After the Academy: How Thai Contemporary Art Began

At Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, a survey of work from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s captures an art scene in transition

A geological rift is a fissure in tectonic plates caused by large-scale faulting – but what about an artistic rift? For Chol Janepraphaphan and Kasamaponn Saengsuratham, guest curators of this brief journey through Thai art from the mid 1980s to early 2000s – a period when the stultifying mantles of modernism and art-school conservatism were allegedly cast off – a ‘rift’ is a pliable metaphor. 

An extended timeline of key events and an archive of printed matter hint at the role that local art spaces, academics and international art festivals all played in the evolution of the country’s contemporary practices and their rising currency on the world stage. Yet, ‘Rifts’ forgoes any attempt at a comprehensive art-historical genealogy, preferring instead to foreground 13 proto-contemporary artworks and present their creators as local pioneers – rift-makers – of varying strains and magnitudes.

Chatchai Puipia, The Yenarkat Pavilion, 1999, mixed media. Courtesy: Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Thailand 

Visitors are welcomed by a fulsome re-creation of Kamol Phaosavasdi’s declamatory assault against modern art, Song for the Dead Art Exhibition (1985), consisting of a wall full of book pages torn from postmodern manifestos and essays, paint-splattered copies of Andy Warhol’s 1960s Marilyn Monroe screenprints and an installation of rusty scrap metal. Nearby, exhibition copies of two works by the late installation artist Montien Boonma, including The Story of Metamorphosis in the Farm (1989), signpost his career-shaping adoption of unpretentious techniques and found materials. A rift also plays out in real time: shaky footage from the opening of his landmark 1989 exhibition, ‘Stories from the Farm’, shows Boonma explaining his arte povera-inspired installations – made from rice sacks, chicken coops, straw and buffalo horns – to befuddled men in suits.

Deploying a baker’s dozen of bravura works as visual shorthand for a nation’s epochal breakthroughs is, at its core, a reductive pursuit. It occludes so much context and omits so many names. However, the work in the opening room is undeniably potent, rich with formal idiosyncrasies and a humble materiality. Pithy wall texts, meanwhile, do a serviceable job of explaining how the period’s unruly avant garde fused quotidian routines with Buddhist teachings (Kamin Lertchaiprasert); explored memory and death through video (Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook); challenged the monoculturalism of the neo-traditionalists (Prasong Luemuang); teased out the corporeality of femininity (Pinaree Sanpitak); and theatrically refashioned Thai painting (Chatchai Puipia). 

Montien Boonma, Manual Traces in the Paddy Field with Fish Net and Spade, 1991, soil pigment on paper, terra-cotta, fish net, spade. Courtesy: Montien Atelier by Estate of Montien Boonma 

Like the yBas, these artists were only ever loosely affiliated. But, while their approaches were heterogeneous, an irreverence towards the status quo and an openness – particularly in relation to unorthodox techniques and the everyday – unites them. This binding agent is writ large in the second and final room, where four well-travelled cornerstones of Thailand’s socially engaged, concept-driven 1990s – among them, a Rirkrit Tiravanija cook-up arrayed across the floor (Untitled [2004], jed sian samurai 2019, 2004/19) – offer a gritty retort to the more ethereal, technique-based works preceding them. Especially illustrative, yet again, is the rare video documentation on display: Manit Sriwanichpoom’s luridly garbed Pink Man slowly pushes a matching-hued shopping cart past nonplussed office workers on one side of the room (Pink Man Begins (episode 1, 2, 3), 1997); while giggling passengers enjoy an unplanned trip in Navin Rawanchaikul’s roving taxicab gallery on the other (Navin Gallery Bangkok, 1995–98).

Experientially, ‘Rifts’ manages to feel both celebratory and cerebral – albeit ultimately a bit safe. What of the splits (along national, postnational, as well as ideological lines) that have long existed between these cohorts? Where are the non-canonical surprises that might rupture our understanding of that time? Yet, given the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre’s history of rambling mega-exhibitions, not to mention the fractures it is experiencing as an institution (its public funding has been squeezed of late and its spotty programming reflects an entrenched managerial malaise), a carefully distilled retrospective that leaves us wanting more is, all things considered, still a welcome one.

Main image: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled [2004], jed sian smurai 2019, 2004/19, 7 gas burners, 7 pots, bowls, ingredients, cooking equipment and utensils, mats. Courtesy: the artist and Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Thailand 

Max Crosbie-Jones is a writer based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Issue 207

First published in Issue 207

November - December 2019

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