There has been a huge proliferation of biennales in recent years, with nearly 250 biennials currently operating globally, listed by the Biennial Foundation’s Directory of Biennials. They have become a marker of a must-see modern city, a showing off of soft power, a rapacious consumption of culture and a drawcard for cultural tourism. Thailand recently joined the ranks of Biennale cities with not one but three art biennales kicking off this year.
The first ever Bangkok Art Biennale which opened on 19 October was followed by the first Thailand Biennale which launched on the November 2 in Krabi province, and also the grass-roots Bangkok Biennale that ran from July to September. Bangkok-born, New York-based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai also curated Ghost:2561, a new video and performance art series that will take place in Bangkok every three years (technically a triennial). The Bangkok Art Biennale has already secured private and corporate funding for its next three editions, ensuring its status as a biennale, in theory at least.
The Thai capital with a population of almost ten million is one of the fastest-growing cities in South East Asia. The Bangkok Art Biennale is the latest endeavour of the city to transform its image into that of a cultural metropolis, after settling into political and economic stability following a political crisis and coup d’etat which shook the country in 2014. Sprawled across 20 venues in the city, the biennale features works from 75 international and regional artists– with roughly half of the artists hailing from Thailand. Led by chief executive and artistic director Apinan Poshyananda– who is also the former Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Thailand– the biennale includes well-known Thai artists Sakarin Krue-on, Chumpon Apisuk, Natee Utarit, Pichet Klunchun,and Kawita Vatanajyankur; as well as renowned figures from the Asia region, including Huang Yong Ping, Yoshitomo Nara, Ho Tzu Nyen, Heri Dono and Choi Jeong Hwa; Fiona Hall from Australia, who represented the country at the 2015 Venice Biennale; and international artists including Jean Michel Basquiat (the only American artist); Francesco Clemente; artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset; and performance artist Marina Abramović.
Although predicated on the international biennale model, the Bangkok biennale is also uniquely Thai. The biennale leads visitors on a journey through Bangkok and its rich history, a city-wide art treasure hunt, from the banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River–where many of the exhibition venues are located– to formerly derelict buildings, museums, shopping malls, parks, commercial buildings, hotels and temples. All free and open to the public.
Titled Beyond Bliss Apinan stated that artists were invited ‘to comment on the lack of bliss due to political clashes, diseases, pollution and migration.’ This could have been empty rhetoric–particularly in a country ruled by military junta and where censorship is still a concern– but this biennale delivered as artists pondered the meaning of bliss against a backdrop of political uncertainty and rising populism, xenophobia, violence against women, and increasing environmental devastation plaguing the globe. The result is a tightly curated biennale which looks both inward and outward, a showcase for social and cultural taboos and in which political displacement and racial discrimination, gender, geopolitical tensions, environmental concerns, and social stigmas are addressed. Biennales can play a role in directing attention to local and international political and social issues, and this biennale doesn’t shy away from the challenge.
At Thailand’s largest public art centre, the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre– an institute whose future now hangs in the balance after government funding was cut off a year ago– the works of twenty of the biennale artists are showcased. Visitors are greeted by Choi Jeong-hwa’s ‘Happy Happy Project: Basket’ (2018), five-storey-high towers of colourful cheap plastic baskets, hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the building like chandeliers. It is a deceptively cheerful work, hinting at the superficial instant happiness derived from consumption, of the accumulation of more and more plastic things. This plastic addiction is also perilous. Like many of the works to be found at the Arts and Culture Centre, it is engaging and thought provoking with a darker subtext.
Just inside the main exhibition hall visitors cluster into a small separate screening space set up with bar and lounge chairs to watch the video ‘I Have Dreams’ (2018) by Thai artist Chumpon Apisuk. The film features a dozen sex workers from the northern city of Chiang Mai, talking about their dreams and hopes for the future: to be respected for the work they do; to make enough money to support their family; to own a house or a business. The film gives these marginalised and often persecuted women a voice and dignity. On a wall before the screen, ‘Mida Tapestry’ (2011), an embroidery made by migrant sex workers, records a police raid at Mida Karaoke in Chiang Mai that resulted in the detainment of some that the women. This is one of many works that addresses the problems facing sex workers and women in many Asian countries.
