Shortly before touchdown on home soil, Thai Airways screens a video about the kinds of blissful tourism the nation attracts: under a golden sun, Western men, neatly coiffured, skip along beaches, tour temples and meditate; jump to nighttime and the same individuals are transformed into dishevelled, Gollum-like creatures on the prowl for young (and very young) girls and boys to satisfy other appetites. One of these forms of tourism is good and one of them bad, the video informs us, in a way that says as much about commonly held perceptions of the country as it does about the dubious morality of some of its visitors and those who welcome them.
The inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) occupies 20 locations across the city, including the luxury hotels, temples, historic buildings and shopping malls that are the face of the good type of tourism. Its primary goal is to identify the Thai capital as an ‘art destination’ and hub for cultural tourism within Southeast Asia. Almost every one of Thailand’s neighbours is doing the same. Even discounting them, over the past six months alone the kingdom has hosted the inaugural editions of two other art biennials (one in Bangkok, one in Krabi) and a triennial video-art festival (also in Bangkok). It’s a congested marketplace. Perhaps that’s why this biennial is hyperbolically titled Beyond Bliss.
And so, on a superficial level, BAB has littered the city (or at least the ‘approved’-touristy bits of it) with suitably hi-vis, easy-on-the-eye works by artists such as Choi Jeong Hwa (towers of Day-Glo plastic baskets, inflatable flowers, fruit, veg and flying pigs), Yayoi Kusama (suspended toadstool-liveried pumpkins) and Yoshitomo Nara (cutesy, giant-dog sculptures). When he was building Disneyland, Walt called this type of intervention a ‘weenie’, comparing the scripting of space for tourists in his themepark to the dangling of frankfurters off-camera to make on-camera dogs jump on cue in movies. ‘There’s got to be a weenie at the end of every street,’ he is supposed to have insisted to designers. It’s easy to imagine someone repeatedly whispering the same into the collective ear of BAB’s five-person curatorial team, led by artistic director Apinan Poshyananda (also the biennial’s cofounder and chief executive). In place of Sleeping Beauty Castle, BAB has Elmgreen & Dragset’s Zero (2018), a 0-shaped wheel of swimming-pool coping, complete with diving board and steps, tilted 90 degrees so that it frames a view of the Peninsula Hotel on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. The symbolism of leisure, luxury, Buddhism, placemaking and picture-taking mixed in one eight-metre-high oval that represents everything and nothing at one and the same time.
Yet, to its credit, BAB is not only a nirvana for selfie fanatics but also finds places for some of the more purgatorial spaces of contemporary life. Not least at the biennial’s main venue, the Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre (BACC) – a tired monument to the city’s official art scene now overgrown with the souvenir and knickknack shops that populate its ground floor. When BACC was founded by Apinan in 2005, it arrived packaged with the same ideals as BAB: to make Bangkok a ‘cultural capital’. Thirteen years later, BAB’s launch was accompanied by the centre’s current director, Pawit Mahasarinand, pleading for support in the face of drastic funding cuts by the knickknack-shop-loving city authorities (BAB is largely privately funded).
Inside, Chumpon Apisuk’s videowork I Have Dreams (2018) features interviews with a group of Thai and migrant sex workers (BAB’s catalogue describes them as a ‘taboo subject’) recounting their support of families and property purchases through their labours and their hopes of lives to come once those needs have been fulfilled. Opposite is an equally bittersweet earlier work, Mida Tapestry (2011), embroidered by arrested sex workers documenting a police raid on Mida Karaoke in Chiang Mai. Around the corner, Imhathai Suwatthanaslip’s No More Sewing Machines (2018) features sewing-machine parts embellished (to the extent that some look like kitchen implements) with the knitted hair of another set of sex workers from Chiang Mai, a reference to the multiple high-minded aid projects that have sought to teach sex workers in Thailand sewing as a way of getting them out of one type of slavery and into what is frequently no more than a less obvious other. ‘Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere’ (an adaptation of the Jim Steinman song popularised by Meatloaf) is the slogan on the lightbox (also by Imhathai) nearby. Elsewhere at BACC, patterns of forced and voluntary migration across the seas of Southeast Asia are further explored in the latest incarnation of Malacca-born Sherman Ong’s ongoing videowork NUSANTARA: the seas will sing and the wind will carry us (2011–), which features a series of fictionalised monologues based on firsthand accounts of the troubled (and sometimes horrific) lives of Afghan migrants to Malaysia. Perhaps it should be no surprise (although it is) that in the middle of all these works sits the kind of weenie Walt would have loved: a work by Croatian collective Numen For Use Design, a giant weblike cocoon of transparent tape, prosaically titled Tape Bangkok (2018), stretched across the walls and ceiling of the gallery and in which visitors can crawl or walk and, presumably, feel like Frodo Baggins trapped in Shelob’s giant spiderweb on the way to Mordor. The next floor up is occupied by the Marina Abramović Institute and a group of artists practising ‘the grandmother’ (as the catalogue describes her) of performance art’s ‘Method’. Visitors are invited to join too, but as you watch the trained performers stitch wedding dresses and the amateurs separate rice, it’s only weenies and unwanted sewing lessons that come to mind.
The most consistent part of the biennial is housed at O.P. Place, a heritage building and deserted antiques mall that feels like a ghost of tourism past. Curated by Manilla-based Patrick Flores, it features a tightly woven group of works – notable among them Elisa Jocson’s Becoming White (2018) and Samak Kosem’s Nonhuman Ethnography (2017–18) – produced in the main by artists from Southeast Asia, that pursue the themes of identity, displacement and belonging that surface intermittently elsewhere. The abiding impression is of a biennial with schizoid tendencies: unsure as to whether it is trying to build up a complex cumulative effect or to offer a series of discrete spectacles, it consistently disrupts the one with the other. Although today this seems to be the general condition for biennial makers and city marketeers alike.
Bangkok Art Biennale 2018, 18 October – 3 February
From the January & February 2019 issue of ArtReview