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
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.”