Since the late 1990s “Asian contemporary” has been largely defined by the progressive Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian art featured in global biennials, museum shows, commercial galleries and auctions. Recently, however, the bursting of the economic bubble in the world’s most highly developed nations has allowed avant-garde art in Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and even politically oppressed Myanmar—to emerge from the shadows and offer new possibilities for the future.
At the center of this development is the contemporary art scene of Thailand, currently concentrated in Bangkok, the nation’s capital, and Chiang Mai, a comparatively relaxed city in the northwestern region of the country. (The provincial outpost—relatively cheap and milder in climate—offers residency programs, collectives, a university arts center and a small but growing number of commercial galleries, all some 430 miles away from the grimy turmoil of Bangkok.) Over the past two decades, the country’s experimental artists have increasingly exhibited in Asia, America and Europe. In addition, Thailand has sponsored a national pavilion at four consecutive Venice Biennales since 2003, a record unmatched by any of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Sculptor and installation artist Montien Boonma (1953-2000), known for melding Buddhist beliefs with a modernist sensibility, was posthumously honored by a major retrospective—“Montien Boonma: Temple of the Mind”—at New York’s Asia Society and Museum in 2003 [see A.i.A., Feb. ’04]. And Rirkrit Tiravanija, born in Brazil in 1961 to Thai parents, gained worldwide attention with his food-sharing “stir fry” events of the 1990’s. Long identified with Thailand, where he has resided on and off over the years, the globe-trotting artist continues to inspire a new generation of Bangkok-based colleagues, who tend to be less interested in painting and sculpture than in time-based and often interactive projects.
A constitutional monarchy since 1932 with a current population of 65 million, Thailand is sometimes patronizingly described in the international press as a “land of smiles”—a stereotype fostered by the country’s indefatigable tourism industry, which plays to the West’s persistent desire to see Southeast Asia as a Bali Hai of sensual indulgences. At the same time, this primarily Buddhist nation, though never colonized, has long been beset by civic corruption, political factionalism and raucous, even violent social upheaval. Earlier this year, the looming specter of a return to power by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra weighed heavily on the capital’s contemporary art community. Elected by popular vote in 2001, Shinawatra was driven from office by a military coup in 2006, after being widely accused of subverting the constitution and abusing his position for personal profit. Although Thailand’s progressive artists doubtless benefited from Shinawatra’s promotion of rapid modernization and “boutique” consumerism, most of them regard the self-made telecommunications tycoon as an unqualified enemy of open expression and a free press. At this writing, his supporters continue to rally, although Shinawatra himself has gone into hiding in Cambodia, following the confiscation of $1.4 billion of his assets by the Thai supreme court.
One tangible outcome of Thailand’s accelerated modernization since the turn of the millennium is the capital’s new municipally sponsored contemporary art museum, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), which opened in the fall of 2008 after a decade of intense lobbying by Bangkok’s vanguard art community. (Many were irate that the National Gallery of Thailand, in a city awash with historical sites and museums, offers only a tiny collection of modernist art and a few hit-or-miss shows of contemporary work.) Viewed from its cavernous atrium, the BACC’s nine levels—two additional subterranean floors accommodate an art library and a capacious auditorium—draw one’s eye up a series of concentrically stacked rings. No philosophically inspired nautilus, the structure was conceived as a consumer magnet, sited within a stone’s throw of Bangkok’s new luxury shopping mecca, Siam Paragon. In fact, the first three stories above the rotunda were designed to accommodate brand-name retailers; the art museum proper begins on the fifth floor.
After dealing with myriad infrastructure problems (the building, by the American-run, Bangkok-based firm Robert G. Boughey and Associates, originally lacked proper lighting systems and adequate security features), acting BACC director Chatvichai Promadhattavedi has achieved a delicate balance between the museum’s commercial and nonprofit aspects, carefully orchestrating a number of small shops and display areas—art galleries and temporary project spaces as well as privately run art supply stores, cafés and specialty bookshops—within the “Art-rium” section of the building. The museum’s long-term mission, however, awaits full articulation. Under Promadhattavedi, whose status remains tentative despite his expertise in cultural development, the BACC has attempted to be all things to all audiences, its exhibitions tugging one’s attention in widely divergent directions. Largely honorific or socially didactic shows—local art school graduation thesis surveys, tributes to the royal court—alternate with more scholarly undertakings. Typical of the latter, “Krungthep 226”brought together architectural models, replicas of classical murals, paintings, sculptures, photographs and numerous other works (the roster exceeded 100 artists) to celebrate Bangkok’s modernization. (“Krungthep” is a short form of the city’s elaborate ceremonial name, and 226 the number of years from Bangkok’s formal inception as a municipality to the 2008 exhibition.) Between the late fall of 2009 and the early spring of 2010, three successive BACC exhibitions—“Twist and Shout,” “Trans-Cool Tokyo” and “Thai Yo”—testified to the local appeal of contemporary art and popular culture from Japan. The first two shows surveyed young Japanese artists; the third presented 30 Thai artists and designers influenced by manga and other vernacular Japanese sources.
