The Bangkok Art Biennale, Going Global

The Bangkok Art Biennale, Going Global


The Bangkok Art Biennale,

Going Global

Jeremy Opritesco

7 October 2017

For years, Dr. Apinan Poshyananda has been a key figure in contemporary art in Thailand. Latitudes met with him at his new headquarters at the BACC (Bangkok Art and Culture Center) to discuss the next Bangkok Art Biennale, which he initiated and for which he is the Artistic Director.

Surrounded by a very prestigious team of international curators and advisors, among the best in their respective fields, he is also supported by a very solid group of partners from both the public and private sectors, including one of the champions of the Thai economy: Thai Bev.

According to the program, 70 artists will see their work exhibited at an extensive range of sites, including three of the most beautiful temples in Bangkok and a historic building on the banks of the Chao Praya. 3 million visitors are expected during the three months of the high season for tourism, from November 2018 to January 2019.

The announcement of the launching of this exceptional event took place in April 2017, during the opening week of the 56th Venice Biennale. Why Venice? Not just because the capital of Thailand has been nicknamed the “Venice of the East” for a long time, but also because the two cities possess a sort of kinship in this field. First of all, this has a historical background. In effect, Bangkok nearly became a city to host an art and culture exposition. In 1897, for the second edition of the Venice Biennale, and then once again in 1907, for its seventh edition, King Rama V Chulalongkorn of Siam was truly captivated by the event and thought about introducing it in Bangkok. Lumpini Park, besides, would have been created for this purpose, following the model of the Giardini, the large park in Venice that hosts the national pavilions during the Biennale. However, the King passed away and his heir, Rama VI supported the Siamese pavilion to be built at World Exposition in Turin in 1911. Sadly, the grand project planned to be held at Lumpini Park in Bangkok was not realized due to World War I. There are as well other common aspects: the Grand Canal and the Chao Phraya, both mesmerizing backdrops for the biennale, linking the main exhibit sites; historical and religious monuments will be fantastic spots for contemporary creativity.

According to Dr. Apinan, for several years, “everyone’s been asking all the time” why Bangkok has not hosted a large-scale contemporary art event. Now that the announcement has been made, though, all sorts of criticism are heard: ethical, conceptual, political, and more. That seems to come with the territory: in a biennale, a selection takes place, which also means some omissions. Then some artists not chosen raise the roof. The Biennale will have to channel this into positive energy. That’s one of the challenges.

However, Dr. Apinan has also identified other challenges. To some extent, he’s a miracle worker. For example, one of his latest accomplishments was to bring together as partners for Bangkok Art Biennale, Siam Piwat, Central and Emquartier, the rival companies owning the large malls of Thailand–which is a little like bringing together Pepsi and Coca-Cola. “Beyond Bliss,” he would say!

On that subject, how did the choice of “Beyond Bliss” as the theme for the Biennale come about?

We wanted a theme that would allow the artists chosen plenty of room for creativity. At the same time, we had to outline a path in order to have a consistent whole. “Beyond Bliss” satisfies both of these criteria, but above all, it reflects the image of today’s increasingly complex world. For some people, this appears in the multiplication of tension and disasters. Others, though, can see some positive consequences in this. All interpretations are possible.

That’s exactly what we’re expecting, together with the exhibition curators: to see how the artists will embark on this path, how they will interpret the slogan “Beyond Bliss”, how they will take it on board with their own sensitivity.

This theme recalls that of the inaugural exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center: “Traces of the Siamese Smile.” The BACC, the first institution in Thailand dedicated to contemporary art, will celebrate its tenth anniversary at the end of 2018, exactly during the celebration of the Biennale. At that time, you were the Chief Curator of the exhibition. Should we see a form of continuity in this?

Yes and no. First of all, I’d like to mention that this exhibition took place in a very specific context. It took place at a time of intense political tension between the “yellows” and the “reds” (Editor’s Note: which led to the occupation of the seat of the government by demonstrators), part of which occurred very close to the BACC. Still, the exhibition showed itself to be a great success: visitors were standing in line. That was a great satisfaction for all of us.

As for the title of the exhibition, “Traces of the Siamese Smile”, there is in fact a twofold similarity with the theme of the Biennale, “Beyond Bliss”. First, you can make a connection between “smile” and “bliss”. In both cases, however, the essential words are “traces” and “beyond”. They are what determines the range of these titles.

The title of the exhibition in 2008 was an indirect reference to a book written by a British resident of Bangkok at the start of the 20th century, with the title Land of Smiles. But with “Traces of the Siamese Smile”, the questions to ask were whether the Siamese smile still exists, what is left of it. Has it become sarcastic? Has it become a façade? The artists had to answer this. They were both Thai and international figures, including some great names in contemporary art: Nobuyoshi Araki, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Ravinder Reddy, and Yue Munjin.

