Love of Siam

Alvin Li at the opening of the second “Spectrosynthesis”

Collector Disaphol Chansiri and artist Sornchai Phongsa.

I LANDED IN BANGKOK in the midst of an identity crisis: Having lost my Chinese ID just before the Singapore Biennial, I realized my original itinerary was out the window. I had planned to travel from Shanghai to Thailand via Singapore, but now I could no longer apply for a tourist visa to enter the Lion City at all. And so I vacationed through the more visa-lenient nations of Indonesia and the Philippines, finally touching down in Bangkok the night before the opening of the second “Spectrosynthesis”—a queer art exhibition series initiated by the Hong Kong–based Sunpride Foundation, this time hosted by the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Soon after arriving, I learned of another divine interference: Pope Francis, on an apostolic visit to Thailand, was attending an event at the National Stadium, a five-minute walk from both my hotel and the exhibition venue in the center of Siam district. I thought of the 2007 Thai megahit drama Love of Siam, the first queer Asian film I ever saw. In it, protagonist Tong’s strict Catholic family proves an obstacle to his relationship with lover Mew. Now, as we near the end of another decade, an arguably gay-friendly Pope Francis is giving a speech right here (with an eye for positive press, of course) while a queer art show happens next door. You know what they say: “It gets better.” 

Patrick Sun, founder and director of Sunpride, greeted me with a glass of wine at the press dinner at the Jim Thompson House the next evening. We small-talked through a slew of topics before he took my hand and said, with sincerity: “I look forward to hearing what you think of the show!” I surveyed the room: Except for the Art Newspaper’s Lisa Movius, I seemed to be the only one who had also attended the inaugural iteration of the series a couple years ago. Founded in Hong Kong by Sun in 2014, the Sunpride Foundation—devoted to raising queer visibility and acceptance through art—mounted the first “Spectrosynthesis” at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017 to generally upbeat reviews, despite some criticism (from me, among others) regarding its gender imbalance. The show was marked by a substantial testosterone surplus: Only three out of twenty-something artists identified as female, and only one as trans. In other words, it was very gay in every meaning of the word but lacking in a fuck you sense of queerness. “It’s a good choice,” curator Christina Li commented, over a nightcap, on Sunpride’s decision to make Bangkok its second stop, which they’ve been promoting heavily for some time now, with a well-attended press event during Art Basel Hong Kong earlier this year. “Very safe, though,” she added, referring to the city’s famously welcoming attitude toward the LGBTQ community.

Photographer/MOCA Bangkok managing director Kit Bencharongkul and artist Balm Tungsuwan.

For breakfast the next morning, I met up with Guggenheim assistant curator X Zhu-Nowell. As we walked up the BACC ramp for the curator’s tour, X, who is genderqueer, remarked on the resemblance between BACC and the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright architecture of X’s home base. As if sensing our whispered conversation, Chatvichai Promadhattavedi, chief curator of the show and a board member and secretary of the BACC Foundation, leaned in. “Richard was just here a few weeks ago,” he said of the Guggenheim director. “He called us a home away from home!”

Under Promadhattavedi’s direction, the Bangkok iteration of Sunpride has grown significantly, and boasts works from nearly sixty artists—almost thrice as many as the Taipei edition. But, happily, size hasn’t been the only change. During my first walkthrough, I immediately noticed more women, trans, and nonbinary artists, and several works on display explicitly exploring trans issues. Particularly impressive was Thai artist Arin Rungjang’s newly commissioned Welcome to My World, ‘Tee,’  a four-channel video installation inspired by the artist’s childhood memories of a trans girl named Tee. The then-pubescent artist thought Tee, who later took her own life, was the most beautiful girl in the world. Nodding to Bangkok’s remarkably multiracial and religious demographic, the exhibition also includes several exceptional works representing queer communities of different faiths, most poignantly No Strangers? (Dialogue with Egon Schiele Series), 2019, a large-scale canvas work—depicting what looks to be an orgy taking place before an execution—by the twenty-six-year-old nonbinary Thai artist Anuwat Apimukmongkon. It impressed me with its flirtatious brushwork and audacious composition. Among the more documentarian works was the especially laudable Thai photographer Ohm Phanphiroj’s short video Underage, which investigates child prostitution in Thailand and complicates the image of Bangkok as a sexually liberal metropolis by shedding light on often overlooked sites of sexual exploitation.

The Dicklomacy Queers Spicy(est) Sisters. Photo: John Tain.

That evening, Tai Kwun’s Daniel Ho and I returned to BACC for a special opening performance led by Ming Wong with five other artists. (The exhibition also showed Wong’s film Life and Death in Venice.) Everyone seemed to be there: Art Jakarta’s Tom Tandio, Bangkok City City Gallery’s Akapol Op Sudasna, and many Hong Kongers, including Para Site director Cosmin Costinas. The crowd quieted down at 7 PM, when the performers, plumed in extravagantly campy drag, appeared one after another and convened onstage, lip-synching to a wild playlist of Asian and American pop tracks. For a second, I thought I was at a Drag Race Thailand party; turns out, one of the performers, Amadiva, was in fact on the show’s first season.

“You see that one over there?” A friend who I shall keep anonymous pointed to one of the performers onstage. “I think he hit me up on Grindr once.” “Honey, that happens all the time,” another responded. “Sometimes Grindr is the only app we use, even for work stuff!”

The festive vibe carried into the next night at a private party entertained by Sun at his Bangkok penthouse, where I arrived with Korakrit Arunanondchai, in from New York for the winter. It turned out to be the artist’s birthday that night, one fact among others our host discovered toward the end of the party: “Kokarit! I just found out you’re not gay. . . . But it doesn’t matter!”

Korakrit Arunanondchai celebrating his birthday. Photo: John Tain.

Hauser & Wirth Hong Kong senior director Lihsin Tsai.

Nova Contemporary’s Sutima Sucharitakul and Bangkok CityCity gallery’s Akapol Op Sudasna.

Collector Adrian Chan, Sunpride’s Sean Chang, collector Ann Mui Ling and collector Ryan Su.

Filmmaker Luke Cassady-Dorion and art critic Brian Curtin.

Art 021 cofounder Bao Yifeng and David Zwirner Hong Kong Director Leo Xu.

Artists Bradd, Tamarra, Radha, Sunpride founder Patrick Sun, Ming Wong, Josh Serafin, and Amadiva. Photo: John Tain.

Art Jakarta Director Tom Tandio.

Adam Nankervis next to his partner David Medalla’s work. Photo: John Tain.

Artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, Ming Wong, and curator Christina Li.

Mr. Gay World and Mr. Gay Thailand contestants.

Kenneth K Loo, Para Site chairman Alan Lau, Asia Art Archive’s John Tain and curator X Zhu-Nowell (X).

Artist Lyno Vuth and curator Inti Guerrero Photo: John Tain.

Artist Ming Wong.

Chief curator Chatvichai Promadhattavedi giving a tour.

Sunpride’s Sean Chang, Patrick Sun, artist Korakrit  Arunanondchai, Asia Art Archive’s head of research John Tain, artist Maria Taniguchi,Artistic Director of Jim Thompson Art Center  Gridthiya Gaweewong, Silverlens Gallery’s Rachel Rillo. Photo: John Tain.