Interestingly but unintentionally, we have only been looking at solo exhibitions in the Bangkok Boogie series thus far. As we wrap up the series, let us turn now to look at group shows, which are organised very differently from single artist exhibitions.
In group exhibitions, control over the general theme and direction usually lies with the curator or the institution which is organising the exhibition. As such, the choice of which artists to feature is almost never an objective one, since it is moderated by institutional or individual concerns.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we are aware of it. Also, there is no way of circumventing this anyway, since an exhibition, solo or group, is a story told by the curator or institution and there will always be different versions of the same story.
The first group show we shall look at is Thailand Eye, held first at Saatchi Gallery, London, from 25 November 2015 to 2 January 2016 and at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre from 17 March to 7 August 2016.
Some background on the Global Eye Programme is needed before we proceed. This programme was established by David and Serenella Ciclitira in 2008 with the intention to “to develop arts infrastructure in territories where this is lacking.” The main sponsor is insurance company Prudential and hence this programme is sometimes referred to as the Prudential Eye programme. Other iterations include Korean Eye, Indonesian Eye, Hong Kong Eye, Malaysian Eye and Singapore Eye.
The stage is set: Thailand Eye, curated by Nigel Hurst, Serenella Ciclitira and Apinan Poshyananda, seeks to provide a “comprehensive survey of Thailand’s contemporary art scene.”
With works by 24 artists across a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, video, photography and installation, this exhibition presents a good collection of contemporary Thai art.
Works by prominent artists such as Chatchai Puipia, Manit Sriwanichpoom, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Navin Rawanchaikul, as well as younger artists such as Bussaraporn Thongchai and Chusak Srikwan, are shown in the exhibition. The accompanying publication, an important part of the programme, also features many other artists whose works are not exhibited in this show.
Of course, as with any project claiming to be “comprehensive,” there are unavoidable dangers of exclusion. For instance, the absence of Sutee Kunavichayanont and Kamin Lertchaiprasert from both exhibition and publication should be questioned, given that they are established artists, recognised at various academic platforms both locally and internationally. Also, there seemed to be little mention of the art scene and artist initiatives in Chiang Mai. One could only guess what kind of debates took place before the final decision was made to exclude them (or indeed, were they even considered in the first place?).
To consider the point further, one has to be reminded of the complex undercurrents which have shaped the selection of works. First, this is an exhibition sponsored by one of the biggest insurance companies in the world. Second, this is linked to the royal family as it “celebrates the occasion of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s 60th anniversary and fifth cycle, which fell on 2 April 2015.” Third, there is a diplomatic tint to the exhibition as it also marks “the 160th anniversary of Thailand-UK relations.” Fourth, this exhibition is jointly organised by Parallel Contemporary Art, Prudential, Saatchi Gallery, Thailand Ministry of Culture, Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau and Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. The diversity of the organisations (commercial, government and cultural) involved should hint at the laborious selection process that must have transpired, given that everyone would naturally want to protect their interests or push for certain agendas.
Of course, none of this is apparent in the final product, which is still an immensely enjoyable exhibition. Not to be faulted or dismissed because it cannot completely be divested of the aforementioned undercurrents, this exhibition remains a good overview of contemporary art in Thailand, accounting for a wide breadth of artistic practices.
Although having a similar name, The Eye at Numthong Gallery comes with a very different set of dynamics. Intended as the first of a two-part series, this exhibition commemorates the gallery’s 20th anniversary and presents the private collection of its owner Numthong Sae Tang.
The obvious difference with Thailand Eye in its curatorial approaches (individual-institution, private-organisation) does not need any belabouring. But what I wish to highlight is the interesting premise behind Numthong’s collecting, as elaborated in the exhibition writeup: “I bought artworks just because I was attracted.”
While most institutions would collect art based on their value (either commercial, historical or academic), Numthong collects based on how he feels towards the art. With time, he began to also follow the development of certain artists, working closely with them on exhibitions and collecting their works as they are being made.
Hence, his collection is interesting because there are many pieces which may not come from prominent artists, or they might be lesser-known earlier works from established artists. As he led me through the gallery, he could tell me a story behind each piece and most of the time, these were anecdotes of his interactions with the artists or his personal reasons for acquiring the pieces.
There is nothing explicitly Thai about the exhibition concept. Yet the overall presentation of the artworks comes across strongly as a narrative of Thai contemporary art that is different and more personal as compared to the one told by the Thailand Eye exhibition.
Although personal stories are the important in this exhibition, they are not written about or printed on the walls. Perhaps the subtitle (“it’s not only to be mentioned but to be seen”) and the title of the exhibition (The Eye) suggest that the most immediate and important interaction with artworks is not reading or hearing about them, but actually seeing them. And by that visual encounter, we might be able to develop our own experiences, as Numthong did when he first saw them.
And with these two exhibitions, which had been the highlights of my trip, we end this series of Bangkok Boogie. There is so much more to the exciting Thai contemporary art scene which has not been covered in my posts and Thailand certainly cannot be overlooked when you look at contemporary Southeast Asian art. So as we continue to write about art, you will definitely see more Thai art coming your way!