Beyond Bliss: The Bangkok Art Biennale & Lessons in Creative Chaos

Elmgreen & Dragset, Zero, 2018, Image courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
Paolo Canevari, Monuments of the Memory, the Golden Room, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
Nino Sarabutra, What Will We Leave Behind (Detail), 2012, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
Pannaphan Yodmanee, Sediments of Migration, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.jpg
Sanitas Pradittasnee, Across the Universe and Beyond, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
Lee Bul, Diluvium, 2012:2016:2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
Sara Favriau, Nothing is led comparable, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
Jakkai Siributr, The Outlaw’s Flag, 2017
Marina Abramovic, Standing Structures for Human Use, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
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Amidst curious speculation and under the acute scrutiny of the art world, the first-ever Bangkok Art Biennale officially opened on October 18th, defying rumours of delays, and surpassing expectations to establish a compelling precedent for its future editions.

TEXT: Aaina Bhargava
IMAGES: Courtesy of the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018

Elmgreen & Dragset, Zero, 2018, Image courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018

The highly anticipated inaugural edition of the Bangkok Art Biennale opened with an intensive preview program mid-October.  Sprawled across the city, over 200 artworks by 75 international and local artists, are located in various heritage sites, institutions, and even temples.  Under the sweltering Bangkok sun, we embarked upon scavenger hunt uncovering the city’s artistic offerings.

Led by a star-studded committee of international advisors including (Alexandra Munroe, David Elliot, Eugene Tan, Nanjo Fumio, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Sunjung Kim), and an acclaimed curatorial team helmed by Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, the biennale foundation continuously strives to make Bangkok a leading destination for contemporary art.  In sustaining a platform promoting engagement with contemporary art, they simultaneously aim to foster growth of local Thai talent.

Vital to and indicative of this commitment is the curation and selection of works for the exhibition. In interpreting their own idea of happiness as a result of the given theme, Beyond Bliss, artists and curators were to use the venues to reflect upon the relationship between artwork, space, and city.   A notion deeply rooted in and explored through Buddhist ideology, beyond ‘bliss’ in the context of the biennale extended itself to navigating today’s world where disruptive and disturbing events occur more frequently than ever before.  Embraced more deeply by some artists than others, the spiritual essence of the theme was especially highlighted in works that were incorporated in heritage sites such as the nostalgically quaint East Asiatic Building, and glittering, tranquil temples.  These venues inspired the creation of site-specific works for the biennale, staging the most impactful and memorable viewing experiences.

 

Paolo Canevari, Monuments of the Memory, the Golden Room, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018

 

Journeying on a spiritual route through artistic discovery, visitors are able to discover artworks embedded in Buddhist temples along the riverside.  Paolo Canevari’s luminous Monuments of the Memory, made especially for the sermon hall in Wat Prayoon, yielded gold minimalistic surfaces eliciting meditative contemplation. In the same complex, Nino Sarabutra’s poignant installation invites visitors to participate in introspective reflection by walking upon 125,000 fragile ceramic miniature skulls, forming a circumambulatory path around the gateway to the main stupa.  Asking the question, ‘What Will We Leave Behind?’ the work organically connects cultural heritage and personal spirituality through a contemporary artistic medium.

Nino Sarabutra, What Will We Leave Behind (Detail), 2012, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018

 

Pannaphan Yodmanee also recalls Thai history and Buddhist philosophy in her sculpted reliefs. Depicting scenes of maritime trade, pilgrimages amongst other historic scenarios, Yodmanee’s Sediments of Migration is seamlessly incorporated into the architecture of the Wat Pho complex.  Tucked away in a hidden oasis in the middle of Wat Pho is Phaptawan’s Suwannakudt’s site specific multi medium installation, Knowledge in your hands, eyes and mind, featuring an intricate mural painting serving as a backdrop for enlarged figurative cutouts and mirrors yet again alluding to Thai history.  In contrast, Sanitas Pradittasnee renders a jarring display, in her red translucent fort-like installation Across the Universe and Beyond, at the temple, Wat Arun.  Appearing modern but inherently spiritual, Pradittasnee’ invites viewers to undergo three states of being – permanence, ephemeral, and nothingness (ideology inspired by the Buddhist concept of Traibhumi or Three-worlds) through manipulating light and space.

