Exploring Bangkok’s ever-evolving art scene
However much we might wish to package both Bangkok and its art scene, they are slippery organisms that defy easy categorization. And to make any rounded definition of how the current times influence art is problematic, too. As for an identifiable art locus in Bangkok, someone new here would have a tough time knowing where to start. There is no Lower East Side, or Chelsea, or South Bank, or Cork Street, with a concentration of galleries that allows the visitor to stroll pleasantly from one space to the other. Even a glance at the indispensable Bangkok Art Map, while proving that much is happening, might daunt the faint-hearted. The galaxy of galleries and art spaces sprinkled across a vast network of roads and sois carries a sense of impenetrability, especially with the city’s odd transport system to negotiate first. However, what could be said to define the Bangkok art scene is its very scattered nature, not just its physical distribution, but its thematic looseness and its diverse aspirations. Above all, it is the massive multinational, multilayered, multiclass, multivalent metropolis itself that makes the art—when and where you find it—potentially exciting.
If one constant of the Bangkok art scene is its amorphousness, then its irrepressibility, even in times of trouble and strife, is another. According to the vagaries of expectation, fashion, and taste—and more seriously of politics and economics—the scene swells, shrinks and morphs quite dramatically, with galleries closing and opening, alongside stalwarts that stay afloat with generally strong programs and a sustainable cash flow. Brian Curtin, curator and author of the forthcoming book Contemporary Art in Thailand, to be published by Reaktion Press, notes that the nascent dynamism of the 1990s art scene which saw the introduction of the lively About Studio/Café, and a citywide staging of the roving international exhibition Cities on the Move in Bangkok, was disrupted by “the 1997 economic crash [that] stalled everything in the city for a few years, including the art scene.”
That pattern of disruption has continued over the last 10 years with the wavering, often intensely divided, political situation after the coup in 2006 that ousted the populist oligarch Thaksin Shinawatra, and following further coups in 2008 and 2014 (the latter which now sees the kingdom under military rule). Most importantly, the passing away of a deeply loved and respected king last year has left a sense of vulnerability and greyness that can affect in many ways what artists may want to or wish to describe.
Art collector Tom Vitayakul remains upbeat, and admires the fact that so many galleries can continue the business of art. “In the last 10 years the same people keep supporting the art, but there are new collectors, too,” he notes, “and there are art or craft fairs and hotel art fairs that make people approach art, and not just the people who see art regularly.”
Others despair, however, that the growing dominance of Thai political life and the economy, by tycoons and the military, only moves the city further towards a bland forgettable cultural milieu—focused primarily on luxury tourism and consumption—which is squeezing out the lifeblood of the city.
But upheavals make for interesting times, too, and the art scene here continues to pulse… albeit quietly. With the often-intense political fluctuations of the last decade, there is a lull now where artists have withdrawn to their respective camps to take stock of what is happening. The growth of the right wing has created “a sort-of meltdown”—as Brian Curtin puts it—in relation to the politics of national governance and Thai history and tradition. Presumably, he adds, this is a consequence of the “explicit authoritarianism that has emerged out of the on-going problems of a national history riven by the failures of democratic policies”.
Henry Tan, director of Tentacles—a collaborative exhibition and art residency—was too young in the 1990s to have experienced About Café, but bemoans the recent closure of Chulalongkorn Art Gallery. He feels that because artists today “have less freedom to express themselves, their works are less political”. Trained as an economist, Tan also knows that output is determined by market support.
“Every gallery is trying to reach new audiences, and new collectors and every agent is trying to shake up the art scene,” he says, while noting that even if artists wished to be free of financial constraints, the art scene is always dependent on money. “Because art is a career, you can’t avoid the economy behind it. The gallery needs a business model, and it chooses artists to represent in order to sell art to keep its business going.”
Through these odd disrupted times, it is vital that young artists receive the right support to keep the art scene fresh and interesting. A few galleries are altruistically supportive of young talent, but without support from schools, the government, and the media, only a small percentage of art students will succeed as professional full-time artists.
“Thailand rarely lacks talented artists,” Tom Vitayakul is quick to point out. “But you have to nurture them.”
