DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Si­mon N. Os­theimer

Bangkok may still rule the artis­tic roost in Thai­land, but the coun­try’s laid-back sec­ond city is fast catch­ing up thanks to col­lab­o­ra­tive cre­ative projects, a new mu­seum, and a grow­ing ros­ter of res­i­dent artists.



StudiOK, the home base for Chiang Mai artist Navin Rawan­chaikul. An aus­tere, ware­house-style build­ing of con­crete and steel, it is a pur­posely blank canvas for some of the most col­or­ful and in­ven­tive con­tem­po­rary artwork Thai­land has known. The stu­dio it­self is only a cou­ple of years old, but Rawan­chaikul has a long es­tab­lished rep­u­ta­tion, hav­ing been one of the first to at­tend the Fac­ulty of Fine Arts pro­gram at Chiang Mai Uni­ver­sity un­der the tute­lage of the late, great sculp­tor and in­stal­la­tion artist Mon­tien Boonma.

“What we were do­ing at uni­ver­sity back in the early ’90s was to­tally new for Thai­land,” re­calls Rawan­chaikul, an artist of Pun­jabiIn­dian de­scent known for play­ful works that ex­plore is­sues of cul­tural iden­tity. “Far away from Bangkok, we didn’t have a fixed struc­ture or style, and Mon­tien Boonma showed us a new path. He had just spent time in Paris on a schol­ar­ship, and brought back with him ideas about how we could cre­ate new Thai art and use lo­cal ma­te­ri­als in a con­tem­po­rary way.”

Chiang Mai has a long, sto­ried his­tory of tra­di­tional crafts­man­ship; the one­time cap­i­tal of north­ern Thai­land’s Lanna King­dom, its artisans are famed for their abil­i­ties in wood, pot­tery, pa­per, and jew­elry. But there had been no con­tem­po­rary art to speak of be­fore the ar­rival of Bangkok-born Boonma in 1988. “As a group of am­bi­tious stu­dents, we launched an ex­per­i­men­tal project called the Chiang Mai So­cial In­stal­la­tion, in which we treated the en­tire city as an ex­hi­bi­tion space,” Rawan­chaikul tells me. In its first year, the al­ter­na­tive fes­ti­val—which in­cor­po­rated art in­stal­la­tions, per­for­mances, talks, and par­tic­i­pa­tory events—was held at tem­ples, where the monks proved sup­port­ive. Later edi­tions spread to shop­ping malls, streets, and other public spa­ces. “We saw it as the best way to reach the most peo­ple.”

Fast-for­ward 20 years, and Chiang Mai is now home to a shiny new con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum that is draw­ing crowds of its own. In­stantly rec­og­niz­able thanks to its shim­mer­ing fa­cade of mir­rored tiles—similar to those that adorn the city’s tem­ples—MAIIAM is a fam­ily-owned venue driven by well-known Thai art col­lec­tor Eric Bun­nag Booth. “We’d been col­lect­ing mod­ern art for more than 25 years,” he tells me, “but it was mostly just sit­ting in stor­age.” The fam­ily had also been con­sid­er­ing how to honor Booth’s great-grandaunt Chao Chom Iam, who had been royal con­sort to the mod­ern­iz­ing King Rama V. (The mu­seum’s moniker in­cor­po­rates her name while also play­ing on the Thai phrase mai iam, or “brand new.”)

“We ex­plored a few pos­si­ble projects, such as run­ning a school or hospi­tal, but it’s not some­thing we knew how to do,” Booth says. “So we had the idea of open­ing a mu­seum to show­case our art col­lec­tion, which would be the first in the coun­try.”

A 3,000-square-me­ter for­mer ware­house space in the Sankam­phaeng crafts district, the MAIIAM houses the fam­ily’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion on its up­per level and hosts twice-yearly ex­hi­bi­tions on the ground floor. Cur­rently on show is “Patani Se­masa,” which spot­lights thought­ful pieces from artists in Thai­land’s Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity deep south.