Beyond these similarities, though, there is a great difference: the BACC exhibition was focused on Thailand; as for the Biennale, it fits within a universal perspective. Artists can deal with the major subjects of our time and of the 21st century, such as the challenges of environmentalism. The interpretation of “Beyond Bliss” can also reveal itself as a spiritual one, for example in a Buddhist perspective. It can also be a very personal one, that of an intimate garden or a refuge. It can also be a new definition of happiness, a reinvention of one’s own life, or even, why not, a vacation site or a place traveled to. All that is “Beyond Bliss”.

Therefore, with “Beyond Bliss”, you searched for a balance between the local and the universal, between openness and frameworks, between the spirit of the times and vision. What will be the balance in artists’ choices?

We hope to invite 70 artists in total, which will make the BAB a medium-sized biennale, similar to the Triennial of Yokohama, which has provided us with a lot of inspiration.

As for artists’ choices, there are intense discussions going on with both the curators of exhibitions and international advisors. Recently, during the Yokohama Triennial, I had an extensive exchange with one of them, Rikrit Tiravanija (Editor’s Note: one of the best-known Thai artists in the world, belonging to the movement of relational aesthetics). We think that for this first edition, we should avoid “parachuting” in great names of contemporary art who have no connection to Thailand. Inviting stars who come here to astound us and then leave would not be seen well. Besides, we had been criticized for that during the “Traces of the Siamese Smile” exhibition, although rather unfairly, because many of the great artists that we invited had already worked in Thailand.

That being said, for 2018, then, we are going to give preference to international artists who are close to our country, to the greatest extent possible. Besides, it’s my general observation that we, Thais, don’t associate ourselves enough with talented foreigners who know our country and love it, and sometimes have been living here for a long time. They would all deserve to be more integrated in our cultural scene, our debates, and our projects.

Likewise, I find that sometimes we’re too careful with seniority, with the rights of elderly people. The world of art is characterized by youth, dynamism, and constantly casting doubts on things. That’s why I’ve always considered it an obligation for me to include young people and emerging talents. For example, during the great “Thai Eye” exhibition set up with the Saatchi Gallery in London, we had chosen several young women who were less than 30 years old. That had caused some polemics. Still, later events proved us right, because since then, two of them were very successful at the international level. Kawita Vatanajyankur has exhibited in the “Alamak!” Pavilion during the current Venice Biennale and Pannaphan Yodmanee won First Prize during the last biennale in Singapore.

Thus, the issue will be to strike a balance between emerging and established artists, between Thai and international artists. All of them should display new works of theirs and focus on the chosen theme, “Beyond Bliss”.

You have announced the organization of three biennales. Does that mean “three editions and that’s all”, or “three editions and even more if possible”?

The idea of our announcement was to say at least three editions. To be more specific, the commitment will last at least five years, since for every odd year between two biennales, we have planned one or more events focusing on contemporary art outside Bangkok. But nothing is keeping this adventure from continuing beyond 2022.
Let’s start off modestly, and then we’ll see how things go. Still, we’ve preferred to be prudent, since the question that we often ask in Thailand is how long things can last. That explains in part why Thailand doesn’t have any great recurring artistic or cultural events.

Sustainability was the theme of another exhibition we did, once again during a time of political tensions. The title was “Bangkok Bananas!” I remember that artists had to organize themselves before and after the exhibition in order to be back home at 10 in the evening at the latest, because of the curfew. This context fit perfectly with the theme of the exhibition, since it touched on the issue of how things are slippery in Thailand, just like a banana peel. At the same time, bananas, with their delicious taste and consistency, can also remind you of another aspect of “Thainess”: a sort of fatalism or optimism, which means that everything will pass, everything is malleable, soft, according to the expression that we use a lot: “gluay gluay” (easy easy).

In this landscape, though, a new and major element has constituted a decisive step for the launching of the biennale project: the forming of a solid group of public-sector partners, such as Tourism Authority of Thailand, Ministry of Tourism and Sports and Bangkok Municipality Administration (BMA), as well as private ones, including, first of all, Thai Bev, but also Siam Piwat, Central and Emquartier. Without these partners and their support, imagining such a project would be an illusion.

Among these very important partners, one seems to be playing a primary role, namely Thai Bev. What is the motivation for this large Thai group to support the Biennale?

Thai Bev is in fact a large Thai group of companies involved in various fields, notably those associated with the art of living. I’m thinking of hotels and restaurants, but also culture and music.