The Art Scene Stalwarts
Despite the ebb and flow of gallery openings and closings, Bangkok has many long-running art institutions. As a civic art space, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) is an absolute success story for the capital (see our feature story on pg. 20). Close at hand, down a nearby soi backing onto Khlong Saen Saeb, is Jim Thompson House. Built in 2004 its art centre has a mixture of exhibitions—some that describe costume and textile art that have relevance to the silk industry associated with the entrepreneur Jim Thompson—and a series of often pertinent and highly contemporary shows. One of the most interesting exhibitions last year was the superb three-video installation by Korakrit Arunanondchai, which “grappled with big issues, and tried to answer all these big questions about art that might seem outdated, about how an artist speaks to a global and a local audience at the same time”, as one visitor put it.
Several prominent private Bangkok galleries, without access to funding, have successfully negotiated the last decade’s pitfalls to remain comfortably afloat, even thrive. 100 Tonson Gallery is a titan of the Bangkok art scene—a minimalist, modern building centred around one vast white cube with walls big enough for huge art. Over the last few decades, through astute management and with an eye on the international scene, this gallery has survived Bangkok’s ups and downs, and is famously the first one from Thailand to participate in Art Basel, the prestigious, high-end international art fair. Having hosted shows by internationally prominent Thai artists—including Chatchai Puipia, Pinaree Sanpitak, Sakarin Krue-On, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—it also supports emerging talent such as Yuree Kensaku, a Thai-Japanese artist whose attractive cartoonish works (currently on display, until May 21st) successfully pun on popular East Asian imagery.
Numthong Gallery, founded in 1997 by Numthong Sae Tang, originally began as two small rooms in a modest housing cooperative in the Dusit area. With the local and international success of several of its artists, such as Natee Utarit, the gallery has gone from strength to strength with exhibitions representing sometimes controversial giants of contemporary Thai art, including Michael Shaowanasai, Niti Wattuya, Vasan Sitthiket and Kamin Lertchaiprasert. Now housed in a vast hangar of a gallery in the trendy Ari district, the gallery continues to be a “meeting point for co-exhibitions by local and international visual artists”.
Over in the city’s Sathorn area, in a 120-year-old wooden schoolhouse,
H Gallery is arguably one of the most beautiful art spaces in Bangkok, and has proven resilient since its establishment nearly two decades ago. With an impressive program that has introduced many young Thai artists to the Bangkok art scene, the gallery has also maintained a solid stable of appealing, sellable art with a roster that includes Sopheap Pich, Somboon Hormtientong and Jakkai Siributr.
Further afield, the Ardel Gallery of Modern Art, founded in 2006, is situated on the western side of the Chao Phraya River, nearish to Silpakorn University’s new suburban campus. It’s a spacious modern white-walled art complex that features a generally conservative program serving an established Thai academic coterie, including the owner Thavorn Ko-udomvit. But it has also exhibited the work of several international artists, such as a series of large haunting portraits by Australian artist Godwin Bradbeer in 2009. Ardel has a sister space, the Third Place Gallery (closer to downtown, on Sukhumvit Soi 55) that mounts interesting exhibitions as well.
Tang Contemporary Art is an international concern with galleries in Beijing, Hong Kong and Bangkok, where it was first established in 1997. The mothership gallery used to be on Silom Rd, but they’ve recently moved to a large white space on Rajadamri Rd (near Chidlom). Tang states that it is committed to promoting contemporary Chinese art regionally and worldwide, and encouraging a dynamic exchange between Chinese artists and those abroad, but at the same time it collaborates with some of Thailand’s most famous contemporary artists, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Navin Rawanchaikul, Sakarin Krue-On and Preeyachanok Ketsuwan.
Worth mentioning too—in the context of survival—is the large Sombat Permpoon Gallery, founded in 1979 (it’s one of the oldest in Bangkok). Situated blandly on one side of a parking lot, it has evolved from a shop selling framed pictures into a gallery of sorts. Its 2nd floor often has exhibitions, while downstairs are stacks of paintings depicting firm favourites for conservative collectors, such as Thai beauties, Buddhist scenes, and folky landscapes by artists such as Niroj Jarungitvittawat, Pornchai Jama and Panya Vijinthanasarn.
Holding the Fort, Pushing Abroad
Many Bangkok galleries have been carefully consolidating their home strengths over the last few years, but have also cultivated an overseas presence through programmes of exhibition and exchange, and committed attendance at international art fairs. Only a couple of years old and an impressive giant of a gallery, the Subhashok Arts Centre (SAC) represents a new wave of venues that are moving in on the scene. SAC is a large contemporary space sited in the bosky hinterland of Sukhumvit Soi 39, and fortunate to have the backing of its wealthy eponymous founder, an art collector, who employs well-educated curators to present quite interesting exhibitions. In spring this year, for example, the gallery has the work of rising young artist Thidarat Chantachua, a Silpakorn master’s student, on display till the end of April. Stitched out with a needle and bright threads, her linear descriptions of mosque interiors reference Islamic art and appear at first as dazzling geometric abstractions.