“Chiang Mai re­ally was the most op­ti­mal place [for the fam­ily] to open an art mu­seum,” says MAIIAM cu­ra­tor Joyce Cha­reep­r­a­sit,

who has a master’s de­gree in cu­rat­ing and col­lec­tion from Uni­ver­sity of the Arts Lon­don. “The peo­ple here ap­pre­ci­ate art, and crafts­man­ship is part of the fab­ric of life.” Emerg­ing artists still strug­gle, she con­cedes, but so­cial me­dia is mak­ing it eas­ier for them to find grants and res­i­den­cies else­where in Asia. “It’s an ex­cit­ing time.”

Marisa Mar­chitelli con­curs. A Thai­land-born video pro­ducer and event or­ga­nizer, she has been a fa­mil­iar face on the Chiang Mai art scene since she re­turned to the city from a stint in New York in 2010. “In the short time I’ve been back here the con­tem­po­rary art scene has changed tremen­dously.” We’re sit­ting in a chic café in the Nim­man­haemin area, which has blos­somed over the last decade into the city’s trendi­est neigh­bor­hood. “It wasn’t that long ago that half of this area was still paddy fields, se­ri­ously!” she adds. That bu­colic coun­try­side im­agery may be why many of Thai­land’s top artists— a grow­ing list that in­cludes Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Mit Jai Inn, and Rirkrit Ti­ra­vanija—choose to live here.

“Chiang Mai has long been a base for ac­com­plished Thai artists, but they weren’t able to show their work here. The ar­rival of MAIIAM has changed the scene com­pletely,” Mar­chitelli con­tin­ues. “Eric Booth and Dis­aphol Chan­siri with his pri­vate DC Col­lec­tion have been very sup­port­ive of young Thai artists, which is es­sen­tial as the coun­try’s art mar­ket is so lim­ited. Through their art spa­ces, they’re bring­ing in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to Chiang Mai.” She adds that the lo­cal branch of the TCDC (Thai­land Cre­ative & Design Cen­ter) is help­ing to pair artists with busi­nesses, and events like the an­nual Nim­man­haemin Art and Design Prom­e­nade fair, which show­cases in­ven­tive home­made fash­ion and crafts, are do­ing much to fur­ther the scene. Nor does it hurt to have a large cre­ative stu­dent pop­u­la­tion close by.

“I was born

on a house­boat,” starts Tor­larp Larp­jaroen­sook, the artist-owner be­hind Gallery Seescape in the Nim­man uni­ver­sity district. Raised on the wa­ter­ways of Ayut­thaya, the for­mer cap­i­tal of an an­cient Thai king­dom, his par­ents made a liv­ing fishing and har­vest­ing river­weeds, which they sold in the lo­cal mar­kets. They were also car­pen­ters, a skill they passed onto their young son. “It was a fun child­hood,” he says. “We didn’t have much but I got to play in the river, and learned how to make my own toys—peo­ple called me a ‘lit­tle in­ven­tor’.” His in­ter­est in art led him to study at the Col­lege of Fine Arts in Bangkok. “The school was right next to the Chao Phraya, and I lived in a small vil­lage by the water next to a lo­cal mar­ket. I felt right at home.”

Drawn by the cheaper cost of liv­ing, af­ter grad­u­a­tion he moved to Chiang Mai where he sus­tained him­self with odd jobs, mak­ing props for movies, dio­ra­mas for the city’s mu­se­ums, and small craft items to sell to tourists at the night mar­ket. And he con­tin­ued to de­velop his art, meld­ing tra­di­tional oil paint­ings with func­tion­ing ob­jects such as speak­ers you could con­nect to your iPod. To­day, one of his most rec­og­niz­able cre­ations is a fig­u­ra­tive series called Besto Boy and Veena Girl, which takes its name from the run-of-the-mill Besto brand light switch. Larp­jaroen­sook ex­plains, “When­ever I saw these switches on lamp ca­bles, I kept see­ing a face. So I de­cided that the head de­served a body.” The re­sult is molded-plas­tic male and fe­male forms with Besto switches for heads and work­ing light bulbs stand­ing in for gen­i­talia and breasts.

