Chief Executive and Artistic Director Apinan Poshyananda talks about Bangkok’s inaugural Art Biennale
Thailand is, unfortunately, well behind other Asian countries when it comes to holding Art Biennales. But this year it’s finally happening, and the first ever Bangkok Art Biennale will run from October 19th, 2018, to February 3rd, 2019. However, if you’ve also heard about the “unofficial” Bangkok Biennial—which runs from July 1st to the end of September—don’t confuse the two (note the different spellings). And to make things even more convoluted, the Thai province of Krabi will be hosting the 4-month-long Thailand Biennale (no relation), from November 2nd, 2018, to February 28th, 2019. But mind-boggling as it may be, it just means more art for all.
The official Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) was first announced at the Venice Biennale back in May of 2017, and now the list of participants has been finalized. It includes 75 artists from 33 countries, with a diverse group of artists representing nations such as Russia, India, China, Turkey, Vietnam, Denmark, France, and others. The venues at which the art will be staged are also diverse, including temples, heritage buildings, gardens, malls, and even city sky-walks. Most interesting, however, is the fact that the Chao Phraya River will be a kind of central lifeline for the whole Bangkok Art Biennale, with the numerous galleries, art centres, and hotels around it becoming important hubs for art events.
In an exclusive interview, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of BAB, Prof. Dr. Apinan Poshyananda—well-known art curator and Thailand’s former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Culture—outlined the details of this city’s biggest art extravaganza.
Tell us about the curators and advisors working on BAB.
We have world-renowned names, whom I have known over many years. There are seven advisors kindly offering their expertise, and I’m lucky to have such a good team. These advisors are from top international museums like the Guggenheim, London’s Saatchi Gallery, and Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. The five curators are established names from Singapore, The Philippines, as well as three from Thailand.
Who are some of the renowned international artists coming to BAB?
We will have both new and established famous artists in the Bangkok Art Biennale. The biggest name, of course, is Marina Abramovic, and she’ll be doing sculptures, installations, and video art. There’s also the world-famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. The other big names are Huang Yong Ping from China, who has made a site inspection of Wat Pho and may do an installation about Chinese-Thai trade links. Then there’s Yoshitomo Nara from Japan, who will bring his sculptures, along with Choi Jeong Hwa from Korea, who loves the marketplace and will create some unique ‘baskets’ in public spaces. In addition, there are AES+F from Russia, and Art Labor from Vietnam, who we are working with for the first time. In total we have 40 international artists, and 35 Thai ones, so that’s an even balance for the Thai artists.
Tell us about the Thai artists talking part.
Many of them are known internationally and have participated in top art exhibitions like the Venice Biennale and the German Documenta. The art scene has really expanded in Thailand, and today there are well over 70 galleries in Bangkok alone. At the Bangkok Art Biennale we will have Thai artists of varied genres—from landscape artist Sanitas Pradittasnee, to video artist Kawita Vatanajyankur, manga artist Wisut Ponnimit, and sculptor Komkrit Tepthian. We also have a fresh graduate, Sunanta Phasomwong.
What are some of the varied venues where the art will be on view?
Bangkok is noted for its many heritage sites, and we will use many of these spaces for the Biennale; temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun, gardens like the ones in Lumphini park, the old Night Bazar area (called Bangkok One), cultural centers like the BACC, malls like Siam Paragon, Central World, and EmQuartier, the beautiful Nailert Park Heritage Home, and even the city sky-walks. Many people say that Biennales are elitist, so that’s why I want to use as many “public” spaces as possible, so that the maximum general public are exposed to the art works. One especially unique venue will be the gorgeous East Asiatic Company Building, near the Oriental Hotel, with its Italian architecture and neo-colonial style. This is where the Danish-Norwegian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset will do an installation, while a Thai video artist will make a video film connecting the rivers of Copenhagen and Bangkok.
Speaking of waterways, how will the Chao Phraya River play a role in all of this?
Bangkok has often been called the ‘Venice of the East’, because of it expansive network of rivers and canals. The Chao Phraya River will be the central lifeline of the Bangkok Art Biennale, and the galleries, art centers, and hotels around it will be involved. Gallery hubs such as Jam Factory, and O.P. Garden will be taking part, while The Mandarin Oriental and The Peninsula are the host hotels. The river, in turn, fits in well with the theme of the Bangkok Art Biennale—‘Beyond Bliss’—as it’s a river which means different things to different people. It’s the ‘River of Life’ in many ways.
Tell us more about the theme, ‘Beyond Bliss’.
This theme is not just a Buddhist concept, as many think. It can also be connected to the traumas and dilemmas of contemporary life. At first it sounds ephemeral, but it inspires different reactions from different people, as one sees from the works of the participating artistes. After all, art is about open-mindedness and freedom of expression.
How does “freedom” play a role in the relatively censored society of Thailand?
Isn’t it interesting that we are holding our first Bangkok Art Biennale in Thailand, at the time of a military government? But having worked with the government, I know how to keep the balance. You can be free, and critical, but do be subtle. The Bangkok Art Biennale is important to the country, because it will improve the image of Thailand—culturally and touristically.
How is BAB expected to boost tourism?
