The Dark Horse Biennial

Chiharu Shinoda, The 5×5 legged stool, 2018. ARA Winter 2018 Feature
Chiharu Shinoda, The 5×5 legged stool, 2018. ARA Winter 2018 Feature

It began with a few simple squats and a gentle, back-and-forth swaying of the arms. At dusk on 1 July, the first of three biennials to take place on Thai soil this year (the state-backed and splashier Bangkok Art Biennale and the Thailand Biennale opening on 19 October and 2 November, respectively) kicked off with a free aerobics session beneath Bangkok’s Rama VIII bridge. To shrill techno remixes of Thai and foreign pop music, attendees of the opening ceremony for the inaugural Bangkok Biennial struggled, along with members of the wider public, to keep up with the instructor’s hip-swinging steps.

Taking place in public parks and dusty municipal spaces, mass workouts are a cacophonous daily feature of Thai life, not to mention a leitmotif in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movies. Clearly also cognizant of their symbolic qualities (within the context of Thailand’s hierarchal and deferential society), the anonymous founders of the Bangkok Biennial devised an inclusive ceremony that felt part Dadaist in-joke, part institutional critique. Not only was this loosely choreographed display of jolly togetherness a world away from the billowing curator-speak, arse-kissing of headline sponsors and other stale formalities that normally mark the opening of a commercially underwritten art event, it also hinted at the gritty localism and egalitarian idealism of what was to follow: an inclusive biennial aimed at marginal members of Thailand’s flourishing yet factional art scene.

A free, pocket-size pavilion guide succinctly set out the antiestablishment mission. ‘The Bangkok Biennial has been set up as a challenge to the authority of access to representation in art and curatorial practices… [it] has no central curators, no dispersion of resources and does not take place only in the city of Bangkok. It is an open-access event.’ And so, loosely speaking, things transpired. Agile and discursive, this was a biennial that cartwheeled its way around the city (and, in some cases, the country), as members of Thailand’s artistic community – emerging artists and curators for the most part, both Thais and expatriates – responded to the rallying cry of its ‘open-source platform’ (and utilised its modest marketing machine: a Facebook page, app and barebones Wiki page).

The net result – an unruly swarm of 69 ‘autonomous’ and ‘self-organised’ pavilions – reimagined what it means to situate a biennial across time and space. A handful of pavilions were staged outside Bangkok (Re/form/ing Patani, a broad survey of sociopolitical art at Patani Artspace in Thailand’s deep south, was perhaps the most memorable); others existed only online (such as the Taoism-inspired mind and body cultivation platform or shapeshifted over the duration from real-world to virtual platform (including Coming Soon, a series of research-based interviews in which Thai and Hong Kong artists opine on the ‘biennialisation’ of contemporary art). The vast majority, however, were held in noninstitutional venues across the Thai capital and ran for between two and four weeks, rather than the biennial’s full three-month duration. As well as existing galleries, venues included shophouses (both derelict and functioning), artist studios, markets, cafés, public toilets and private homes. A large percentage of pavilions in these non-gallery spaces were appointment-only and hard to find, requiring phone calls, text messages with their respective artists or curators and a schlep into some remote or unprepossessing corner of the city.

As things transpired, this was not a biennial that drew large crowds. The planning and travel asked of audiences, as well as some spotty marketing, resulted in modest footfall at many pavilions, which is a shame – typically, your efforts were rewarded with an experience that felt more rewarding than your average museum-based biennial encounter. Often I was greeted by an artist or curator eager to chew the fat, to talk about their work or to give their take on the Bangkok Biennial’s stated ‘reclamation of access’ (a principled aim that, it became patently clear over the duration, was more about freeing up movement within an art network than about making that network more accessible to outsiders). It struck me, after a couple of these encounters, that the shows often felt less important than the social aspects surrounding them. That said, a sense of camaraderie wasn’t the only thing felt. With no overarching theme or conceptual framework to square, and no overarticulating star curator or director steering the ship, the viewer – or I, at least – also felt liberated, free to judge each pavilion on its own merits.

