Guggenheim Museum in NY. Unlike European museum models, the building is inhabited by commercial book shops, cafe’s, smaller galleries, art stores. This time Photobangkok, an exhibition as part of a larger festival PhotoBangkokFestival has taken over most of the floor, while the conference/screening rooms were occupied by the 17th Thai Short Film and Video Festival. The selected young photographers shown here exhibited a range of humorous and political work, I especially liked the series by Pongsathorn Leelaprachakul called Authority and Sarawut Tae-o-sot called Reality Really? I still have to return to see Pause, an exhibition part of the festival on the top floor. More on this later.
21-22 aug. 2015, I attentended a artist talk about the exhibition Through the Place and Image, which is also part of PhotoBangkok, showing work by Chulayarnnon Siriphol and Latthapon Korkiatarkul, curated by Suebsang Sangwachirapiban at Chulalongkort Art Centre. The Chula-Art Center is part of Bangkok University, it finds itself on the 7th floor of the library building of the campus. You have to pass through security and leave your ID in order to enter, if you are not a student or staff here. The works in the show were not photographs but are chosen due to the use of and affinity to photography. Curator of the exhibition S. Sangwachirapiban introduced the talk with discussing the history and the role of the Chula-Art center, topics shortly mentioned are shared authorship, flexibility of space, the gallery as question mark and experimental laboratory. The two artists C. Siriphol and L. Korkiatarkul gave a short overview on their respective practices. The former was discussing ideas related to using information from the actual space, to construct extra layers of information on top of the space again. The artist works with, amongst others, lights changes within a given room and animated projections of shapes on the gallery’s walls and corners. There were many illusory elements at play, which suggested an unfolding of the space, or different layers of movements and perception. L. Korkiatarkul, also works with space and perception but from a more minimal and laborious angle: such as retracing marks which has been left from people fixing up a gallery space after an exhibition or fixing up a wall to shear white gloss and perfection as part of a group show, enduring work that possibly few would notice. Something about his work and way of conversing about his works reminds me of Robert Irwins reflections in Seeing Something is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: the artist satisfaction in pursuing something trough, following up a small fascination to its actualization. Some of the ideas about the history of the art center itself seemed rather explanatory and didactic. Unfortunately there was no discussion between artists and between artist and audience afterwards. However it was exciting to see the process of the two young artists in the show. The Chula-Art Center is a large white box, a space which can be partitioned, it lends itself well to two dimensional work, as well as video.
I attended an artist talk on “DIASPORA and IDENTITY” by Chris Chong Chan Fui, (Malaysia/Canada) and Nipan Oranniwesna (Thailand) at the Jim Thompson House. The talk at the Jim Thompson House, was by two artist of the exhibition taking place now, called Missing Links which is curated by Gridthiya Gaweewong. I cannot tell you how relieved I am to see a woman curator in an important institutional role here. As most will know, Thailand is a very patriarchal society, and woman in art, just like in all other field I can think of, are absolutely under represented. In the period I have been working on this research project, I have rarely heard mention of important female artists, even observing the artist participating in the huge PhotoBangkok festival at the moment it becomes quickly clear that the gender imbalance here is immense. I have also at times strongly felt that I am stepping out of the expected bounds here, approaching curators and artist. In the quite cemented pecking order here, I suppose to be so humble as to the point of silence: being young, and female has its imitations here. I suppose I am half way being excused, because I do not seem much like a Thai anymore. More about this at a later stage, when I have gathered more facts.
The artist presentation by Chris Chong Chan Fui, was very engaging: as he himself admits he prefers to start working from structural and technical decisions and it is these decisions that determines the following narrative. As a consequence of his preferred work method, the talk was also organized as such. Addressing issues of form and structure, which forms open ended narratives. As for recurring themes in his work, I would pin point the blurring boundary between the artificial and what we presume or accept as the natural/authentic/identity of places, plants and people. Nipan Oranniwesna, is one of the teacher at Bangkok University, and his students were well represented in the audience. He is clearly a well loved ‘Ajan’ (Thai for teacher). The main topics of Ajans Nipan’s work are historical memory, minority cheap labors who forms the skeleton of the Thai society, such as the Isan people and Burmese immigrants. Like the artist, I am from Isan, the North-east of Thailand. Therefore I do have a weal spot for what he aims to make visible through his work. For example that ‘white’ people who come to Thailand to work or otherwise or being respected and praised, while immigrants of Burma or looked down upon, in similar veins as immigrated Thai workers in Singapore for example are under valuated, although they have paved the way for more jobs for the younger generation.
After the artist talk I met Irish art writer and curator Brian Curtin and artist Be Takerng Pattanopas for a conversation about the art scene here.Brian has been working on and off in Bangkok for the past fifteen years. He shared with me some of his ideas about the Thai art scene, the lack of a collective spirit due to competitiveness, as well as the strong presence of traditions related to the idea of ‘keeping face’. Both Brian and Be also told me about the extreme lack of funding, the extensive under evaluation of art both by the local government and the Thai citizens. Keeping this in mind it is quite impressive how art spaces seemed to have popped up like mushrooms: there is certainly a will and interest to establish a contemporary art scene. However, due to the fact that most gallery are supported by private funds, or artist / gallery holders working day jobs, it’s hard to see the sustainability of it all. As Brian said, in contradistinction to Singapore or Korea, where there are funding bodies, art patrons and corporate sponsorship, I seem to see no structural support to bring artists out into an international art scene.
Later in the evening I went to visit an art opening by Daniel Sewell at Whitespace Gallery. His work dealt with topics of prostitution and sex through provocative- raw – trash art, reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s work. Part of the exhibition also entailed improvised lyrics and music, inspired by Maw Lams, a Thai traditional manner of folklore singing, and fluxus way of composing. The topic of prostitution and sex workers, is such a sore topic within the history of Thailand, I applaud people working with the topic, but I would hope that there are more in depth and sensitive ways of approaching this problematic topic. The Whitespace Gallery, from what I can gather, seems to be a quite young space trying to support young artist, they aim for an open/experimental approach. The space itself, is a quite typical white box, but it lends itself well to smaller scale intimate exhibitions and experiments.
23th Aug. 2015, Sunday, all stores are closed but not the galleries. I passed by H Gallery, where Brian Curtin works as a curator, and at Kathmandu Gallery owned by internationally acclaimed photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom. H Gallery, is a quite unusual space, with more authentic Thai wood details. You need to ring the bell to enter. At the moment, there was an exhibition going on by Frank Day’s Call Waiting: Bangkok Phone Booths as well as work by Australian Giles Ryder called Tropical Malice, showing paintings and a neon light circular wall work. At Kathmandu Gallery, a gallery focused on photography, you will find a book store focusing on artist books and photography as well as an art shop on the groundfloor where you could buy framed photographs by M. Sriwanichpoom and other artist. On the upper floor there is a charming, white and green walled gallery space, at the moment showing an exhibition coined Signs by Akkara Naktamna. None of the works really seemed to stir anything in me, Giles Ryder works were reminiscent of textiles in the North-East used to wrap around head or waist, a characteristic sight connected for me to the rice farming culture. They were well painted, but because they were un-stretched, they started to fold inwards at the edges which seemed sloppy. Akkara Naktamna‘s Signs, showed amongst others pictures of trees/plantation which were characterized by ghost-like shapes.