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Kamol Phaosavasdi, Sweet Boundary: In the Light Tube, 2018, Plexiglas, acrylic paint, neon, sound. Installation view, Wat Prayurawongsawat Worawihan (Temple of the Iron Fence), Bangkok. From the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.

LAST OCTOBER, Bangkok’s art scene was reinvigorated by two of its prodigal sons: veteran impresario Apinan Poshyananda and mercurial thirtysomething Korakrit Arunanondchai. Both are alumni of Ivy League institutions who returned to Thailand as bearers of new, foreign trends. But the resemblance ends there. A consummate iconoclast, Apinan had his first solo exhibition in 1985, a pastiche of video and performance art called “How to Explain Art to a Bangkok Cock.” Held at the now-defunct Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, it shook up a parochial art scene short on experimentation and long dominated by an ossified national academy. A groundbreaking curator in the 1990s and an enterprising bureaucrat in the 2000s, Apinan has returned yet again, on what one local pundit compares to an aging rocker’s comeback tour, this time at the helm of “Beyond Bliss,” the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB), backed by the huge, family-controlled ThaiBev conglomerate, purveyors of Chang beer.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Blue, 2018, 2K video projection, color, sound, 12 minutes 16 seconds. Installation view, Gallery Ver, Bangkok. From “Ghost:2561.” Photo: Miti Ruangkritya.

By contrast, Korakrit’s reputation belies his age and was largely made outside of Thailand. He is certainly not rocking any boats as the curator of the smaller and putatively triennial series “Ghost,” the country’s first taste of the “post-internet” franchise already entrenched in the art world’s centers. (Readers in those centers will be as sick of the insipid attribution as the artists who suffer it, but the term might still be embraced at the periphery without fatigue or skepticism.) Such bursts of action and expenditure are rare and welcome in Bangkok, yet it was hard to come away from these shows with anything but mixed feelings. Enlivening but incoherent, both programs slotted easily into the city’s busy cosmopolitan leisure-scape and were sadly mute on Thailand’s grave political predicament, the result of a drawn-out constitutional meltdown sparked by one coup d’état in 2006 and the decline into military dictatorship since another in 2014.

Hito Steyerl, Liquidity Inc., 2014, wood, plastic, lounge seating, HD video (color, sound, 30 minutes). Installation view, 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok, 2018. From “Ghost:2561.” Photo: Miti Ruangkritya.

If in the ’90s the Thais led their Southeast Asian neighbors onto the expanding international circuit, they have since dropped off the pace, eclipsed by Singapore’s impressive institutions, buoyant markets in Indonesia and the Philippines, and small but dynamic independent scenes in postsocialist Vietnam and Cambodia. Thailand’s private sector has picked up some of the slack, with a slew of private museums opening in recent years and some young dealers serving a new generation of collectors. Last year saw the inauguration of no fewer than four recurring festivals, “Ghost” and the BAB among them. Additionally, the anarchic Bangkok Biennial presented far-flung and autonomous “pavilions” without curatorial vetting, while the national Office of Contemporary Art and Culture’s Thailand Biennale—the only one driven by state agencies—runs through the tourist high season in the idyllic coastal resort of Krabi. Add to that a host of piggyback shows, lectures, book launches, and curatorial intensives, and one could be forgiven for thinking dictatorship has been a boon for contemporary art. Anywhere else, this activity might have been understood as a concerted effort to retake the initiative by a country that has had no marquee event. But what these platforms shared was opportunism, not strategy; the lack of coordination between them was striking.

Gauri Gill, Untitled, 2015–, ink-jet print, 24 × 16". From the series “Acts of Appearance,” 2015–. From the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.

Institutional scenarios better reflect the desuetude of Thailand’s political and public culture. Last year, city hall marked the tenth birthday of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, a kunsthalle located in the commercial heart of the capital, by withdrawing the center’s core funding. The institution’s integrity, badly compromised during the 2014 coup, was trashed for good in September with the appointment of three generals from the ruling junta to the committee choosing its new board of directors. But while many are frustrated by the army’s grip on politics, for most Thais a coup is not the worst thing that can happen. The 2016 death of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the year of mourning that followed, culminating with his spectacular, $90 million funeral ceremony, put things in perspective.

Such bursts of action and expenditure are rare and welcome in Bangkok, yet it was hard to come away from these shows with anything but mixed feelings.

