Bangkok embraces modern art

In French author Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel Platform, one western character describes Thailand as a place where “everybody gets what they want, there’s something for everybody's tastes....”

Houellebecq (read Wellbeck) was making a contentious reference to the growing influence of the sex industry in Thailand. But, Thailand is not just about tourism anymore, as I discovered last month when I attended the inauguration of the first Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB). Bangkok is a city of culture, traditions, hospitality and gastronomy. However, censorship of the arts is often whimsical and subjective. So, artists find their freedom to express themselves curbed. BAB seems to have put all those concerns to rest with a very bold biennale.

Polka-dotted pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama in Bangkok | Nuntiya Polka-dotted pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama in Bangkok | Nuntiya

I met Thailand’s most respected art critic and historian Dr Apinan Poshyananda at Venice, a couple of years ago during a brunch organised by the Biennale Association. He gave me his BAB business card, which reignited my excitement about the number of contemporary art initiatives growing in south and southeast Asia.

Poshyananda is the driving force behind the biennale. With Thailand battling issues such as the conflict between Muslim and Buddhist communities, and the inability to reconcile with the influx of persecuted Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, Poshyananda has pulled off a grand event with great defiance. The other issues addressed in the biennale, particularly by Thai artists, include the exploitation of migrant workers, the plight of women in a patriarchal society and the wrath over environmental pollution of Thailand’s rivers.

In an interview after the opening, Poshyananda is reported to have said: "People said to me: ‘Why ask for trouble?’ And yes, we chose to take the difficult path. But under the military we have gone through five years of intense scrutiny and it is time to have a breather and be able to freely express ourselves." Despite apprehension, there has been no interference by the authorities, despite two venues being the city’s most famous temples—Wat Pho and Wat Arun. In a highly religious country, they were the unlikeliest places to display contemporary art. Yet, the government complied.

It is not easy to establish a festival on contemporary visual art. But, the BAB has been able to overcome all adversity. Poshyananda was aided by an advisory committee of prominent art figures. During the inaugural ceremony, he invited the incredible Marina Abramovic to join him on stage, to represent all the participating artists at the BAB.

The exhibition is also taking place across urban public spaces, from historic architectural sites to iconic landmarks like the East Asiatic Company building, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre and Bank of Thailand Learning Centre.

These beautiful venues hosted fantastic paintings by Francesco Clemente, the trademark pumpkins of Yayoi Kusama, Heri Dono’s kinetic works, AES+F’s huge scale video, Gauri Gill’s photographs, Mark Justiniani’s installation and some brilliant performance pieces by Kawita Vatanajyankur. Kawita is a Thai video artist who creates thought-provoking works that emphasise the importance of gender equality. At the BAB, the young artist undertook physical experiments to examine weaving, knitting and printing processes in the textile industry. She was seen performing as a spinning wheel and textile shuttle.

It is difficult to cover 200 works spread over 20 venues. Yet, it was heartening to see that for a country that has been under a military regime, BAB has come as a welcome relief.