The TAT has supported us a lot, especially with our international promotions. They may offer Bangkok Art Biennale packages to tourists. Nearly 6,000 tourists a day visit the famous temples of Bangkok. Our aim is to connect heritage places with contemporary art. Bangkok Art Biennale will bring to Bangkok a new brand of “cultural tourists”. There’s already an interest from some tour groups in Korea, Japan, and Singapore.
Who are some of the sponsors of BAB?
Along with the TAT we have got help from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, Thai Airways, Bangkok Metropolitan Board, Thai Beverages Siam Piwat, Central Group, One Bangkok, EmQuartier, as well as from many embassies and cultural centers.
What are some of the other art related activities planned?
Apart from the art shows and exhibitions there will be lectures, seminars, and workshops. Marina Abramovic will send top artists to conduct a three-week workshop for local artists. In addition, many students will be recruited to work directly with the artists, so that the youth can be involved with the Biennale. There will also be various art activities for kids.
Tell us about the Bangkok Art Biennale Magazine.
This magazine, which is the host-magazine of the Bangkok Art Biennale, will be produced every two months and distributed free to the public. It will give updates and provide as much info as possible on every aspect of the Biennale.
What is your take on the other two Thailand biennales—namely the one in Krabi in November, and the “unofficial” one in Bangkok, starting in July?
I think it’s good for the public to have such a wide variety of art choices. It’s enriching and energizing! Hopefully, the numerous art galleries in Bangkok will one day get together and form an ‘Association of Galleries’.
What is your personal definition of a “good” work of art?
Whenever I see a good work of art, I start twitching and want to learn more. It becomes a dialogue between me and someone I don’t know, which is so joyful and mind-expanding. I sincerely hope the Bangkok Art Biennale will expand the minds of many people in Bangkok, and beyond. I’m a full-time curator now and have been travelling to many countries to plan the Bangkok Art Biennale. After my 30-year involvement in the art field, I must admit that this art project has been, and continues to be, one of my most fulfilling moments.
Battle of the Biennales
Alongside the “official” Bangkok Art Biennale, there is the “other” Bangkok Biennal (note the different spelling), scheduled to take place from July 1st to September 30th of this year. Conceived and put together by a conglomerate of local artists (Thai and foreign), the folk behind this unofficial Biennal choose to remain anonymous. Many call it an “underground” or “guerrilla” art event, but the organizers prefer to call it a “grassroots” event.
“We all know each other, and don’t need to go public,” said two representatives during a meeting. “We want to focus on the artists and the artworks. This is about horizontal level, not top level.”
They first announced their art event way back in April 2017 and, through an Open Access system, accepted numerous applications online.
“We had an open concept of pavilions, and so the artists could totally decide things for themselves,” they went on to say. In fact, their Biennal has no curators at all, and almost everyone who understood its focus on “concepts”, and applied within the fixed date, was selected. In spite of the organizers being anonymous, the names of the artists, pavilions, and concepts are explained in great detail on the website, which lists 150 artists and 69 staging pavilions.
There will be many unique pavilions with many arresting concepts—American Pavilion, Charoen Pavilion, Bangkok Sky Pavilion, and Supernatural Pavilion—showcasing artists of many genres, including video, sound, and performance. Well-known names taking part include Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, Mit Jai Inn, Unchalee Anantawat, as well as street artists TRK and Hideyuki Katsumata, and the Bangkok Underground Film Festival team of Sam Freeman, Dhyan Ho, and many others.
Rapat Bunduwanich and the Guerrilla Boys are some of the fresh young Thai talent taking part, while the foreign artists include Shinya Akutagawa from Japan, Abhijan Gupta from India, Sarah Azpeitia from the USA, Yu Cheng Ta from Taiwan, Alfred Banze and Christine Falk from Germany, and a host of others.
Finally, the local galleries partaking in the Bangkok Biennal include Speedy Grandma, Jam Café, WTF, the N22 galleries of Artist + Run, and Cartel Artspace. According to the organizers the pavilions will be seen in public spaces all around Bangkok—sky walks, the railway station, parks, gardens, malls, etc.—while sister events will be staged in other Thai locales, such as Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Pattani, Narathiwat, and Chachoengsao. There will also be some interesting ‘Cross Over’ projects in Germany, France, and The Netherlands. As for budget, it’s a self-organized and self-funded enterprise.
“We are all working together in a collaborative environment,” announced the two anonymous representatives. To find out more visit the website at: www.bangkokbiennial.com.
After the “official” Bangkok Art Biennale opens it will soon receive some friendly competition from the 4-month-long Thailand Biennale, which will be held in Krabi province (in Southern Thailand), running from November 2nd, 2018, to February 28th, 2019. It’s being organized by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), but unlike conventional art museum exhibitions it will be staged outdoors, at natural sites in Krabi—known for its majestic mountain ranges and stunning coastlines.
The Thailand Biennale has been initiated to promote Krabi as a global art city, and it involves the following three sections: an international art competition; an exhibition of artworks of Thai and international artists under the theme ‘Edge of the Wonderland’; and academic activities comprised of educational exchanges, such as curator talks and art workshops for Thai and international artists and art students.
Interview by Lekha Shankar