Politics has never been a source of national pride for the Thais, who boast instead of their independence, wearing as a badge of honor the fact that Siam, as it was known until the ’40s, is the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized by Europeans. Yet there are few places where the curse of belatedness, that staple colonial anxiety, has been as acute and long-lasting. The spell was cast in the mid-nineteenth century by Mongkut, the modernizing fourth king of the incumbent Chakri dynasty. This pivot from the old world to the new was famously dramatized in the ’50s stage show and film The King and I in the figure of the actor Yul Brynner (who at least could claim some Asian lineage, unlike many of his yellowfacing costars). By reforming the Buddhist clergy, which was also Siam’s education sector, Mongkut put the country on a new philosophical footing, accommodating the rationalism and technology that would press the ancien régime from all sides, through the French presence in Indochina and the British in Burma and Malaya. The Siamese supposedly chose free trade, and to engage with Europeans; hence, so the story goes, their much-vaunted openness to Western ways.

Art’s modernity came later, via Corrado Feroci, aka Silpa Bhirasri, an Italian academician with fascist leanings who founded Siam’s first art school in the ’30s. “Modern art” was from the outset a matter of catching up with the West. The Cold War made that axiomatic, as the country became a key client of and service provider for the US military. Art historians agree that Thai modernism was untouched by the anticolonial fervor that motivated so many of its neighbors from the midcentury on. Even for neotraditionalists who prospered in the ’80s, such as Thawan Duchanee and Preecha Thaothong, being up-to-date still meant the stylistic domestication of a century of Western painting. Thailand’s artists, like its popular culture, have run the gamut from slavish devotion to ingenious (and ironic) integration, but the rejection of foreign styles or techniques has never been their thing.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Golden Spiral, 2018, still from the 18-minute HD video component (color, sound) of a mixed media installation additionally comprising paint and snail shells. From “Ghost:2561.”

Transparently symptomatic of “catch-up syndrome,” “Ghost:2561”* was apparently bankrolled by one of the newer galleries, Bangkok CityCity, whose handsome downtown white cube, serving as the platform’s headquarters, was outfitted with a suite of works by the post-internet usual suspects Ian Cheng, Jon Rafman, and Josh Kline. Cynics remarked that the exhibition felt like New York five years ago, but no one was pretending otherwise. Korakrit, the antipodean wunderkind, had returned to share the spoils of the metropole with the city of his birth. His chutzpah is good for Thailand, mooting new possibilities for artists with a welcome dose of ambition. Well-produced works were generously and carefully installed in a city not known for curatorial polish. But the ease with which “Ghost:2561” haunted Bangkok’s privatized cultural landscape was a double-edged sword. The content seemed totally interchangeable; one might have substituted the artists’ works for another dozen in the same genre, or reshuffled them among the venues, and it would have made little difference.

Metahaven, Information Skies, 2016, 2K video, color, sound, 24 minutes. From “Ghost:2561.”

“Ghost:2561” took post-internet art for what it is: a slick, portable distillate of corporate-promotional and other spectacular idioms, feigning critique of a neoliberal capitalism with which it is ultimately, lucratively compatible; oblivious of and impervious to locality, yet for all its mobility basically native to the same North Atlantic art world that defined postwar modernism. As Korakrit’s personal bucket list, the show was discerning enough, a hit parade of proven commodities as well traveled as their peripatetic makers. Most were served up by the genre’s It Kids (Rachel Rose, DIS) or obvious bellwethers (Hito Steyerl, Metahaven, Raqs Media Collective). Little wonder it went down well with Bangkok’s cosmopolitan influencers. But as a curatorial gambit, it was chanceless and surprisingly conservative, a far cry from the unruly artist-run interventions of previous eras.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Blue, 2018, 2K video projection, color, sound, 12 minutes 16 seconds. From “Ghost:2561.”

Two local additions to the bill stood out. With his twelve-minute short Blue, 2018, Apichatpong Weerasethakul demonstrated with characteristic poise that you don’t need VR or supercomputers (or even Google) to make compelling cinema for networked audiences. As in his other recent works, the lauded auteur cannily taps into Thailand’s funerary unconscious, the uneasy state of suspension during the monarchy’s protracted and carefully managed succession. Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Golden Spiral, 2018, on the other hand, alluded to nothing more momentous than the post-internet vogue itself, but somehow lacked its typical economy. A spoof infomercial promoting the health benefits of a primordial snail ooze, it is either a made-to-order imitation of an already imitative genre or a poker-faced send-up of the same, but in either case, the piece is redundant.

Thailand’s artists, like its popular culture, have run the gamut from slavish devotion to ingenious (and ironic) integration, but the rejection of foreign styles or techniques has never been their thing.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Golden Spiral (detail), 2018, HD video (color, sound, 18 minutes), paint, snail shells. Installation view. From “Ghost:2561.” Photo: Op Sudasna.

