Next month, the in­au­gu­ral Bangkok Art Bi­en­nale kicks off in an at­tempt to make the Thai cap­i­tal a se­ri­ous player on the in­ter­na­tional art cir­cuit. dun­can for­gan chats to DR APINAN POSYANANDA, artis­tic di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the much-an­tic­i­pated e

Prestige (Thailand) - - CONTENTS -

New En­deav­ours

from a perch high above Bangkok, Dr Apinan Posyananda looks out over the city. Through the gloom of a mon­soon af­ter­noon it is hard to make out the Chao Phraya River and land­marks like Wat Pho, Wat Arun and Wat Pray­oon, all of which grace the banks of the great wa­ter­way.

These stately, spir­i­tual high­lights of Bangkok are among a host of eye-catch­ing set­tings that will be utilised by art world su­per­stars like Ma­rina Abramović, Yayoi Kusama, and other au­teurs from Thai­land and fur­ther afield dur­ing the in­au­gu­ral Bangkok Art Bi­en­nale, which kicks off in late Oc­to­ber.

Closer to hand, the traf­fic-snarled by­ways of Huay Kwang, where our in­ter­view is tak­ing place, hove into clearer fo­cus. The area is bet­ter known for low­brow en­ter­tain­ment than cere­bral depth. In­deed, its cav­ernous mas­sage par­lours make it syn­ony­mous with happy end­ings: not the new be­gin­nings for the cul­tural cli­mate in Thai­land’s cap­i­tal en­vi­sioned by Dr Apinan and his fel­low bi­en­nale or­gan­is­ers.

Dr Apinan, though, is as­sess­ing his ram­bunc­tious home city – warts and all – with ob­vi­ous af­fec­tion for its rougher-edged as­pects.

“Our friends in places like Sin­ga­pore and else­where have the ben­e­fit of steady gov­ern­ment which en­ables long-term plan­ning. That’s an ad­van­tage. But they don’t live in cre­ative chaos like we do,” he chuckles, ges­tur­ing at the rest­less street scenes vis­i­ble be­low from the glass-walled meet­ing room as he takes his seat.

The Bangkok Art Bi­en­nale, of which he is both artis­tic di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive, is the most am­bi­tious at­tempt yet to har­ness this ki­netic en­ergy and make Bangkok a se­ri­ous player on the in­ter­na­tional art cir­cuit.

Run­ning from Oc­to­ber 19 un­til Fe­bru­ary 3, the ex­trav­a­ganza pro­vides a stage for some of the big­gest noises on the global art scene, such as per­for­mance artist Abramović; the inim­itable, flame-haired Kusama; and other high-pro­file names, in­clud­ing large-scale sculp­tor Choi Jeong Hwa and Ber­lin-based, Scan­di­na­vian duo Elm­green and Dragset.

The works of the late, leg­endary Amer­i­can graf­fiti artist Jean-michel Basquiat will also be ex­hib­ited.

It’s not all about the head­line in­ter­na­tional acts of course. Thais com­prise around half of an as­sem­bly that in­cludes 75 artists from 33 coun­tries. And while some of the home-grown con­tin­gent – no­tably in­stal­la­tion artist Sakarin Krue-on and per­for­mance artist Chumpon Apisuk – are fa­mil­iar faces, the cu­ra­tors en­sured that the door would also be left open to promis­ing un­knowns.

“We wanted to en­sure the bi­en­nale has the fresh­ness of the undis­cov­ered,” ex­plains Dr Apinan. “Thai artist Su­nanta Pha­som­wong is a shin­ing ex­am­ple of this. We had an open call for sub­mis­sions and she sub­mit­ted her work. She’s

a young girl and she just fin­ished univer­sity in Maha Sarakham.

“She was to­tally shocked to be se­lected and will now be show­ing along­side these huge names. That’s what makes this spe­cial in the con­text of the Thai art scene. It’s an in­cu­ba­tor for tal­ent. She may suc­ceed, and she might fail, but at least this is a chance for these guys to show at such a prom­i­nent level.”

