NEW ART MUSEUM THAILAND
Opened in the course of the summer with a display of royal photography, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) is the result of over a decade of lobbying on the part of Thailand’s contemporary art community.
Not just for the elite
Like many recently built government-run cultural venues in Southeast Asia, BACC has been designed as an entertainment-oriented art space expected to bring in extra revenues through retail and is integrated into a cluster of up-market malls (including Siam Discovery and Paragon), all connected by the National Stadium BTS skytrain station.
Explains the Centre’s Acting Director Chatvichai Promadhattavedi, ‘As well as needing the various shops’ retail income to survive financially, we also need to make sure people keep coming back, we need to be a welcoming meeting place, a shopping place and an eating place, as well as a venue for culture. We must strive to have something for everyone, not just the Bangkok elite’.
As well as being critical of BACCs undistinguished architecture, many culture-watchers in Bangkok also have mixed feelings about the new centre’s hybrid aspirations, worrying that its core mission as a museum will be diluted by its commercial nature. At the time of writing, the several dozen retail premises of the lower floors were still untenanted, but by the same token, a clear cultural programme is not yet in place, nor a permanent curator appointed. ‘It is as if the 10 years of fighting we have gone through to get this place set up has exhausted everyone to the point where even the centre’s directors are feeling uncertain and lethargic,’ said a Thai journalist attending the opening of BACC’s first big contemporary art exhibition in September.
Initial teething problems notwithstanding, many feel that the over 4000 square meters of exhibition space provided by the BACC have been worth the wait and are optimistic that over time the new centre can defy the familiar Thai model of bureaucratic stagnation and institutional corruption. ‘It has been a long time coming. Now we have the infrastructure, we need to focus on programmes and policy to make the centre move ahead,’ says photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom, one of the activist-artists instrumental in the campaign for the new space and currently a member of BACC’s executive board.
Traces of Siamese Smile – first exhibition
Despite the new building having been accessible to the public for some months, it was the Bangkok centre’s first big exhibition that effectively marked the space’s arrival on the Thai cultural scene. Presided over by Princess Ubol Ratana, one of the largest shows of Thai modern and contemporary art ever assembled in Thailand or elsewhere opened on 23 September. Technically the centre’s second manifestation, Traces of Siamese Smile: Art + Faith + Politics + Love, was, due to its size, breadth, and high-calibre curatorial team, billed in the local press as ‘commemorating the opening of BACC’.
Traces of Siamese Smile: Art + Faith + Politics + Love, scheduled to run for two months until 26 November, has been organised by some of Thailand’s most distinguished art professionals, not least Prof. Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, the BACC chairman and internationally recognised curator, who currently heads the Thai Ministry of Culture’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture.
The Siamese Smile is the exhibition’s loosely observed curatorial theme. Embodying a uniquely Thai paradox, the smile is an appropriate motif for an exhaustive survey. A cliché of the national tourist industry, the Siamese smile has in recent decades been repeatedly appropriated by contemporary artists who use it to critique Thais’ attitude of surrender vis a vis life and conventions as well as their vision of themselves from beyond their own cultural borders.
Over 300 works in the show
Including over 300 paintings, drawings, installations, sculptures, photographs and videos, the show presents Thai art as well as a small but high-profile selection of pieces by non-Thai practitioners. One may justifiably ask whether it was truly necessary to include less-than-great works by a few iconic Western, Chinese, Korean and Japanese creators for the sake of a mere smile. Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Pierre et Gilles, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Louise Bourgeois and others figure here more like brands than practising artists, their respective works for the most part incongruous amongst the Thai majority. Within the foreign group one can make exception for Pierre et Gilles, whose photo-montage contributions relate specifically to Thailand, and Louise Bourgeois, whose extraordinary steel Spider of 1996 is so spectacularly beautiful that it would be at home and welcome anywhere! These exceptions aside, however, it is rather surprising that despite Thai contemporary art’s well recognised strengths, curators felt the inclusion of big international names necessary to draw museum-goers. It is a reflection of the local situation – true throughout Asia- that most members of the public are more familiar with, and responsive to, foreign cultural players than local ones.
How does the Thai art measure up?
These sociological observations aside, how did the Thai art measure up? As a survey spanning the first quarter of the 20th-century to the present, the exhibition will no doubt go down in history as seminal, no other inclusive selection of this nature ever having been assembled. Indeed, Traces of Siamese Smile reads like a Who’s Who of modern and contemporary Thai art, save one striking omission, that of Bangkok-based conceptual practitioner Sutee Kunavichayanont. The latter, one of the most significant artists of the present generation, due to being part of the curatorial team mounting the show, was excluded from the manifestation.
A who’s who of Thai modern and contemporary art
Dominated by contemporary art, the display presents some of the most recognisable Thai images of the last 15 years: Montien Boonma’s A Man Who Admires Thai Art is here, as is his 1999 Melting Void: Molds for the Mind (not in the catalogue). Chatchai Puipia’s Siamese Smiles of 1995 is also present, along with Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s over-scale deconstructed Buddha made of shredded Thai paper money. A funny and sharp early video by Vasan Sitthiket pokes fun at the greedy consumer. Manit Sriwanichpoom’s now globally famous Pink Man makes an appearance with patriotic school children waving the Thai flag. The flag appears elsewhere in various guises too, as depicted by Natee Utarit, Kanya Chareonsupkul, Ing Kanchanavanich, Montri Toemsombat, and Noppachai Ungkavatanapong, these artists dwelling on the meaning of the Thai nation and the effects and ills of nationalistic policy. Traces of Siamese Smile also introduces a number of key Thai modernists amongst whom the revered Silpa Bhirasri, (Italian by birth but considered the father of Thai modernism), Fua Haribhitak and Thawan Duchanee.
- See complete article and image carousel in Asian Art ,
- recent posts on Thai art,
- Find out which are the important artists in other survey shows of emerging and Asian art
- review and more images in Mysinchew covers Chatchai Puipia, Surasi Kusolwong, Rirkrit Tiravanija
- For complete list of artists in exhibition see Asia Art Archive