Scattered across the sprawling city, the bigger and more multiform BAB held more surprises. Its roster was uneven but diverse, with neighboring countries long ignored by the Siamese receiving overdue attention. To turn the audience loose in Bangkok’s jungle of distractions, among the galleries, shopping malls, and other tourist attractions that served as venues took considerable confidence. A few famous temples were among the better sites—already visually busy spaces, they seemed to deter the overhanging from which biennials often suffer. Sweet Boundary: In the Light Tube, 2018, local experimental stalwart Kamol Phaosavasdi’s installation at Wat Prayoon (known commonly as Temple of the Iron Fence and formally as Wat Prayurawongsawat Worawihan), was a standout, a timely rumination on the history of Siamese patronage and the weight of aesthetics in the kingdom’s political economy. The work framed a silhouette of the elaborate cast-iron fence that gives this temple its nickname. Imported from England in the early 1830s by the third king, the fence, legend has it, was deemed unsuitable for his palace and was traded for its weight in sugar. The buyer was the king’s powerful foreign minister Dit Bunnag, who built the temple and was later instrumental in the ascension of the king’s successor, Mongkut, who in turn elevated Dit to quasi-royal status. Kamol’s quotation of the fence succinctly recalls the first shades of a politically charged visual culture.

Montien Boonma, Zodiac Houses, 1998–99, iron, herbs, medicine, cellophane, translucent sheets. Installation view, Wat Prayurawongsawat
Worawihan (Temple of the Iron Fence), Bangkok, 2018. From the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.

Wat Prayoon also housed Zodiac Houses, 1998–99, by the late godfather of Thai contemporary art Montien Boonma, while What Will You Leave Behind?, 2012, Nino Sarabutra’s carpet of 125,000 tiny ceramic skulls, installed in the tight colonnade beneath the temple’s main stupa, offered a tactile exploration of this landmark of the old city. These interventions harkened back to the storied artist-run festivals of the ’90s in Thai art’s second city, Chiang Mai, which also occupied religious spaces, and demonstrated that temples, while bearing certain limitations, can nevertheless be accommodating and even democratic venues. The other sites cleaved to the less distinctive, and more exclusive, domain of Thailand’s free-spending upper-middle class. A cluster of them around the legendary riverside Oriental Hotel included former headquarters of the East Asiatic Company, built in the 1890s by Danish carpenter and hotelier–cum–shipping magnate Hans Niels Andersen. With both banks of the Chao Phraya River undergoing breakneck gentrification, it’s a wonder to find such a space lying fallow. (There are signs that it will soon be reborn as yet another fancy hotel.) At a nearby mini-mall called O. P. Place, the featured works received some of the breathing room and care that were scarce at the larger venues.

The content seemed totally interchangeable; one might have substituted the artists’ works for another dozen in the same genre.

Nino Sarabutra, What Will You Leave Behind? (detail), 2012, 125,000 unglazed porcelain objects, dimensions variable. From the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.

Apinan has a habit of repeating himself, and here he reprised big names from his previous megashows—Marina Abramović, Choi Jeong Hwa—names big enough, apparently, for the repetition not to be an embarrassment. And just like those megashows, this lively mix won plenty of attention from both local and foreign press outlets. There were some arresting inclusions, such as I Have Dreams, 2018, Chumpon Apisuk’s installation about Thai and migrant sex workers, built on decades of research and activism; Gauri Gill’s “Acts of Appearance,” 2015–, comprising intriguing photographs, suspended between documentary and surreal pantomime, of the Kokna people of Maharashtra sporting their caricaturesque papier-mâché masks; and Yuan Goang-Ming’s engrossing study in abstract violence, Tomorrowland, 2018, a video in which an unpopulated model fairground is decimated by explosions in slow motion. All three might have insinuated the kingdom’s malaise, but even in the politically compromised Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, they sorely lacked context. What it might mean to show them together had evidently not been considered.

However obvious the curatorial lapses, the oft-repeated consolation was that the welter of events and professional traffic at least provided locals with a glimpse of what’s happening in the wider world of contemporary art. And it is easy to imagine why Thais might prefer to set their sights elsewhere. But with the exception of a few piquant works, these shows said nothing about the broken nation that hosted them, a nation vacillating dangerously between elitism and populism, where representative government has been all but abandoned and reasoned debate has been outlawed. With its big-ticket events, the Thai art world is having a bet each way, devoted as always to foreign trends, yet still in dutiful service of local elites. It offers no solutions to the false dilemma being foisted on Thais by their rulers: that there is no middle path between anarchy and dictatorship.

The Bangkok Art Biennale: “Beyond Bliss” is on view through February 3 at various venues in Bangkok. 

David Teh is an independent curator and an associate professor at the National University of Singapore. 

NOTE

*The date in the title is no sci-fi conceit: “2561” corresponds to 2018 in the Buddhist calendar.