PostScripts, a group show at Bangkok’s first postal building, the Praisaneeyakarn, was one of the first pavilions I saw and is one of the few I’m still thinking about. Originally built in 1871, demolished, then rebuilt in 2010, this half-finished simulacrum – which today cuts a forlorn figure beside the city’s main river, the Chao Phraya – was the stage for an ‘opening up, reconsideration and supplementation of the complex history of Thai modernism’. Among the works cleverly configured in and around the building was Babel 1 (2007–11), Wolfgang Bellwinkel’s sculptural photos of Thailand’s ghost towers from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, here mounted on steel scaffolding outside the building’s whitewashed facade. Near the gated entrance, meanwhile, stood Miti Ruangkritya’s sardonic and self-explanatory lightbox, Excerpts taken from Bangkok Real Estate Advertising (2018); while seeping from beneath the front door were the mournful murmurings of Nattapon Sawaasdee’s sound installation เพลงของเธอ (2018), a plaintive song of ‘love and longing’ performed by the artist’s mother, that appeared to embody the building’s own pained existence.

Few pavilions were as full of ideas, or as carefully conceived, but many made a similarly bold attempt at site-specific dialogue with the city’s architectural legacies, many of which are threatened either by dereliction or the capital’s real estate developers. Among these was Moom Mong Collective’s House of Flowing Reflection, where hypnotic videos of Thai street and river life ebbed and flowed against the walls of the gloriously dilapidated Eah Seng building, a small period storehouse in Chinatown. Another, A/PART, featuring deranged sculptures by Burmese dissident artist Sawangwongse Yawnghwe and Thai counterparts Prasert Yodkaew, Torwong Wutthiwong and Phornphop Sittirak, began at Bridge Art Space’s rear door, where you stepped outside into a 3 x 8 x 2.5 m steel mesh cage and into the rubble-strewn site occupied by the 47-storey Sathorn Unique, Bangkok’s most infamous abandoned tower.

These and other pavilions got me thinking about the ‘duck test’: if each one looks and quacks like a standalone exhibition, then it probably is a standalone exhibition, right? Beyond the Bangkok Biennial’s gonzo branding, antielitist overtones and discernible drift towards the old quarters and dereliction (particularly in the Charoenkrung area), there was nothing binding together, say, Justin Mills’s encoded abstract paintings with Taweeksak Molsawat’s politically tinged performance art, or Naraphat Sakarnthonsap’s staged photos of funeral flowers with Supernatural Pavilion’s entrancing nighttime performance of Ann Halplin’s score The Five Legged Stool (1962) in the courtyard of an old city temple, and this raised questions about what higher purpose the whole endeavour serves. But then a conversation would ensue, a striking work or collective make itself known, or a new corner of the city unfurl, and my misgivings would be forgotten – here was a framework that brought disparate artists, curators and grassroots groups together, that refused to co-opt art for the purposes of city marketing or a curatorial agenda, and which found inspiration, stories and histories in corners of Bangkok the tourist guides would never dare show you. Uneven? Most definitely: a fair bit of the art looked rushed and half-baked, and some of pavilions added up to little more than teeth-cutting exercises. Transformative? Perhaps not, but here, at least, was an event that tapped into the dynamics of its host community.

How quickly things change. When news of it first broke, the Bangkok Biennial was seen by many as disruptive, an insurgent challenge to the public- and private-sector-backed Bangkok Art Biennale (which has biennial circuit stalwarts such as Elmgreen & Dragset and Marina Abramović, among others, on its list of artists), something the organisers of the former flatly denied. ‘Battle of the Biennials’ headlines and laments about all the confusion that this would create followed. As the weeks passed and they kept a low profile, however, the organisers’ stated determination to create a ‘level playing field for creative experimentation and social installation’ soon came to seem sincere, less about artworld politics and caustic provocations than about making a valuable contribution to the global debate on the scope and shape of future biennials. For it to be truly inclusive, the next edition will need to pique the interest of wider audiences, but for those who came, took part or looked on askance, the Bangkok Biennial’s role as a facilitator of collaborations between new-generation Thai artists and freewheeling curatorial experiments will not soon be forgotten.

The Bangkok Biennial closed on 30 September following a three-month run. This winter the Bangkok Art Biennale (19 October – 3 February) is being staged in venues across Bangkok, while the Thailand Biennale (2 November – 28 February) takes place at outdoor sites in the province of Krabi

From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia

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