A nat­u­ral-born en­thu­si­ast with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence pro­mot­ing Thai­land’s cul­tural cap­i­tal at home and abroad, it is with ob­vi­ous rel­ish that Dr Apinan speaks of the show­case he hopes that Bangkok Art Bi­en­nale will pro­vide for artists.

He is also vis­i­bly en­livened about the prospect of how Bangkok will present it­self as an in­spi­ra­tional set­ting for the dis­play of con­tem­po­rary art.

The artists will ex­hibit their works at venues around the city, with the tem­ples and other iconic sites such as the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Bangkok, its stately neigh­bour, the East Asi­atic Com­pany build­ing, Ben­jasiri Park and BAB Box, a pur­pose-built struc­ture in the new One Bangkok su­per-de­vel­op­ment on Rama IV Road among the most eye-catch­ing choices.

“We didn’t want to do the easy thing, we wanted to do the in­spir­ing thing,” says Dr Apinan. “Thais and for­eign­ers alike told us we were ask­ing for trou­ble do­ing con­tem­po­rary art in her­itage tem­ples and build­ings as they have so many pre-ex­ist­ing as­so­ci­a­tions.

“There­fore, the artists we have in­vited must do a lot of re­search and use these as­so­ci­a­tions as in­spi­ra­tion. For ex­am­ple, the gi­ant Chi­nese stat­ues at Wat Pho came to Thai­land in ex­change for rice.

“Huang Yong Ping (Chi­nese/ French sculp­tor) will mount a non­func­tional 60-foot long dragon boat

at the Bank of Thai­land build­ing as a re­flec­tion on the ex­change of cul­tural and fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal be­tween Thai­land and China. It’s also a com­ment on how mod­ern China sees it­self in South­east Asia.”

Equally thought-pro­vok­ing is the theme of the forth­com­ing bi­en­nale, “Be­yond Bliss”, a some­what melan­choly mo­tif that Dr Apinan calls “in­ten­tion­ally para­dox­i­cal”.

“It may sound down­beat, but bliss isn’t al­ways de­sir­able,” he says. “Be­cause the time that you ex­pe­ri­ence hap­pi­ness is lim­ited. When the bliss goes away you ex­pe­ri­ence mis­ery and you will tor­ture your­self to get that adren­a­line hit back.

“There­fore, the theme can be in­ter­preted in many ways. It can be sad, happy, chaotic, re­demp­tive. We want the artists to pro­vide dif­fer­ent paths for view­ers to walk along.”

As one of Thai­land’s lead­ing cul­tural fig­ures, Apinan has been long im­mersed in the coun­try’s art scene.

A for­mer pro­fes­sor of Art at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity, he has helped nur­ture some of the coun­try’s emerg­ing tal­ent. His English-lan­guage books are re­garded as in­valu­able ref­er­ences on Thai art. A role as a per­ma­nent sec­re­tary for the Thai Min­istry of Cul­ture, mean­while, has seen him lobby suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments hard for the de­vel­op­ment of the cre­ative econ­omy in the King­dom.

It is as a cu­ra­tor, though, that some of Dr Apinan’s most no­table ca­reer highs have been achieved, with solo shows by Joan Miro and Abramović along with nu­mer­ous in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions among the stand-outs on a high­light-stud­ded CV.

It’s an un­de­ni­ably im­pres­sive re­sume, but Apinan him­self ad­mits that over­see­ing a suc­cess­ful bi­en­nale that would help el­e­vate Thai­land cul­tural cap­i­tal is one of his most ex­act­ing – not to men­tion ex­cit­ing – chal­lenges thus far.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity for this coun­try,” he says of the bi­en­nale. “This is a good time for it to be staged be­cause we have had five years of peace of sta­bil­ity. Hope­fully this one will sup­ply the syn­ergy to give us mo­men­tum for the next one. In Ja­pan, there are maybe 30 bi­en­nales in dif­fer­ent pre­fec­tures so that shows us what can be achieved.”