One of SAC’s curators, Linjie Zhou from China, says they are keen to have an international presence and that Subhashok actively participates in overseas fairs and shows. She’s positive about the reception of Thai art abroad, and believes that it is increasingly drawing the attention of foreign buyers.
“We try to cooperate with other countries, like [those] in Southeast Asia,” she says. “In May, we are going to have a group exhibition with four Thai artists and four Indonesian artists. Our short-term future plan is more looking towards Southeast Asia, and getting Thailand included in a Southeast Asian art scene. And promoting Southeast Asian art to the world.”
La Lanta Gallery, in a handsome converted townhouse, has survived the bumpy ride of the last ten years, often by energetically pitching works by local and international artists to foreign buyers—both in Bangkok and at art fairs abroad. In 2010, gallery owner Fon Ostick launched the admirable ‘Young Programme’, an initiative “to seek, discover, and promote the work by young artists from countries in Asia”, and “provide a platform for art experiments and new ideas”. The gallery has gone from strength to strength, launching successful careers for artists such as Thanawat Promsuk and Chamnan Chongpaiboon.
Another gallery that woos foreign buyers is Thavibu Art, which has been selling colourful Thai, Vietnamese, and Burmese art since it was established in 1998. It is now separated into a physical gallery, located in south Silom Galleria, and an online consultancy. The latter’s mainstay are paintings by Thai artists such as Jirapat Tatsanasomboon and Thaweesak Srithongdee, but it also sells paintings by well-established Vietnamese and Burmese artists at overseas auctions. Number 1 Gallery has a large attractive space in the same building as Thavibu Art. Founded a decade ago, it has also participated in regional art fairs and declares a similar mission to bring Thai and international artists together and to promote Thai art abroad. In addition, following its focus on art that is “spiritual and neo-contemporary” it shows well-known Thai artists, including Sutee Kunavichayanont, and Thaweesak Srithongdee, alongside established ‘Senior National Artists’ such as Pichai Nirand, Thawee Ratchaneekorn and Preecha Thaothong.
A new ambitious art space in Bangkok, the elegant Nova Gallery in Rajadamri, opened in 2016 under the cultivated guidance of Sutima Sucharitakul, who has spent the last ten years between London and New York studying art and management. Nova has already hosted several gritty exhibitions, with an unusually high concentration of non-Thai artists and non-Thai curators. Sucharitakul hopes to more actively exhibit Thai artists and introduce them to both “a growing number of Bangkok’s youth interested in art and culture” as well as to an international art community. Nova’s most recent exhibition is ‘Leaf Walk’, which explores landscape art through collage, sound and mural painting by the young American artist Brendan Lynch.
Two other galleries that are happily bringing artists and the public together include Pandora Art Gallery and Kalwit Studio & Gallery. The former, a surprisingly large gallery, is situated on Convent Rd. and shows a mixture of fine art, photography and sculpture by local and international artists—Wipoosana Supanakorn from Thailand, and Jean-Marc Louis from Belgium, to name but two. By contrast, Kalwit, on Soi Ruam Ruedi, is a modest family-run exhibition space that shows paintings and drawings, and is the only venue in Bangkok with an onsite press and a potential emphasis on printed art on paper.
The incentives to present art in Bangkok swing widely—from an awareness of art as a commodity, to a sincere desire to elevate the cultural life of the city. It’s almost impossible for any project to survive without access to cash, but with or without piles of the stuff, many galleries and organizations seek to promote art regardless. Myrtille Tibayrenc is the initiator and tireless organizer of the city’s ten-day street event Bukruk, last held in January of 2016, which features graffiti and wall art, music, and animation. Tibayrenc’s intention to get contemporary art out to a wider public and to bring Bangkokians together is admirable.
But Brian Curtin, who runs H Project Space, says that “newer well-funded galleries in Bangkok are (or seem to be) working with a very loose idea of ‘contemporary art’. And there is no dialogue with venues and events in neighbouring countries. This probably speaks to Thailand’s historical degree of independence and a local preoccupation with what it means to be international.