There is a strong representation of quality work by female artists throughout the biennale, that does more than merely pay lip service to the current ‘trend’ for female artists. ‘The Check Point’ (2018) by Myanmar artist Nge Lay, explores the ongoing social and cultural inequality and oppression women in Myanmar are subjected to. Collaborating with village women, the artist uses traditional longyi from eight main ethnic groups in Myanmar to create a walk-through textile vagina. So embedded is the idea that women and even women’s garments are of lesser value in Myanmar, that there is a long held superstition that to come into contact with a woman’s longyi or undergarments can sap men of their vitality. Visitors are encouraged not just to come into contact with the vaginal longyi installation, but to pass through it, in a symbolic act of rebirth. ‘I’d like the audience to pass through my work as a door and a gate, and realize that this is not a dirty thing or a thing to make your status fall, and to value and realise that this is where you began, mother, nature, or the earth’ she states. Another opportunity at rebirth is presented by Numen for Use Design Collective from Croatia whose ‘Tape Bangkok’ (2018), a long funnel web- like tunnel winds its way through the BACC exhibition space. Made from adhesive tape stretching from ceiling to floor, viewers are encouraged to crawl through the translucent tunnels.
The Muslimah Collective, five young Muslim female artists from the south of Thailand, present a collection of textile works, graphite on paper, and woven natural fibres, which reflect on both the ongoing violence of war between Islamist insurgents–fighting for independence or autonomy from the Buddhist Thai state–and Thai military in the region and its impact on the daily lives of ordinary people. Raging since 2004, the slow burning conflict has resulted in the deaths of almost 7,000 people. Fiona Hall’s ‘Forest Floor’ (2018), a mass grave of broken bottles painted with skeletal parts strewn like leaves across a forest floor, touches on the residue of conflict and genocide, a commentary on the violence and atrocities committed against indigenous people of Australia under colonialism.
Taking place in a separate room on the top floor of the art and culture space is The Method 2018, eight durational performances by Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI) performers from across the globe. In a space enclosed by barbed wire, Nyan Lin Htet from Myanmar stands absolutely still, staring out into nothingness – a protest against the treatment of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and other migrants–as audience members walk around the enclosure. Elsewhere in the space performers wearing white were engaged in their tasks of staring, shuffling, spitting, repeating the same gestures in silence for eight hours each day, six days a week, trapped in a purgatory of repetitive actions. The atmosphere is almost cult-like, with a strict prohibition on photo-taking, encouraging viewers to be present, and visitors walking from performance to performance in reverent silence.
Outside the arts centre stands another Burmese artist’s work, sculptor Sornchai Phongsa’s vast bamboo installation, ‘Alien Capital’ built in collaboration with illegal migrant workers whom he hired. The work turns a spotlight on the plight of migrant workers in Thailand, but is also deeply personal. As the child of illegal migrant labourers from Myanmar who had fled ethnic persecution to Thailand before he was born, Phongsa grew up with no ID card, no citizenship and no rights – an illegal alien in the country in which he had grown up.
A little further afield at the heritage East Asiatic Building –site of the beginning of trading between Denmark and Siam–located on the waterfront before the building, stands Danish artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset’s eight metre-high ‘Zero’ (2018). The towering outline of a swimming pool framing a luxury hotel across the river, is the artists’ second high profile pool sculpture since the Van Gogh’s Ear was exhibited outside the Rockefeller Centre in 2016. The duo took the theme of Beyond Bliss to highlight the enormous tourist industry in Thailand, which promises paradise getaways where the swimming pool features as a central element.