Such a pro­lif­er­a­tion of ma­jor events may not (yet) be a fix­ture in Thai­land. Nev­er­the­less, re­cent de­vel­op­ments point to a quick­en­ing of the artis­tic pulse in the King­dom. The Bangkok Art Bi­en­nale, with back­ing from Thaibev and other ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions, is the big­gest of three bi­en­nales tak­ing place in Thai­land in 2018.

The sim­i­larly named Bangkok Bi­en­nial was or­gan­ised by an anony­mous un­der­ground group and held in au­ton­o­mous pav­il­ions around the Thai cap­i­tal ear­lier this sum­mer. The third event, Thai­land Bi­en­nale, will ini­tially take place in Krabi Prov­ince with the back­ing of the Min­istry of Cul­ture.

Hav­ing strived for years to get a ma­jor bi­en­nale off the ground in Thai­land, you could for­give Dr Apinan for be­ing some­what miffed that the pre­vi­ously de­serted play­ing field has sud­denly got so crowded. Not a bit of it though. On the con­trary, he be­lieves that the wildly dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ri­val bi­en­nales can only serve to com­ple­ment each other.

“The idea of a bi­en­nale has evolved since the orig­i­nal bi­en­nale in Venice,” he says. “It has many lives. You can do bi­en­nales in dif­fer­ent ways. They can be un­der­ground with no spon­sor­ship. They can be artist-run. Or they can have ma­jor back­ing. It’s not a case of one bi­en­nale be­ing against an­other. They can re­act to one an­other and com­ple­ment each other. There needs to be many dif­fer­ent flavours be­cause art serves many dif­fer­ent groups.”

While Dr Apinan is heart­ened by the es­tab­lish­ment of mul­ti­ple high-pro­file art hap­pen­ings in Thai­land, he is also acutely aware

“We wanted to en­sure the bi­en­nale has the fresh­ness of the undis­cov­ered”

of the con­straints that con­tinue to hold back the coun­try’s as­pi­ra­tions of be­ing a cre­ative hub at the level of other ma­jor in­ter­na­tional cen­tres.

These in­clude, he says, reg­u­lar dis­rup­tion at the high­est po­lit­i­cal level, cen­sor­ship and lack of art knowl­edge on the part of au­thor­i­ties and a ten­dency on the part of artists to fall back on a re­stric­tive for­mula of “Thai­ness” where in­di­vid­u­al­ist ex­pres­sion is sac­ri­ficed in favour of es­tab­lish­ment-ap­proved cul­tural clichés.

“I am hope­ful it (the bi­en­nale) will cre­ate new cracks in the com­fort zone of Thai­ness,” he ex­pands. “In the past, the au­thor­i­ties have pro­moted this con­cept and artists have created works to sat­isfy this for­mula. What we hope to show, is that as a Thai artist you don’t have to stick rigidly to your own DNA when it comes to cre­ativ­ity.”

On that crit­i­cal, but still op­ti­mistic note, Dr Apinan rises and ex­tends a warm hand­shake. He needs to pre­empt the rush hour traf­fic and make it to an­other ap­point­ment on the other side of town.

With the bi­en­nale ap­proach­ing he knows that mad dashes across a mag­i­cal, but of­ten mad­den­ing city, are go­ing to be a fea­ture of his ex­is­tence for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

“It’s go­ing to be four chal­leng­ing and in­tense months,” he says, with an ex­pres­sion that is half-smile, half gri­mace. There’s a twin­kle in his eye though that re­veals his real thoughts on what is about to un­fold.

“We are not just show­ing art, we are also go­ing to be train­ing kids – vol­un­teers from the uni­ver­si­ties. Just imag­ine them see­ing Ma­rina Abramović walk­ing along the street. Or her as­sis­tants do­ing live per­for­mances. It will change the course of con­tem­po­rary Thai art, I am sure of that. I think it will be in­spi­ra­tional.”

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