“But even in terms of promoting Thai artists, a coherent agenda is difficult to discern,” he adds. “A major gap here, I believe, is the rudimentary use of accompanying education programs, where they exist, and also including gallery-sponsored publications; there is no sense of the discursive life of exhibitions and what it means to mediate and cultivate diverse audiences.”
“At Tentacles, we invite friends and anyone who is interested to experiment with a project and use our space as a platform, host activities,” he explains. “We want to support young artists and build community with diverse programs and we try to approach institutions to support our residency program so we can send Thai artists abroad. We try to initiate a residency network with other Thai cities, and we are also connected with residency programmes in the region. The network is slowly building.”
Part of the current fracturing of art in Bangkok has seen the interesting development of an organic underground movement where artists might take it upon themselves to organize events, such as film screenings.
“The underground scene remains interesting and Jam Factory remains, for me, the best, most dynamic space in Bangkok,” remarks Curtin. “I began H Project Space in 2011 because there were no experimental venues then. Today, Cartel and Ver would be the current outstanding spaces in terms of programmes that remain compelling, whether as platforms for experimental Thai artists or unpredictable formats.”
To this Tan adds, “I see many galleries coming up with quite interesting shows, interesting in the sense that there is a good vibe, [they are] trying to produce good exhibitions. We see an attempt to reach a wider audience, rather than the same art audience. With a social network platform, young people are more interested and are starting to go to exhibitions. Many interesting projects see artists starting to work with designers, musicians and other professionals, so the processes and outcomes are very fruitful.”
Lifestyle Art Venues
Bangkok is famously a city for purusing pleasure, and Thai socialites enjoy seeing art while they have fun—perhaps trying a new cocktail, listening to music, or even shopping. Gallery openings can be convivial, even glamorous, social events that draw crowds. Tapping into the cachet of art, several entertainment venues in the city double up as cultural spaces featuring art on their walls. This need not be a bad thing at all, in the sense that any encounter with art is better than no encounter.
Duke, a whisky-and-cigar members-only club in Gaysorn Plaza, is one of the newest glamour venues showing art. It was founded by a collaboration of Thai entrepreneurs including Tawatchai Somkong, editor in chief of Fine Art Magazine, and has a permanent collection of Thai art dotted around its various spaces, including a large woodcut by Kriangkrai Kongkhanun, and Sakarin Krue-On’s large kitsch sculpture of dancing women. Duke hosts temporary shows as well, such as the recent ‘Selfie’ with jolly accessible paintings by Parichart Suphaphan and Verapong Sritrakulkitjakarn. Meanwhile, the expansive, expensive walls of Eat Me restaurant (Soi Pipat 2) have been given over to Ernest H. Lee, owner of H Gallery, who has, for many years, helped curate exhibitions.
The less traditional wall-art of the young Thai artist Patcharapol Tangruen (aka: Alex Face) represent a different type of accessibility. Portraits of a cartoonish rabbit-hatted child named Mardi (inspired by the artist’s daughter), now appear on countless public and private walls around the city. They may lack the grander political motivation of Banksy, on the one hand, but they’ve become well enough known to a lot of people who might otherwise have little exposure to art. Ecstatic Facebook posts attest to Face’s popularity, and in late 2016 his exhibition ‘Alive’ consisted of several paintings, sculptures, and a large mural on the wall of one of Bangkok’s newest galleries, Bangkok CityCity.
First founded in 2005, HOF Art is now part of the W District lifestyle mall in the Phra Khanong district. Wichai Poolworaluk, founder of W District and president of Woraluk Property Company, set up a project for HOF Art to “saturate this downtown area with artwork, with the aim to bring in not only art schemes created for artists to show their work, but also calling on a local community to devote a space to Thai society at the same time”. Amongst several activities, HOF offers residencies, art and craft workshops, play areas and shopping.
Bangkok is also home to several quasi-art spaces—particularly in the riverside Chinatown area—that revolve around drinking and socializing as much as art. Jam Factory (across the river), shophouse-gallery-bars such as Soy Sauce Factory and Speedy Grandma, and the warehouse-style Whiteline (which also holds special screenings of film and video work) are just a few notable names. But perhaps the most interesting shophouse-gallery-bar is WTF in Thonglor. Run by Somrak Sila, it has not been afraid to host provocative exhibitions in spite of the prevailing political climate.
By Ralph Kiggell