Venice Playing on its reputation as the fabled Land of Smiles, Thailand will this year transform its national pavilion into “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd.,” a fictive “tourism service company” created by Bangkok-based artists Michael Shoawanasai (b. 1964), Sakarin Krue-on (b. 1965), Suporn Shoosongdej (b. 1966), Wantanee Siripattananuntakul (b. 1974) and Sudsiri Pui-ock (b. 1976). The installation—marking the first time all five artists have collaborated—brings together interactive video programs, mock newscasts, faux advertisements, resplendent digital posters, hyperbolic travel brochures, a dating website and other components trumpeting Thailand’s countless attractions for foreign visitors.
Although Thailand has participated in the Venice Biennale only since 2003, its connection with Italian art and culture dates to 1897, when King Chulalongkorn of Siam (as the country was called until 1939) visited the second Biennale during a diplomatic tour of Europe. Chulalongkorn’s forays (he revisited Italy in 1907) led his immediate successors to commission Italian architects and artisans for a number of Bangkok’s municipal buildings and monuments, and, in 1923, to invite the Florentine artist Corrado Feroci (1892–1962) for a long-term stay. Originally brought to Siam to execute commemorative sculpture (primarily portrait busts and public statuary), Feroci eventually founded an art school, the precursor of Bangkok’s prestigious Silpakorn University. Noted for his inventive work in painting, sculpture and esthetic theory, Feroci became a conduit for avant-garde “isms” from the West. As if to embody the resulting Euro-Asian fusion, Feroci settled permanently in Bangkok (then called the “Venice of the East” for its impressive canal system), even assuming a quasi-Thai moniker, Silpa Bhirasri, andtaking Thai citizenship in the mid-1940s.
Left: Poster for the exhibition “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd.” to be held in the Thai Pavilion.
The complexities of transcultural identity, and the West’s persistent stereotyping of “exotic” Thailand as a paradisial tourist destination, constitute the major themes of “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd.” If all goes as planned, renowned multimediaartist-provocateur Shaowanasai(who also appeared in the Thai pavilion at the 2003 Biennale) will tease visitors with a wry banner emblazoned in bright white Lucida font on a blood-red background. Proclaiming “NOW, PLEASE GO,” it epitomizes the ambiguity that pervades this seemingly user-friendly “travel agency.” Similarly, Siripattananuntakul’s propaganda poster, Wantanocchio World: Thailand Grand Festival 2010,satirizes PR materials portraying life in the kingdom as “one long happy hour all year.” Shoosongdej’s Material in Guidebook: Sue See Kwae isa Hollywood-style movie advertisement featuring a bird’s-eye view of a Thai sampan loaded with durian, the infamous musty regional fruit with a dangerously prickly skin. The product is described, in deliciously mangled English, as “enjoyably dark with weird characters and intriguing central mystery, though the resolution might not be to everyone’s taste”—doubtless a dual reference to foreign misperceptions of Thailand and to the nation’s perpetually divisive political and social debates.
The neo-Dadaist premise underlying “Gondola” (which has been conceived as both a setting for spontaneous “happenings” and a completely self-sufficient machine requiring minimal supervision)casts the work as a form of consciousness-raising, a mental liberation from insidious hyper-consumerism.
In a press statement,pavilion curator Thavorn Ko-udomvit, a lecturer at Silpakorn University, characterizes today’s global capitalism as a threat to Thai identity and self-determination—a menace equal to 19th-century imperialism. “Gondola,” he writes,is intended to embody “[an] alternative concept of ‘Reconstruction’. . . [as] the artwork itself arouses us to question our thoughts and beliefs towards our surroundings . . . [and to ask ourselves] whether what we see is reality, deception or illusion.” The irony that “Gondola”may simply perpetuate the cliché of Thailand as a spa culture—its usual curative role here smartly reconceived but not effaced—seems to have been given scant consideration.
Photo left: View of the mock travel-agency installation “Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd.,” 2009,
by artists Michael Shaowanasai, Sakarin Krue-on, Sudsiri Pui-ock, Suporn Shoosongdej and Wantanee Siripattananuntakul; at the Bangkok
Art and Culture Centre.
Chosen from seven proposals submitted last January to Thailand’s ministry of culture, “Gondola”won out over several other projects with more ecological or holistic themes. The ministry’s deputy permanent secretary, Apinan Poshyananda, commissioner for the pavilion (and the most accomplished international curator to emerge from Thailand over the last decade), commended the winning work’scritique of “globalization, mass media and the world of propaganda.”
Ko-udomvit and Poshyananda leave some things discreetly unsaid, however. While “Gondola”castigates Euro-American consumerism, it also alludes to contentious issues within Thai society itself. The installation was devised following hard-won achievements by Thailand’s now thriving contemporary art community, among them the founding of the cavernous Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in late 2008. Moreover, “Gondola” constitutes, sub rosa,a droll commentary on Thailand’s internal duplicities, not least the maintenance of a serene mask before outsiders while the country,a constitutional monarchy, is perpetually wracked by political struggles. Indeed, the unrest of spring 2009 reflects a long history of domestic turmoil that has resulted in 17 different charters and constitutions since 1932. Today’s ideological skirmishes are carried out against the backdrop of the widely revered court of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (b. 1927)—an accomplished modernist painter, musician and photographer—whose 60th year of reign was observed with affectionate fanfare throughout Thailand in 2006. But the nation’s political uncertainties daunt few potential tourists these days. Bangkok was voted first among the world’s “top ten cities” in Travel & Leisure magazine’s annual poll of readers in 2008—a fact not lost on the plucky team of Thai artists at the Venice pavilion this year.
The provocativeness of “Gondola” depends largely on a “relational” esthetic—widely popular since the mid-1990s—which designates viewer participation as a fundamental factor in an artwork’s full realization. (The most prominent Thai practitioner of the relational genre, Rirkrit Tiravanija, a veteran of the Biennales of 1999 and 2003, this year designed the Biennale’s official bookstore.) “Gondola”thus reworks a familiar formula—one that visitors encountered in the 2007 Biennale’s Nordic pavilion, where Adel Abidin’s travel agency booked trips exclusively to Baghdad, or in Christine Hill’s “Minutes” installation in the Arsenale, which permitted viewers to browse among the artist’s personal effects. (Other art-world regulars may recall Hill’s recent “Volksboutique Apothecary,” in which the artist dispensed psychological “curatives” to attendees of the 2009 Armory Show in New York.)
Copying—sometimes with distinguishing “personal” variations—has long been a legitimate form of homage in Eastern artistic tradition, as well as an oft-employed marketing ploy. In true Thai fashion, the exceedingly clever recycling of relational esthetics in “Gondola”yields a viewing experience that even King Chulalongkorn—whose memory the Thais continue to honor for his many progressive tendencies—might have relished in knowing, if muted, appreciation.
GREGORY GALLIGAN is an independent curator and writer who currently holds a Fulbright research fellowship for Thailand.