It may well be that the BACC’s eclecticism stems from its late arrival to an art scene already well developed—and one about to evolve beyond all recognition. Western-style modern art made its first inroads in Thailand in the 1920s, with the arrival in Bangkok (by invitation of King Rama VI) of the Italian academic sculptor Corrado Feroci (1892-1962). Also known as Silpa Bhirasri (a name he adopted as a permanent expatriate and highly influential teacher), the artist designed or contributed to 18 figurative monuments in Thailand, nine of them in Bangkok. Although his own work remained formally conventional, Feroci founded a school in 1937 that quickly became a conduit for various modernist “-isms” from abroad and expanded, in 1943, into Silpakorn University, Bangkok’s premier art academy. Artists of the immediate post-Feroci/Bhirasri era are today some of the country’s most accomplished practitioners, sharing his intense regard for artworks as well-wrought objects of visual contemplation.
Painter and sculptor Chatchai Puipia (b. 1964), for example, makes expressionistic self-portraits that reflect a troubled personal attempt to reconcile Thai cultural heritage with the new world of unbridled consumerism (and simultaneous political and social unrest). For the “Pink Man” photo series (1997-present), Manit Sriwanichpoom (b. 1961) photographs a Thai everyman, played repeatedly by the same model in various urban circumstances. Dressed in a trademark pink suit (the color is associated with bar girls, comedians and other socially marginalized types) and accompanied by a matching pink shopping cart, this deadpan character stands immobilized before the mad spectacle of Thai retail commerce and touristic “history” displays. Painter and installation artist Pinaree Sanpitak (b. 1961) offers something else altogether—meditative canvases and sculptural arrangements whose stylized alms bowls, lotus blossoms and breast-stupa forms provide a respite from ceaseless urban confusion. Richard Tsao (b. 1954), long based in New York but closely linked to his Thai homeland, creates thickly layered, encrusted canvases distantly influenced by Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting but with a palette born in the flower market of Bangkok.
Other artists in the Feroci/Bhirasri lineage combine their studio practice with university teaching. Jakapan Vilasineekul (b. 1964), on the faculty of Silpakorn University, makes wry, large-scale assemblages that mix found objects (e.g., a stuffed elephant’s head) with created forms.
Be Takerng Pattanopas (b. 1965), of Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok’s Harvard), evokes the vulnerability of the human body, and the presence of inner spirituality, in steel sculptures that allow one to peep into illuminated cavities filled with intense color. Kamol Phaosavasdi (b. 1958), also of Chulalongkorn, frequently employs multiple video monitors to show sublime landscapes and other meditative subjects. Jakkai Siributr (b. 1969), a former studio instructor at Silpakorn University, stitches together swaths of popular Thai fabrics, turning the works’ collaged surfaces into backgrounds for sewn “drawings” of animal and human characters.
Younger artists tend to view the Feroci/Bhirasri legacy as a dated tradition to be transcended in favor of more esthetically radical approaches. Navin Rawanchaikul (b. 1971), often working through the artist collaborative Navin Production Co., Ltd., creates comic books, interactive projects (notably several involving taxicabs), installations and Bollywood-style billboards that comically address wide-ranging topical issues. Pratchaya Phinthong (b. 1974), a graduate of Silpakorn University, was later trained in conceptualist and process-oriented methods at the highly experimental Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste (Städelschule) in Frankfurt. This background has become fairly typical, as many new-generation Thai have studied and/or shown their work abroad. After graduation, Phinthong made a three-month overland journey home to Thailand. His solo debut, “Missing Objects” (2005), at Chulalongkorn University Art Center, featured a host of items—empty cigarette packs, color photographs, cryptic writings, inkjet posters, tourist souvenirs and other chance ephemera—collected by the artist during the course of his pilgrimage. Documenting a gradual process of self-reclamation, the show was in part an homage to Phinthong’s then recently deceased father, who had once bid adieu to an urbane life of academic studies in order to assume the role of a Buddhist monk in a rural temple.