New private art space, MOCA, is a vast storehouse of modern Thai art aimed at the masses
Boonchai Bencharongkul, the straight-talking, American-educated founder of telecommunications giant DTAC, is neither traditionally Thai, nor absolutely Western, but something in-between.
The same can also be said for most of his huge art collection. For the past 35 years, Boonchai, who ranked 20th in Forbes’ rundown of Thailand’s 40 richest (2011), one place behind the estranged former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has been a voracious collector of contemporary Thai art. Internationally acclaimed surrealist Tawan Duchanee spotted his potential as an art patron 20 years ago, telling him “please be the last drop of water on this dry land”. And Boonchai has duly nourished: today he owns well over 1,000 pieces and is the first one many artists call when they have a new exhibition. Sometime he even opens them, only with one condition: “I get to choose first.”
Whether you agree with this borderline-monopolistic approach to collecting art or not, Boonchai is at least now sharing his spoils. Back in April the spry 58 year old, who is now concentrating on “philanthropic activities”, cut the ribbon on his billion baht “gift to the nation”: a six-storey colossus called the museum of Contemporary art, or MOCA.
How does it compare to all the capital’s other art spaces? Seventeen years in the making, the monolithic 18,000m² white cube sits on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, well north of the centre of the city. Despite this possible impediment to its foot traffic, and an 180 baht entry fee (“not too expensive and not so cheap that people use it as a hangout”), Boonchai hopes MOCA will become the main stepping stone into the world of modern Thai art, both for locals and for visitors. “Thai Art 101”, he’s calling it.
With little in the way of subversive and definitely no politicised art on show (an oil painting by firebrand Vasan Sitthiket is about as provocative as things get), that claim could be debated. But the scope of work on display is undeniably impressive, something that can’t be said of even its closest rivals, namely the state-run national gallery, the Queen’s gallery and Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC).
Approximately 400 or so works, a selection that Boonchai alone curated and spans the past six decades, hang on the facility’s six metre high, professionally lit walls. Roughly 20% of them he commissioned in the past two years, because, he reveals, “about half of my collection is too small, was made for the home.” He also dictated the museum’s flow, which winds from contemporary way-of-life pieces to abstracts, neo-traditional Buddhist art and folklore, climaxes with Boonchai’s great passion, the Thai surrealists, and then winds down with a hodgepodge of foreign works. But not before he’d consulted many of the national artists whose work is displayed.
“I consulted seven of them and, frankly, it left me in a state of distress,” he says. “Some of them compared it to the Louvre, others Tate modern or the Victoria & Albert. Finally I spoke to Ajarn Chalood Nimsamer, who taught many of them, and he said, “It’s your museum, not a government museum. Whatever you want to display, you display.””
If Boonchai couldn’t please all his heroes, he does at least try to honour them. One room on the ground floor is filled with Chalood Nimsamer’s pastoral paintings; another Paitun Muangsomboon’s animal sculptures in bronze; another plaster likenesses of royalty by Professor Silpa Bhirasri, the Italian sculptor credited with founding modern art. Sometime this month these will be returned to the Fine Arts Department at Bangkok’s famous Silpakorn University, where he taught and many of the artists on display studied.
As for the upper floors, which are reached via escalators that go up but not down (“so that people can’t escape easily,” Boonchai quips), there are far too many artists to mention. That said, some pieces do stand out more than others, such as The Old Man, by mid-career artist Pradit Tangprasartwong, and an hilariously droll caricature of Songkran, the Thai New Year festival, by recent Silpakorn graduate Lumpoo Kansanau.
Entire rooms are also devoted to neo-Buddhist art – from the ultra-colourful canvases of Chiang Rai’s celebrity artist Chalermchai Kositpipat to the first painting Boonchai ever bought, a tempera on sa paper by Panya Vijinthanasarn. However, the style that’s most abundant, and closest to Boonchai’s heart, is surrealism. Why? He’s been a lover ever since he did a minor in painting at the University of Illinois, he explains, but also thinks that no other form better channels the Thai psyche – “surrealism suits us because we are dreamers.”
There are immense, visceral, phantasmagoric works by Pratheep Kochabua. and ones with vast, horizon-less, Dali-esque landscapes by Somphong Adulyasarapan. Most abundant of all, though, are the surrealist brushstrokes of the aforementioned Tawan Duchanee, the white-bearded national artist whose wild, animalistic paintings were once accused of blaspheming Buddhism but are now widely revered.
Around 100 of his fierce works fill the fourth floor, after which a walkway cuts through a wormhole-like passage and into MOCA’s showpiece: a bright, lofty space with a triptych of seven metre tall paintings on the far wall. Commissioned paintings by Sompop Buddharat, Panya Vijitthanasarn and Prateep Kochabua, each depicts the artist’s vision of heaven, earth and hell. “Our visitors are lucky”, Boonchai quips, while we sit and lose ourselves in them for a couple of minutes, “they can choose which hereafter they visit.”
Backtracking slightly, another highlight is a room on the third floor that casts Thai folk epic Khun Chaen Khun Phaenin a new light. On one side is a wall of Hem Vejakorn’s quaint book illustrations, on the other a mock-Thai house filled with Sukee Som-ngoen’s photo-realistic airbrushed pieces offering a more contemporary take on the classic tale of tragic three-way love.
Sculptures big and small also dot MOCA’s open spaces and transitions. Outside, a jasmine-inspired sculpture by nonthivathn Chandhanaphailin rises from a pond. And the immense marble foyer houses two: one of Salvador Dali, the surrealist Boonchai cherishes most, and another of Professor Silpa. A placard mounted above him reads ‘Ars longa vita brevis’, or ‘Art is long, life is short.’
That’s a fitting moto for a museum that Boonchai makes clear he hopes will be still be here way, way after he’s gone. “I had a lot of fights with myself while putting MOCA together. But the biggest was: how are we going to compete with other museums around the world?”, he says. “Looking for answers, I went to Florence’s Uffizi, a museum of Renaissance-era art started by the Medici family half a century ago. MOCA might not be as valuable now, but I truly believe that in the next 500 years it will be.”
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
499 Moo3 | Vibhavadi Rangsit Rd (Opposite Kasetsart University)
Tel: 02 953 1005-7
Opening hours: Tue-Sun 10am-6pm
Bus: 134, 29, 510, 52, 191, 69, 504, 555 (Suvarnnabumi Airport), 187 (Si Phraya Pier)
Public Van: Boarding point The Mall Ngamwongwan, Chatuchak Park, Victory Monument, MBK (or any Van that pass Vibhavadi Rangsit Rd)
BTS: Mo Chit
MRT: Chatuchak Park (and transit to Bus, Public Van or Taxi)