PRINT December 2017

Books: Best of 2017

Pauline J. Yao

Books like Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary (MIT Press) don’t appear every day. In fact, they don’t even appear every decade. The last serious book-length study of contemporary Thai art came out in the 1990s, as Thailand was in the midst of an economic boom and blind to the calamities—both economic and political—to come. The real merits of David Teh’s achievement, however, lie not in his volume’s rarity but in its language and approach. Written with the eloquence and verve of a seasoned critic, Thai Art offers attitudesall too infrequently found in the growing field of writing about contemporary Asian art: It narrates the development of the field while interrogating the very categories on which it is built; it questions, with specificity, the global and local flows of artistic production and reception; it examines the ways in which values move across cultures; and it unpacks the complex relationship in Southeast Asia between the national modern and the global contemporary. It also cleverly sidesteps the nation-based survey format. Teh has no interest in branding artists as Thai, and fully recognizes that avoiding the temptation to do so may actually be the best thing one can do for Thai art. Yet he is also highly attuned to the ways in which nationality plays a role in the interpretation of these artists’ works. And his critical yet insightful analysis of a range of the country’s figures, including recognized global players such as Montien Boonma, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, in addition to several others that might have slipped past our attention, serves as a welcome reminder that contemporary art is something that happens all over the world, not just in one locale.

Pauline J. Yao is lead curator of visual art at M+, the new museum for visual culture being built in Hong Kong.