 

Pannaphan Yodmanee, Sediments of Migration, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.jpg
Sanitas Pradittasnee, Across the Universe and Beyond, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018

 

The contemporary transformation of the interiors of the colonial East Asiatic Building, also proves impressive in housing works which not only speak to the history of Thailand but grapple with its future. The building was previously the headquarters of the East Asiatic Company, the establishment of which was significant in initiating economic ties with Denmark and avoiding the colonial annexation of Thailand.  Commemorating this historic accomplishment is the ever popular Scandinavian duo – Elmgreen and Dragset’s Zero, an ovular sculpture located at the pier ahead of the building, picturesquely framing various aspects of the surrounding cityscape through their signature design and architecture influenced practice. Circling back inside, Lee Bul’s fiercely fashioned metallic structures with sharp jagged edges extrude and erupt in various parts of the room creating an alluring interactive installation.  Its aesthetics imagine futuristic architecture, marking a direct contrast with the fading, ageing settings.  Sara Favriau’s innovatively chiseled wooden beams (using local woods from the surrounding area) take a more organic approach in reinterpreting the colonial internal structure, comprising a visually striking piece.  Revitalising the space with brightly animated imagery, are Kawita Vatanajyankur’s compelling video works, such as Dye. The young artist contends patriarchy, by performing repetitive actions associated with defined cultural roles for women, dictated by societal norms.

 

Lee Bul, Diluvium, 2012:2016:2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018
Sara Favriau, Nothing is led comparable, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018

 

The inclusion of many emerging artists, particularly those who engage with digital, video, and performative mediums, is reflective of the prior mentioned commitment of the biennale to establish Bangkok as a leading art centre.  In a country where the notion of contemporary art is still very novel, focusing on and encouraging the inclusion of more experimental mediums comes across as a rather bold yet laudable gesture. Video works were ubiquitous throughout the exhibition.  The newly constructed One Bangkok gallery space held the works of video (and biennale) veterans, AES + F, the Russian art collective, showing their gravitating cinematic feature Inverso MundusExploring the literal reversal of given expectations in society, they produce a stylised aesthetic and employ parody and satire to create commentary on relevant social and cultural issues.

Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre (BACC) displayed multiple digital and performative works by artists from the region such as Kray Chen’s investigation into a constructed Singaporean identity in A Parade for the Paraders, and Chumpon Apisok’s interviews of Thai and migrant sex workers for I have Dreams.  Jakkai Siributr’s politically riveting installation Outlaw’s Flag also included a video component in addition to 15 crafted flags (representing made up nations), integral to facilitating discourse surrounding the Rohingya refugee crisis.  A prime example of a performative work helmed by Marina Abramovic and conducted by her Institute is Standing Structures for Human Use.  The piece is activated by viewer participation, incorporating crystals and headphones as channel for meditation and healing.  Furthering the cause of experimental art mediums was the advent of the Ghost:5261 Triennale, an exhibition dedicated to video-based and performative artworks, and performances concurrently occurring city-wide with the biennale.  Curated by young artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, this impressive project incited the artistic fervour cast upon the city, and substantiating Bangkok’s potential in developing a thriving and cutting-edge art platform.

 

Jakkai Siributr, The Outlaw’s Flag, 2017
Marina Abramovic, Standing Structures for Human Use, 2018, Image Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale 2018

 

While some of the art works, in particular those located in malls, failed to make an impact, the overall outcome of the opening of Bangkok Art Biennale is a positive one.  Highlights are undoubtedly the site-specific works in temples and heritage site, the presence of which were a surprise, due to the delicate nature of venue. In providing a viewing experience unique to this biennale, they are further proof of the transformative power of distinct spaces on art and vice versa, fulfilling a biennales intent and casting a rare reflection of the city. While the success of biennales can only be determined over the course of multiple years, it is evident that the advent of BAB has stimulated the contemporary art scene in Thailand, generating curiosity and a surge in artistic activity.

“By taking the more challenging and difficult route, the preparations for the biennale have been nothing short of creative chaos” stated Dr. Apinan Poshyananda.  Creative chaos encapsulates the spirited art experience of Bangkok. If the level of curatorial quality can be maintained, if not improved, and infrastructural/technical challenges overcome, BAB should play a critical role in elevating Bangkok’s regional status as a contemporary art destination.

 

 

Bangkok Art Biennale
18th October, 2018  – 3rd February 2019

 

 


 

Aaina is the editor of COBO, as well as a staff writer. With a background in art history and emphasis on contemporary art, she has experience working for a diverse range of local and international art institutions. She has previously contributed to Design Anthology, Artomity, Asian Art News, museeum.com, and the Artling’s online magazine.

 

 

 
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