One of the areas where Thai Bev is involved is its “One Bangkok” real estate project on the site of the former night market in Lumpini. The complex goes beyond the building of housing or offices: it will also include green areas, art galleries, artists’ residences, and a venue for performances.

Although “One Bangkok” will not be ready to participate in the first biennale, but only in subsequent ones, the park in Lumpini will be among the exhibition sites. This also reminds us of the very origin of this great green space in the center of Bangkok.

Now let’s talk about the other exhibition sites. First of all, there are three temples, among the most remarkable and the most visited monuments in Bangkok: Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and Wat Prayoon. How will the works of art fit in there? In the same way as the work of Jeff Koons or of Murakami at the Château de Versailles?

That’s exactly what we shouldn’t do! We will not follow typical French spectacles and shock tactics. That is too outdated! (laugh) These three temples are still active places of worship. Thousands of people go there every day. They must be respected, just as we must respect the monuments that are centuries old. Therefore, it will be an issue of working with customs, with traditions, and fitting into the site with subtlety, without any intention of shocking people. On this issue, my intention will be “no clash but blend.”

Be careful, though, my purpose is not to tell artists that they should create Buddhist art or create only through this lens. These temples represent many things: wisdom, the first university in Thailand, astrology, cosmogony, medicine, and cultural exchanges.

For example, think about the architecture of these temples and the rules of their construction with references to Mount Meru, Hinduism, and Brahmanism. As well as Chinese influence through trade. In these temples, we also find small satellite temples, cheddis, salas, and spirit houses, with small gardens and dolls. The idea is to add a contemporary layer, a new interpretation. That’s why what we expect from the artists is to internalize the whole set of these aspects and integrate into these monuments with subtlety. The works of art can come in all mediums and sizes.

In addition to these three extraordinary temples, you will also have a fourth spectacular exhibition venue available, the building of the East Asiatic Company, also on the banks of the Chao Praya, like the three temples that you just mentioned. Furthermore, how do you expect to integrate the iconic river of Bangkok within the Biennale?

The East Asiatic Company building, next to the Hotel Oriental, constitutes one of the most remarkable examples of the European-influenced architectural heritage in Bangkok. Although it was built for a Danish trade company in the late 19th century, it is the product of a magnificent neo-Venetian style. Part of its rooms will be made available to the Biennale.

As for the Chao Praya, it’s obviously at the heart of this Biennale, at the very least as a link between the locations of the four exhibition venues. We won’t be able to use the riverbanks to exhibit works of art, but we will use the piers and potentially the ferries themselves, following the line of the Ferry-Gallery.

You mentioned the involvement of the main Thai shopping center groups, Siam Piwat, Emquartier and Central. What form will this take? Will the large malls welcome works of art? You probably know the critical view taken in Europe, which often originates with the artists themselves, of the relationship between art and shopping centers…

First, I’d like to say that the link between shopping centers and art isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Think of Fukuoka Art Museum or art exhibits in Takashimaya Department Store in Tokyo. Think of Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama and KAWS as well. I can tell you that the malls are serious when they talk about art. They’re ready to invest heavily. A lot has been done for art in Thailand thanks to them.

The real problem concerns their own logic in terms of exhibition sites. The space available is very limited and requires frequent rotation. Therefore, we’ll have to be inventive, since their time frames are different from that of the Biennale, which lasts three months. We’ll take a close look at which spaces are available and for how much time. I can already tell you, though, that certain “skywalks”, which connect the shopping centers or allow connections with the BTS, will be used for works of public art.

Leaving aside these official sites, which constitute the “inside” of the Biennale, how do you wish to associate the local art scene, especially galleries? It’s often said that the success of a biennale, which, by definition, makes selections and therefore excludes, can also be found in the success of the “off”, which utilizes and gathers the energy of those not selected.

The involvement of the galleries of Bangkok is a major aspect of this biennale. We have it in mind to help the local infrastructure, which deserves it. I know very well how difficult it is to keep a gallery alive in Bangkok, even though their current number, which is growing exponentially, shows the dynamism of this sector.

One of the reasons why there has never been a large-scale event connected with contemporary art in Thailand before is found in the difficulties galleries face in joining together and working together.. On many occasions, I’ve already tried to contribute to this in Siam Art Fair at CDC and I haven’t been successful. I hope that Bangkok Art Biennale will allow them to come closer together, since it will be in everyone’s interest. Ideally, we should be able to organize some simultaneous exhibition openings during the Biennale, or even some itineraries to visit several galleries in many neighborhoods. I want there to be as many synergies as possible between the Biennale and the galleries of Bangkok, and among the galleries themselves as well. That’s how we’ll be able to develop contemporary art in Bangkok.