“The ob­jects I use are cheap and un­fash­ion­able,” says Larp­jaroen­sook, “but the qual­ity is good.” He ges­tures around the res­tau­rant at Gallery Seescape, which he opened in 2008, point­ing out the bro­ken floor tiles that cover the table­tops, the Gre­cian-style bal­cony col­umns that hold up the ta­bles, and the old metal fences that serve as seats. “They might not be beau­ti­ful at this time, but they once were. In fact, every ob­ject can be beau­ti­ful, and it doesn’t have to be ex­pen­sive to look rich. Artists can help with this, us­ing aes­thet­ics to make new pat­terns, and close the gap be­tween the as­pi­ra­tions and ideals of nor­mal and up­per-class peo­ple.”

Nev­er­the­less, over 10 years, 80 ex­hi­bi­tions and events, and com­mer­cial projects such as his up­cy­cle design for an artsy dorm turned bou­tique ho­tel called Ar­tel Nim­man, he has still strug­gled to make ends meet. “I al­most quit be­ing an artist three times. I had no money and asked my­self ‘Why? For what?’ But now I see more peo­ple ap­pre­ci­at­ing art, and a new gen­er­a­tion of artists con­nect­ing. Think


of art in Chiang Mai like a seed: When you plant a tree, you must choose a good lo­ca­tion. If you have a proper en­vi­ron­ment the tree will grow strong and tall and thrive. We have all that, but we still need sup­port to grow.”

Pro­vid­ing such sup­port is the rai­son d’être for the Chiang Mai Art Con­ver­sa­tion (CAC), an artist-led col­lec­tive that runs an on­line artists’ data­base and pro­duces the an­nual Chiang Mai Art Map. The first pub­li­ca­tion of its kind, the map not only pro­vides de­tails on the city’s gal­leries and mu­se­ums, but also lists art-friendly bars, restau­rants, and cafés such as Woo, a beau­ti­ful multi-pur­pose life­style venue near the Ping River that pro­motes lo­cal tal­ents in its up­stairs ex­hi­bi­tion space.

“It’s not easy for young artists to make their mark,” says artist Sut­thi­rat “Som” Su­pa­parinya, one of the CAC’s co-founders. “We were think­ing, what can we do to make art more vis­i­ble in this city? Maybe or­ga­nize an arts fes­ti­val? But then we thought that wouldn’t be help­ful long-term—it’d just pop up and be gone. That’s when we hit upon set­ting up a data­base.”

Af­ter start­ing off with a Face­book page, the group fol­lowed every lo­cal artist they could find on­line, then shared in­for­ma­tion on their events, grants, res­i­den­cies, news, and art com­pe­ti­tions, rapidly be­com­ing the hub for the city’s cre­ative com­mu­nity. “Then we wanted to set up an in­ter­ac­tive web­site where artists could share de­tails of their work. Ev­ery­one was ex­cited and wanted to make it hap­pen— un­til we asked for money,” Su­pa­parinya laughs. Still, they fi­nally man­aged to launch the web­site in 2013, fol­lowed by the first printed edi­tion of the Chiang Mai Art Map two years later.

“We’ve found that the map has re­ally helped. Places that only a few peo­ple knew about have now be­come public knowl­edge. I’ve seen more than a few peo­ple walk­ing from gallery to gallery with the map in their hand.” It also made the CAC a log­i­cal part­ner when the Ja­pan Foun­da­tion Asia Cen­ter, a cul­tural pro­mo­tional arm of the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment, was look­ing to es­tab­lish a pres­ence in Chiang Mai. That in turn led to the open­ing of the Asian Cul­ture Sta­tion on a small al­ley­way off Nim­man­haemin Road. With sis­ter branches in Yan­gon and Ho Chi Minh City, the min­i­mal­ist space serves as cowork­ing of­fice, design li­brary, and artist re­source cen­ter.

As Larp­jaroen­sook told me, if you have a proper en­vi­ron­ment a tree will grow strong and tall and thrive. It feels very much that Chiang Mai’s art scene has reached this point. All the in­gre­di­ents are there—the seed, the nour­ish­ment, the sup­port. Now, it has only one way to go: up.

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