LOTUSES and Buddha images usually spring to mind when Thai art is mentioned. And although such visuals still remain intact in the country, there are much more to Thai contemporary art. While Thai artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Korakrit Arunanondchai have made their names in the global art world, very few Thais know what they are about. And that’s only fair, since museums for contemporary art barely exist in the country.
In the next few years, though, Thailand will welcome not one but two new contemporary art museums – much-needed additions as Thai art struggles to engage local audiences and manifest itself internationally.
Buddhism used to be the primary theme for Thai art, thanks to the strong influence from modern artists such as Thawan Duchanee and Prateep Kochabua. Perhaps the most locally recognized artist, Chalermchai Kosipipat, known for his colorful character and white temple Wat Rong Khun in northern Thailand, is a poster boy for Buddhism-inspired Thai art. But as most contemporary Thai artists no longer adopt such influence, it “cannot be used as a consistent reference in exhibitions,” according Brian Curtin, an Irish-born art writer and curator based in Bangkok, who is currently working on a book about Thai contemporary art.
That Thailand doesn’t share the post-colonial histories of most countries in Southeast Asia also makes it harder for international audiences to understand or contextualize Thai art, according to the curator. “The ‘lack’ of a coherent identity for contemporary art in Thailand enables it to be less commodified than its neighbors, and this underlines its relative invisibility on the regional or international art market,” he said.
The challenge in defining contemporary art is also shared across Southeast Asia, and Curtin pointed out how inadequate critical understanding has led to more sweeping labeling. “We can see this, for example, in the appalling exhibition ‘Secret Archipelago’ at the Palais deTokyo this year, curated by Singapore’s Khairuddin Hori. This exhibition pandered to stupid generalizations and stereotypes about the region. We can also see it the lazy, silly use of ‘contemporary’, such as the privately-owned Museum of Contemporary Art in Bangkok which, in fact, doesn’t contain any contemporary art,” he said.
The lack of museums, especially art museums, in Thailand to document its cultural history and educate the public makes it all the more difficult for people to grasp what is going on with Thai contemporary art. Although the very active and accessible Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) has been accommodating contemporary art, it also doesn’t have a permanent collection. The work by most younger contemporary Thai artists often takes shelter in smaller, scattered art spaces, where they are usually left unexposed to the general public.
Last May, though, a number of people in the Thai art scene gathered to discuss the new Mai Iam Contemporary Art Museum (MICAM). The name means “brand new” in Thai and also commemorates Chao Chom Iam Bunnag, the royal consort of King Rama V. Said to open in 2016, the project by collectors Patsri Bunnag and Jean-Michel Beurdeley will transform an old warehouse in San Kanphaeng, Chiang Mai into a two-story art center.
In addition, art collector and patron Petch Osathanugrah has unofficially announced a plan for O Museum, a new contemporary art museum that will house works by Thai contemporary artists alongside the art world’s big names such as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. Situated in the inner Bangkok on a spacious 12,800-square-meter plot, the new art venue will be very accessible via public transport and should be ready to welcome local and international art enthusiasts in approximately 3 years.
The opening of the new museums is well timed. According to independent curator Gregory Galligan, director and co-founder of Thai Art Archives (who is also working a book about Thai contemporary art), huge bids from overseas are being made to “represent” Thai modern and contemporary art, especially without a comprehensive historical collection in Thailand. “It’s very concerning. It’s great to have Thai art overseas, but at what cost to the center?” He added, “Perhaps we can build a coalition of collectors and curators to act as a productive counterforce, where others have their governments tending to this, such as at Singapore, Hong Kong, and now Gwangju.”
In Thailand, though, a recent dispute over a relocation of a museum in Nakhon Pathom between local residents and the Fine Arts Department reveals a failure in national museum administration and insufficient support from the government. As ‘reported in ‘The Nation’, only 93 curators are running 44 national museums, with a very limited budget. On the Nakon Pathom museum row, curator Vipash Purichanont also spoke to ‘Matichon’ about how, “the Fine Arts Department has yet to find its audience,” and that that most exhibitions in national museums are organized in response to the government’s agenda – not what the public wants.
While the much-needed museums are very welcome, the real challenge remains whether they can serve the public rather than just showcasing the collections, suggested Galligan. “Only time will tell if such ‘museums’ offer the public the full, professionally conceived range of services of what is implied in the title. And as I have recently suggested in ‘Art in America’ just this May, if Thailand has only a smattering of private museums without the counterbalance of a great civic museum to fill in their inevitable historical omissions, then that’s an ongoing problem. Bangkok still lacks that kind of historically and curatorially progressive institution.”
This month, the National Discovery Museum Institute is hosting the Museum Refocused conference (May 6 – July 3) to discuss the direction of Thai museums. While all the recent talks and discussions are all positive signs for Thai art and culture, it remains doubtful if anything will materialize. One thing is for sure: changes are clearly needed. And to make them happen, these art and museum professionals will have a lot of work to do.