We hope to work with the “Hotel Art Fair”, which has growing success, with an edition during the Biennale, although this is the peak tourist season, with very high prices for hotel rooms. In the same way, the “Gallery Nights”, organized by the French Embassy in Bangkok, should be integrated within Bangkok Art Biennale.

The program will go beyond contemporary art, with side events in a number of fields: fashion, cuisine, set design, and film. Why not envision a festival of documentaries about art and artists? My wish is that we’ll manage to create three full months of abundant cultural activities, focusing on the art of living.

Besides, in the spirit of supporting the local art scene and its infrastructure, the Biennale will also engage in two other actions: the training and deployment of a hundred volunteers who will constitute a future hard core of contemporary art; the organization of conferences and presentations addressed to the broader public on the history of Biennale, the reason for their existence, and contemporary art in general, in order to make the broader public support our project.

The main idea of all these actions is to work for the long term and to make contemporary art a real part of the landscape of Bangkok.

What can you tell us about the schedule and the logistical organization of events?

An entire team has been set up and is in charge of these matters. This is a factor that will determine the success of the Biennale. For example, this team is studying the best way to link venues, the schedules and improvements that need to be made. Some applications will be created with QR codes that will allow interactive functions on a smartphone. We will list the best restaurants and bars close to the venues of Bangkok Art Biennale, the calendar of events, the opening hours, especially those of the temples, which have the advantage of being open late in the evening. We’re also working on integrated tourist packages, which include hotels, transports, restaurants, guided tours, and shows. The idea is to suggest to those who know and love our city to come back for a new reason, but also to attract new visitors, who after having enjoyed the Biennale, will be able to extend their stay in Thailand.

Bangkok Art Biennale will also be an opportunity to work on indicators linked to the “creative economy”. People in Thailand have been talking about this for years, but we don’t know how to measure it compared to other cities like Paris or London. What is the added value of a cultural event or even of the creative sector in the economy of a city like Bangkok? Once we have managed to prove, with figures supporting us, to what extent the “creative economy” is beneficial, we’ll have taken a giant leap in favor of the Thai cultural scene.

To conclude, one more personal question. Your career is unique for its richness and variety. First of all, you’re an acknowledged artist and a distinguished art historian. You’ve also curated exhibitions for some of the greatest artists, such as Joan Miró, Nobuyashi Araki, Marina Abramovic, Cai Guo Qiang and Louise Bourgeois, for the most prestigious museums and biennales (Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Istanbul, Sydney, Limerick and Venice). You’ve also held the highest positions in the Ministry of Culture for a long time, even serving as acting Minister. Anyone besides you would say that he’s essentially completed his professional career. Therefore, what’s motivating you in this new and somehow risky challenge that you’ve set for yourself?

For me, it’s a rebirth! After decades, albeit exciting ones, as a public officer, I’m finding the freedom to do again what I’ve done in the past and what I love most of all. I think that I have the experience, knowledge, and sensitivity to succeed, and also the support of the government of Thailand, which knows how important this event is for our country.

Of course, this challenge includes some risk management, but that’s a calculated risk. First of all, because I’m surrounded by an excellent team, consisting of people that I know well and who know Thailand. They’re the best in their fields. For example, I’m thinking of the four curators of the Biennale, Luckana Kunavichayanont (Director of the BACC), Sansern Milindasuta (a Thai artist and exhibition curator), Patrick D. Flores (an art critic, curator and professor in art history), and Adele Tan (exhibition curator at the National Gallery in Singapore). Same for the international counsellors, including Dr. Eugene Tan (Director of the National Gallery of Singapore), Nanjo Fumio (Director of the Mori Museum), Alexandra Munroe (senior curator, Guggenheim Museum), Rirkrit Tiravanija, and other important personalities whose names and biographies you can find on the website of the Biennale.

I know that we’ll have to face criticism and polemics. That’s completely normal in the world of art, and that’s been the case since time immemorial. I’ve experienced plenty of storms during my career. You can remember the fury caused by misinterpretation of the large sculpted head by Ravinder Reddy opposite Central World in Bangkok in 2009. Whatever you do, there will always be people who feel provoked and will invest their energy in criticism. Which is absolutely normal when it comes to art.

Lastly, in conclusion, I’d like to insist on the fact that this is the right moment to launch a biennale in Bangkok. Everyone’s been waiting for it for years. Few cities in the world possess the advantages and charm of Thailand in order to do this. By now, the dice has been cast, and I can only hope for a great success that will benefit everyone!

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