Close-by, outside the Mandarin Oriental, a large golden pitbull– the kind of installation you expect to see at a luxury property development– by French artist Aurele, peeks out onto the street. Another large pooch can be found at One Bangkok commercial building, where Yoshitomo Nara has installed the four-metre long ‘Your Dog’ (2017). Where female artists turned their attentions to raising awareness about the inequities they suffered in their respective societies, male artists seemed still focused on size, demanding to be seen above all else.
Inside the once disused East Asiatic Building building– which is now earmarked for development into the luxury Plaza Athenee hotel– a silver interstellar site-specific installation, ‘Diluvium’ by Korean artist Lee Bul takes over almost half the floor. Creeping like mercury across the floor and walls of the heritage space, sharp angular platforms and spikes jut out of the floor like metallic stalactites or shards of glass, defying gravity. It is a radical juxtaposition of the futuristic against the building’s old heritage interior.
More juxtaposition of old and new was to be found in artist commissions situated in ancient temples. Several religious sites invited art pilgrims to go beyond bliss to contemplate mortality and the spiritual within the walls of Buddhist temples while engaging with the interactive and accessible site specific works. At the stupa of Wat Prayoon–also known as the Temple of the Iron Fence–125,000 unglazed by Nino Sarabutra, titled ‘What Will You Leave Behind?’ (2018) lined the floor of the columbarium surrounding the blinding white stupa, a crackling as of bones underfoot as visitors walked along them barefoot. Respectful and harmonious to the environment, it was a poignant mediation on mortality, as visitors wound their way down the crematorium lined walkway. At Wat Arun, Thai artist Komrit Tepthian created a large sculpture called Giant Twins that combines traditional effigies of Chinese and Thai warriors in the form of Siamese twins, a commentary on the inextricable mixing of the two cultures.
Works in shopping malls nestled in the ‘bliss’ offered through consumerist escapism. Yayoi Kusama’s ’14 Pumpkins’ (2017), an installation of giant inflatable polka-dot pumpkins are suspended from the ceilings of Central World, an upmarket shopping mall in the commercial heart of Bangkok. If you’ve seen one pumpkin, you’ve seen them all, but the venue seemed fitting for works by an artist which are familiar on handbags and t-shirts , or a window display at Louis Vuitton.
At the heritage luxury mall, OP Place, a step away from the Mandarin Oriental, Filipina artist Eisa Jocson’s ‘Becoming White’ (2018) deconstructs the fairy-tale of Snow White with a series consisting of performance, works on paper, videos, sound installation and sculptures that critique the idea that happiness is predicated on ‘whiteness’. The work was made in reference to Disneyland Hong Kong where ‘a legion of dancers from the Philippines are employed as professional entertainers to repeat performances of happiness as their daily labour. Excluded from the main roles that are reserved for specific racial profiles, they are assigned anonymous supporting roles such as a zebra in The Lion King, a coral in The Little Mermaid, a monkey in Tarzan,’ the artist states in the biennale catalogue.
Although biennales are popping up around the world at a rate of sporting events during Australian summer– with each city trying to lure international attention and tourist dollars to big name artists and spectacular installations– the Bangkok Art Biennale does manage to be more than another event in the experience and cultural economy. It succeeds in opening up discourses on public spaces and animating the environment in which they are placed. The Bangkok Biennale brings back the focus on the experience of art. Thailand gets more than its fair share of tourists, but the biennale encourages cultural tourism, rather than the nocturnal tourism that that has become synonymous with the ‘Land of Smiles’. And in a city where there is little government funding for the arts perhaps it will even be a catalyst for change, providing a little bit of a push in the creation of cultural infrastructure.
Nino Sarabutra, ‘What Will You Leave Behind?’, 2012, 1250,000 unglazed porcelain skulls. Wat Prayurawongsawas Waraviharn (Temple of the Iron Fence)
Bangkok Art Biennale –19 October 19, 2018 – 3 February 3, 2019