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Letter from Bangkok: Slow and Steady?

As the first major city outside of Wuhan to have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19, Bangkok entered into stealth mode in January and has since fully activated all of its ‘Thainess’. We have already been so hyped with PM 2.5 air pollution problems from last year, that wearing masks outside has long become our norm.

The thought process in Bangkok was a little like this: “Is this just another virus case? Didn’t we just deal with H1N1? Or was that SARS? Where should we go for dinner tomorrow? Let’s go get coffee!”

Asia-Pacific finance and trade businesses started to panic around late January and cautionary measures trickled down. Privately-funded art exhibitions were getting postponed, and eventually, there was no one mooching around air-conditioned malls anymore. Then, art spaces started to close from mid-March, as ordered by a state-issued emergency decree.

Now that everything has come to a standstill, we see many galleries and museums in the Euro-Americas turning to online platforms and dreaded virtual tours to share images of artworks. Unless you still enjoy 90s-style PC games, these new platforms may not be for you.

On the other hand, Bangkok’s art scene has been quite quiet, elegantly announcing its gallery closures with no aggressive suggestions to visit their websites, no punny hashtags (as yet) or social media campaigns. Is Bangkok simply used to this low-cal diet of art consumption?

With no adequate art funding and no well-oiled public art institutions, artists can most definitely forget about any kind of support during a time of crisis such as this, when 99% of the country now has no cash flow as well. After all, the greater population is still waiting too.

The Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (BACC) closed its doors to the public on the 22nd of March. Their internal office has announced a social distancing work code, and advised its employees and contractors to come in only for necessary jobs.

Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, during a time before the lockdown. Image credit: Asia City Online.

Narongsak Nilkhet, or “Bik”, a curator and project manager at the BACC, told me that he found it difficult to adjust to the work-from-home rhythm – but has been nonetheless equally busy, if not more so. Currently, shows at the BACC have been postponed and given new dates as far as planning allows, but the general consensus has been to maintain hope that the Centre will be in a position to open again soon. There are plans for the BACC to move exhibition content to its social media platforms and website, but the Centre has been reserved about the details.

Bik explains that as the BACC’s overall goal has always been about providing educational material to the public, there are concerns about the efficacy of presenting on online platforms. Put another way, how can the BACC represent the artworks in a way that does not result in them becoming lost in the current tidal wave of online art viewing? Perhaps a slow and steady approach should be adopted so that the Centre has sufficient time to research audience habits and methods of how to exhibit art digitally whilst preserving the contents’ lustre.

The way in which each art institution or gallery has responded to being forced to close has been quite revealing as to what their business models are like. Some have been fast to adapt, while others have been calmer with their reactions.

1Projects is an independent gallery founded and managed by Charuwan Chanthop (Wan). She shuttles between Singapore and Bangkok, working in both cities. Interestingly enough, 1Projects began life as an online platform and later expanded to become a physical gallery. It is currently situated in Bangkok’s Creative District; Chareon Krung Road. Wan operates her gallery with a sustainable model rather than with an overtly commercial mindset, promoting up-and-coming artists within a limited space and opening only on weekends. 1Projects’s online platform has always been active, playing a large part in how the gallery promotes its exhibitions.

Image credit: 1Projects.

Because the gallery’s costs were already very manageable, Wan has been able to support her part-time staff and pay for the rental of the physical space through the fees that she earns from acting as an artist representative and agent. As for the shows, they have been postponed – a development which has been met with support from both artists and audiences. Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Natalia Ludmila, Nakrob Moonmanas, Phornphop Sittiruk, and Pannaphan Yodmanee were all artists who were supposed to have shown with 1Projects this year.

In spite of the postponements, plans to push for remote sales are in place to support Wan’s artists fully, through a combination of online outreach and Wan’s own personal networks of buyers. Just like everyone else, Wan is waiting this crisis out, but also wondering if this situation presents opportunities for people in the industry to grow their online presence, and value it equally alongside their physical spaces.

Bangkok started to officially quarantine itself from around mid-March, but people had already been staying home since late February. Social gatherings and one-to-one contact were minimised, making physical interaction very limited. For artists whose works are based on conversations and body language, this isolation greatly stifles their creativity. Naraphat Sakarthornsap for example, is a young artist-photographer who’s been gaining a lot of traction for his work in the past three years, participating in numerous group shows and collaborative commercial projects. He works with organic matter: plants, flowers and human beings, all of which interact with one another to create a story through photography. This isolation, therefore, inhibits every aspect of his work, as he can neither source flowers or plants without health risks, nor can he use models due to close contact issues. Like everyone else, his shows have been postponed indefinitely. Luckily, however, his full-time job as a graphic designer allows him to work from home. In any event, the lived reality of most artists is that side hustles are required to keep the lights on.

Naraphat Sakarthornsap, Gushing Out My Confession, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

It is very difficult to gauge the duration of this pandemic, and this leaves everyone uncertain and afraid to make definitive plans. The common opinion seems to be that as far as art is concerned, personal interaction and one-to-one contact is irreplaceable. While the internet is crucial in the art world as a promotional and archival tool, it seems unable to capture the magic of bearing physical witness to the manifestation of the human imagination into tangible experiences and objects. Perhaps what COVID-19 truly exposes is our failure to appreciate the importance of our five senses working harmoniously together.

Bangkok is still adjusting to the pandemic, just like all other big cities. Our lives have been put indefinitely on hold, and this growing pain inevitably leads us to ponder some very existential questions. Yet, despite everything, “life finds a way to move forward”.

Now, shall we put that on a mug and start an online business?



Feature image by Pablo Alonso on Unsplash.

Editor’s note: Since the finalisation of this article, a movement in Bangkok called the Surviving & Fighting COVID-19 Arts Alliance has been started by arts and culture workers. Representatives from this Facebook group have submitted official letters and documents to the Thai Ministry of Culture to ask for support for the contemporary artists affected by this pandemic.

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