Kamol Tassananchalee: #13 in the series “Four Elements, Earth, Air, Fire & Water,” 2014, stainless steel, 5 by 23 by 4 feet. Courtesy Ministry of Culture, Thailand.

This month, as visitors alight at the Venice Biennale, they will encounter Okwui Enwezor’s provocative “All the World’s Futures” exhibition, which according to the event’s website aims to highlight “territorial and geopolitical disfigurations” around the globe. In describing the pavilions of the Giardini as a “ramshackle assemblage” that reflects the world’s current disorder, Enwezor, the 56th Biennale’s artistic director, proffers a metaphor that also applies perfectly to the Thai contemporary art scene. The system here, now steadily producing inventive work, makes a considerable impact both regionally and globally—albeit all too often in spite of itself.

On the bright side, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, one of the nation’s most accomplished and progressive conceptual artists, recently had concurrent solo exhibitions in New York, at the Sculpture Center and at Tyler Rollins Fine Art. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Thailand’s champion of relational aesthetics, has launched a group exhibition “The Way Things Go” (on view through May 24 and including Thai contemporaries Arin Rungjang and Thasnai Sethaseree in its international mix) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Painter Yuree Kensaku and sculptor Pinaree Sanpitak each had booth solos at the Art Basel Hong Kong fair in March. Korakrit Arunanondchai, with his painted denim and hip-hop video practice—introduced to the U.S. with a high-energy performance last year at New York’s MoMA PS1—will have shows this year at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. At home, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre has just hosted a popular, two-person exhibition, “Imply Reply,” which presented sculptural installations by veteran Chinese conceptualist Huang Yong Ping and Thai artist-philosopher Sakarin Krue-on—the latter still vividly remembered for his Terraced Rice Field Art Project in Documenta 12 (2007).

Aligning themselves with the “Mekong” scenes of Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, as well as those of Southeast Asian sister nations Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, Thai art-world insiders never think twice about who or what constitutes the “Thai contemporary.” Outsiders looking for a formula should note how unlikely it is that anyone born before the early 1950s could even be considered for the coveted moniker. An artist’s age, per se, is not the determining factor; rather, it has to do with an aesthetic sea change, a turn away from craft to concept, precipitated by a generation of Thai artists who emerged from regional and overseas art schools in the mid-1990s. The subsequent flowering of a new sensibility has resulted in some of the most sophisticated contemporary art to be found anywhere. After the shift, “contemporary” no longer meant only “living”; it also meant globally aware and experimental. 

Still lacking its own truly progressive private or state-sponsored museum of modern art, however, Thailand too often sees its finest contemporary works swiftly spirited away to Singapore. That modern city-state certainly “gets” the winning formula and is hurriedly building permanent collections of Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art for two National Heritage Board-sponsored museums: the Singapore Art Museum, already rich in Thai contemporary holdings, and the National Gallery Singapore, which will open its doors to the public this November in two Beaux-Arts buildings (formerly the supreme court and city hall) repurposed by the French firm Studio Milou. 

While Bangkok hesitates, other regional cities are making bold moves. Hong Kong’s 100-acre West Kowloon Cultural District will be anchored by the $642-million M+ museum, which, though not slated to open until 2018, already boasts a collection of some 4,000 works. Similarly, Gwangju, South Korea, is now ambitiously proclaiming itself a “hub city of Asian culture,” bolstered by the debut later this year of its vast, state-sponsored Asian Culture Complex.

The only Southeast Asian nation that was never colonized—something that Thais understandably take great pride in—the New Siam nevertheless struggles to define its own contemporary art agenda. As several local collectors follow their own tastes and snatch up important artworks, the public awaits some sure sign of the museums these individuals have promised to build, or some glimpse of their mission statements at least. Three years ago in Bangkok, the conservative collector Boonchai Bencharongkul, having for many years made purchases out of academic art shows, unveiled his own $24.6-million behemoth, presumptuously dubbed, in pseudo-civic fashion, the Museum of Contemporary Art, now housing some of the most idiosyncratic works to issue from the country over the last 50 years or more.

Thailand has yet to find the right balance between honoring the past, celebrating the present and envisioning the future. This shortcoming is traceable, in part, to the country’s ongoing (and sometimes violent) political unrest. At the same time, life flows normally, with the well-heeled sector having yet to develop a truly informed interest in contemporary art, one to rival its current fascination with fast cars, five-star hotels, fine wines, expensive watches, swank condos and luxury-brand shopping emporiums.

This year, Thailand seems to have confused the Venice Biennale—a platform for showcasing the best a country can offer—with an opportunity to pay tribute to a Thai modernist master. The ministry of culture (operating behind closed doors) selected Kamol Tassananchalee (b. 1944), a senior academic artist known for mystical abstract painting, sculpture and printmaking. Tassananchalee, who has enjoyed a successful career teaching at universities in both the United States and Thailand, plans to fill the Thai pavilion with the type of symbolic sculpture that bespeaks an earlier assimilative era in Thai art history rather than the current wave of sociopolitically inflected conceptualism.

Though artistically reputable in his own right, Tassananchalee is thus a peculiar choice for the Biennale. His installation will comprise stylized pieces in stainless steel, aluminum and neon, evoking the four ancient elements: earth, air, fire and water. This is doubly ironic. While offering work that expresses earth-consciousness in a dated representational mode, Tassananchalee has nonetheless recently been criticized by environmental activists for taking part in the felling of a 143-year-old Mahaad tree in the southern Thai seaside town of Krabi, where he and collaborators sculpted portions of the segmented and gutted trunk into fanciful abstract public sculpture—all to assist the city in branding itself an art destination.

Since first joining the Venice Biennale in 2003, Thailand has presented a number of cutting-edge artists, among them Montien Boonma (1953–2000), Rasdjarmrearnsook (b. 1957), Michael Shaowanasai (b. 1964) and Arin Rungjang (b. 1975). In 2009, though, Gondola al Paradiso Co., Ltd., an installation by five artists brilliantly satirizing the country’s tourist culture, went sour due to logistical problems and infighting—which led to a top-down approach that scuttled the “open call” system in favor of state-conceived pavilion shows, a process that now seems to be veering toward the conservative. While Thailand sorts out these and related boondoggles, one can only hope for a swift peace among all parties involved—before the rest of the region jets into the future without them.