Bangkok’s contemporary art scene frozen in the fray
Led by the regional economic and cultural powerhouses of Japan, China, and India, contemporary Asian art has enjoyed a steady rise for much of the last decade. Southeast Asia has also benefited from the art world’s recent Eastern gaze, with increased focus toward art from Vietnam, Indonesia and The Philippines.
But what about Thailand? Building upon its rich history of decorative and craft related art practice, as well as being strategically placed as a tourism and trade hub within the region, it has long been anticipated that the art scene here would also garner greater external interest.
However, the 2006 military coup and following political disruptions that included the yellow-shirt protestors’ occupation of Bangkok’s airport in 2008, and this year’s red-shirted encampment and violence in the capital’s commercial district, along with the global economic recession, have all been obstacles to Thai art’s forward march.
That said, Thailand’s contemporary arts scene has expanded steadily since the turn of the millennium with new commercial galleries regularly appearing across the Thai capital. (With Bangkok an urban planner’s worst nightmare, navigating the confusing sprawl of galleries has been made easier thanks to the publication of the comprehensive free monthly art resource guide, Bangkok Art Map.
Strong Buddhist influences, even today
Not surprisingly for a predominantly Buddhist nation, theologically aligned art has been the historic backbone of Thailand’s artistic ideology. And while today’s generation of artists are more personal and reflective in the art they produce, there remains an undeniable drive toward a more spiritual, and ostensibly Buddhist, path.
This can be seen in the pioneering aromatic installations of the late Montien Boonma, or the daily ritualized meditative creations of Chiang Mai based Kamin Lertchaiprasert, who nudge viewers to spiritually extricate themselves from the constraints of modern existence.
Most noticeable on the international radar are artists like Araya Rasdjarmreansook, Navin Rawanchaikul, Surasi Kusolwong, Sakarin Krue-on, and Nipan Oraniwesna, who harness media, situational and process art, with Asian identifiers. Of Thailand’s younger emergent artists, Tawan Wattuya is gaining notoriety for his satirical fluid watercolors that poke fun at conformity in Thai society, while Chusak Srikwan employs Nang talung, or shadow puppetry, to breakdown boundaries between folk art and fine art.
Where to find it
Considering that Bangkok has around 50 viewing platforms with a regular or occasional exhibition schedule, very little cutting-edge, multidisciplinary art manages to reach public attention. For the country’s less commercial artists, it is still Thailand’s higher education establishments of Silpakorn, Chulalongkorn, and Bangkok Universities that provide one of the only domestic arenas for more challenging art operandi.
Only a handful of independent spaces such as Whitespace, which falls under the curatorial directive of rising artist Maitree Siriboon, and Gallery Ver, which is run by Thailand’s leading conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is known for his interventionist pad-thai noodle cook-ups, have the creative initiative to stage non-commercial, multimedia displays.
Thailand’s arts professionals have long craved a contemporary art museum of international stature, so there was much fanfare when the 500 million baht Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) opened its doors in 2008. The Guggenheim meets a mall; the multi-story curvilinear edifice in the heart of the city’s shopping district is set to become a vital mechanism to the country’s contemporary cultural progression.
Despite a gradual rise in the price for domestic artworks, contemporary Thai art could still be considered undervalued. This is partially due to an under-stimulated local collecting base that prefers to acquire more conventional Buddhist focused art.
Also, when compared to its Asian neighbors, very few Thai artists are being represented at regional art auctions to provide an accurate barometer. Yet the international profile of Thai artists continues to rise steadily, as does demand for an adequate and capable domestic infrastructure that will enable creators a better support network.
Steven Pettifor is a Bangkok based artist, writer and curator. He is the author of "Flavours -- Thai Contemporary Art."