Bangkok Art Biennale Escapes Lockdown
I-na Phuyuthanon, HARMONIMILITARY (2020) (still). Courtesy the artist.
The Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) (29 October 2020–30 April 2021) has overcome great challenges to stage its second edition.
While the exhibition's title, Escape Routes, was decided long before Covid-19 hit, its striking resonance with the pandemic has provided an opportunity to consider the cataclysm through the ambiguous frame that Escape Routes appropriately capitalises on.
A tension between salvational escape and escapism in its derogatory sense ties together 217 artworks by 82 artists from 35 different countries presented across 10 venues in Bangkok; 74 of which are commissions, with 14 artists having been selected from an open call by curators Dow Wasiksiri and Wutigorn Kongka from Thailand, Ong Puay Khim from Singapore, and Sun Wenjie from China. The remaining 68 artists were chosen by Dr. Apinan Poshyananda and the four curators directly.
On the salvational side, an underlying connection with various forms of spirituality emerges among installations in heritage sites that subtly blend contemporary artistic orientations with Thailand's cultural heritage.
At Wat Pho, a famous Buddhist temple in the capital, Anish Kapoor's monumental Push Pull II (2008–2009) is positioned in the centre of Sermon Hall. Standing at five metres tall, a thick disc formed from five tonnes of blood-red wax and oil pigment seems to echo the Wheel of Dharma, a symbol of the Buddha's teaching, while the metal blade cutting through the form gives an unexpected insight into Dukkha, a key concept in Buddhism that is usually translated as 'suffering'.
Surrounded by golden Buddha statues, the installation is an enigmatic yet successful transplant, its red colour recalling the cinnamon-red ceilings of the hall. The colour is traditionally used in Thai temples as it symbolises the void.
The legacies of Buddhist art also appear in the work of Baatarzorig Batjargal, exhibited at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). The acrylic on canvas Mars Aliens (2020) sources inspiration from thang-ka—a form of traditional Buddhist cloth painting containing codified compositions and colours.
At the centre of Mars Aliens is a menacing and god-like Mickey Mouse presiding over a scene populated by figures that tap into a heterogeneity of references, from Buddhist and Mongolian folk culture to Hieronymus Bosch's paintings, and other forms of pop culture.
Thai artist I-na Phuyuthanon takes a more confrontational approach in HARMONIMILITARY (2020), a single-channel video at BACC that considers the stigmatisation created by the Thai armed forces' characterisation of local rubber planters and villagers as separatists. The artist is shown wearing a long green dress as she perambulates through a forest, a village, and a mosque, with a captivating soundtrack punctuated by the sounds of a military march.
At BAB Box, an art space located in the mixed-use development One Bangkok, Chinese photographer Zhang Kechun creates striking juxtapositions and overlaps in the photographic series 'Between the Mountains and Water' (2014–2017), where the spiritual essence of Chinese landscape painting has been substituted by an encounter with the Anthropocene in the urban terrain of contemporary China.
Where natural elements like mountains, rivers, and clouds once dominated, sceneries are now taken over by man-made structures and settings in which human inhabitants seem to have lost control.
The oscillation between utopia and dystopia continues in Souliya Phoumivong's installation Flow (2020), in which brightly painted clay sculptures of buffalos and buffalo-headed bipeds are arranged in a circular parade that spirals upwards until an animal at the end of the path jumps into the mouth of a giant animal's head.
From Samsara, a Buddhist concept that describes the cycle of death and rebirth, to Darwin's theory of biological evolution, the meaning of the artwork is centrifugal, unlike its pattern. The stop-motion animation video that accompanies the installation at BACC emphasises the sculpture's ambiguous parade by visualising its movement—at once a regressive game and genuine tragedy.
As a whole, the artistic journey offered by Escape Routes draws from forms of cultural heritage across Asia, but it avoids being backward-looking or conventionally academic. This path seems to be in BAB's genes, as facilitated by the cosmopolitanism of a city like Bangkok, located at the intersection of different cultural spheres.
Despite its striking resilience, however, the second BAB hasn't overcome all its challenges, the first issue being attendance, with the nation's marked decrease in tourism since spring 2020.
As a whole, the artistic journey offered by Escape Routes draws from forms of cultural heritage across Asia, but it avoids being backward-looking or conventionally academic.
Notably, the capital has also been rocked by recent student protests against the current government and calling for immediate democratic reforms, prompting a group of 25 artists participating in the Biennale—including Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor—to proclaim their support in an open letter published one week before the show opened last October.
Of course, some exhibited works engage with the current political stakes. At BACC, a suite of paintings by Thai artist Lampu Kansanoh show political leaders in awkward situations. In Pray for us (2020), Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Prayuth Chan-ocha make an appearance in a social realist, caricaturist style—the latter, Thailand's current Prime Minister, depicted with a threatening facial expression.
The expected third opus of the Bangkok Art Biennale will be crucial for developing Bangkok into a leading contemporary art destination—one of the official missions of the Biennale.
Indeed, BAB's enlivenment of the local art ecosystem is undeniable, with the launch of a new Art Space in partnership with MOCA Bangkok at the Four Seasons Hotel an indirect outcome of its activities so far. Inaugurated in December 2020, Art Space is dedicated to Thai contemporary art, and the first artist to be exhibited there, Nino Sarabutra, participated in the first Biennale in 2018 with an acclaimed installation in porcelain at Wat Prayoon, titled What Will You Leave Behind? (2018).
Even still, since BAB often works directly with artists and their studios, with some local art galleries note the Biennale's lack of direct impact on their activity.
Questions of local connectivity and impact will no doubt continue to unfold into the future, with the second edition of the roving Thailand Biennale—launched in Krabi just two weeks after the BAB in 2018, and unlike BAB, funded directly by the Thai government through the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture and Ministry of Culture—running between 11 June and 5 September 2021.
This year, Thailand Biennale will be staged in Nakhon Ratchasima. Also known as Korat, the city is located in Isan, a vast landlocked region in the northeastern part of Thailand that is rooted in three different cultural spheres—Thai, Khmer, and Lao—which head curator and artistic director Yuko Hasegawa, the artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, will no doubt draw from in the exhibition's curatorial.
But even with overlapping regional perspectives and local/global concerns, it remains to be seen how these two biennials—one privately funded and located in the capital and the other organised by the government in Thailand's provinces—will distinguish themselves from one another, and what synergies and common routes might emerge from their coexistence in the broader field of local, regional, and global art worlds.—[O]