Arriving in Bangkok on a sticky December morning, our gregarious taxi driver sang along to loud Thai music while shoving pamphlets at us advertising elephant rides and drugged tigers. We were not there for tigers, nor the other typical offerings this popular holiday destination is famed for; we came to see the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennial (BAB) (Nov 2018-Feb 2019).
The question many have asked of the BAB is whether Thailand needs more tourists, or if it is simply aiming to attract a different ilk of visitor. Apinan Poshyanada, the chief executive and artistic director of BAB stated in an interview in November 2018: “we need quality tourism in Bangkok, and the biennial can help promote the city’s rich heritage and culture.” With 75 artists from over 30 countries exhibited across an array of venues in the city, the premise is simple: art lovers and tourists can experience a diversified Bangkok - a city that can be famed for its art, alongside its rich culture and heritage.
Calling Bangkok the ‘Venice of the East’ is one way to sell this city as a top contemporary art destination. Inviting a slew of famed international artists is another. This event attracted some of the art world’s biggest contenders: on the bill was Marina Abromović, now a household name famed for her physically taxing endurance performances; and Yayoi Kusama, a long standing cult Japanese artist who was just recently the subject of an acclaimed documentary There was a large puppy sculpture from Yoshitomo Nara, best known for his drawings of cute dogs and grumpy children; as well as work by the Danish art duo Elmgreen & Dragset.
These, and many more famed international names were placed alongside local Thai contemporaries like Imhathai Suwatthanasilp, a delicate weaver and braider of human hair; and Nino Sarabutra, who placed 125,000 white glazed skulls around the entrance to a stupa at Wat Prayoon and invited visitors to walk over them. Other notable artists include the painter Pannaphan Yodmanee, who is gaining quick traction for her detailed historic tableaus of Thai history, as well as Komkrit Tepthian, who splices together large gods from various religions. All these works were sprawled out across sites as diverse as heritage buildings, public parks, high-end hotels, gleaming shopping malls and ancient temples (or wats) along the newly cleaned Chaophraya River.
What to expect from the land of smiles but a biennial full of heart? We are encouraged to view the BAB 2018 theme of Beyond Bliss as a universal one in this age of “disruption, delusion, and fear”. Being beyond bliss, according to Poshyanada’s curatorial statement, is a state of “neither happiness nor sorrow”, but rather elevated above and beyond these states of being. This open ended, paradoxical title not only allows for free interpretation but offers the curators a chance to showcase emergent artists alongside those who are also more critical of the current political status without violating any laws. “People said to me: ‘Why ask for trouble?’” Poshyanada said in an interview with the Guardian in October 2018, “And yes, we chose to take the difficult path. But under the military we’ve gone through five years of intense scrutiny and it’s time to have a breather and be able to freely express ourselves.”
The 2018 BAB indicates that something vital has shifted in Thailand. Indeed, it seems the tourism-flattened rendition of Thailand once held in popular imagination is getting a makeover. By showcasing work that challenges Thailand’s taboos and restrictions, the BAB complicates a simplified notion of Thailand. This biennial tackles sensitive topics such as the friction between the country’s Muslim and Buddhist communities, political topics like the Rohingya’s exile from Myanmar, as well as social stigmas. The difficulties experienced by women and migrant workers were also examined in depth.
Chumpon Apisuk, a pioneer in Thailand’s performance art scene, added to this conversation when he interviewed more than a dozen Thai and migrant sex workers. I Have Dreams (2018) is a compilation of seventeen women’s simple hopes and all-too-familiar aspirations. Leaning against bar stools or standing in front of massage parlours, backlit by red strip lights, these marginalised women offer their everyday desires directly to the camera, sometimes self-consciously. “I have a dream, to build a new house for my family,” Peung says. “Then I can open a small grocery shop.” Presented simply as they are: young women struggling to earn an income, and help support their families, the stereotypical flattened versions of these individuals are no longer applicable. Initiated with defiance, the 2018 BAB does more than just promote the city’s rich heritage and culture: it moves beyond bliss.
- February 2019
- Nov 24, 2018 A LOADED GUN: TATZU NISHI IN 'THE FLYING LAND'
- Jun 17, 2018 TAIPEI AND THE TACTICS OF EVERYDAY LIFE
- Feb 16, 2018 THE LONG POEM OF WALKING TAIPEI
- December 2017
- November 2017