The Bangkok Art Biennale 2020 festival, or BAB2020, was more successful than expected despite the Covid-19 crisis gripping the world and the political conflict in Thailand last year, Apinan Poshyananda, the artistic director of the event, told the media on Wednesday.
The biennale, organised by Thai Beverage and held from October 29, 2020, to January 31, 2021, displayed more than 200 art pieces from 82 artists – 31 domestic and 51 foreign.
On display were artworks from top artists like the outstanding Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono, John Akomfrah and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook.
Apinan said BAB2020 exceeded expectations. Around 30 art biennales had been scheduled for 2020, but only eight went ahead.
“The Bangkok event was the only one in Southeast Asia, and was held as scheduled,” he said, adding that the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art 2020 in Latvia was open for a mere two weeks due to the virus crisis.
Around 410,000 people came to BAB2020, while as many as 2.3 million others visited the exhibition as virtual tourists.
This compares to more than 3 million visitors who physically attended the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.
However, this artistic success came with challenges, especially the Covid-19 crisis.
Apinan explained that the initial budget for the biennale – Bt60 million – increased by Bt3 million to Bt4 million. Besides, the organiser had to “re-manage” the budget in order to run the event as smoothly as possible.
Meanwhile, strict health measures and a countrywide lockdown last year prevented some artists from visiting Thailand, which meant they could not “control” the installation of their artwork themselves, but video conferencing app Zoom was a handy solution, he said.
Asked why the organiser decided to go ahead with the event instead of suspending it, Apinan, as a ThaiBev representative, said “it was because Thailand was not hit by the virus as severely as other countries, and we were confident that travellers would be interested in attending BAB2020”.
Asked what was the most disappointing and impressive factors of the event, he said “the artists were not here”, but “all of them were ready to fight with us – no one withdrew”.
Apinan pointed out that one of the reasons why BAB2020 was a success was the role of foreign media. He said several art organisers and magazines had interviewed him, spreading word about the “brave move” to run the event.
Meanwhile, at a time when numerous events were suspended amid the Covid-19 crisis, it was not surprising that a virtual tour of the biennale attracted many under lockdown at home.
In addition to the pandemic, another crisis Thailand faced in 2020 was the political clashes between youth-led pro-democracy groups and the government, he said.
An unforgettable event was the crackdown in which police used water canon against protesters in Pathumwan on October 16, Apinan said.
“It was the same day Yoko Ono’s works were installed at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, which was not far from the violent scene,” the director recalled.
Apinan also said the question of politics surrounded BAB2020, and he admitted it was impossible to exhibit art without politics. He revealed that some artists had even been pressured by their counterparts to remove their works from the event as the political situation intensified.
“Everything is political,” he insisted, adding that the biennale was a neutral area for artists to express their points of view.
“It was their right to show their political views, and we respected that right,” he said.
The Bangkok Art Biennale is held every two years, and details of BAB2022 have not been revealed yet.
However, Apinan said the next event would not focus on a virtual tour as he believed that art should be seen and “sensed” physically, with personal experience depending on each person.
He added that the BAB Academy will run a curator course this year and anyone who is interested or those with art experience are welcome to join the programme. There is no age limitation for participants and they will be trained how to curate and constructively criticise artwork.