Thailand's art scene had double cause for mourning this year, in ideological terms at the military government’s restrictions on freedom of expression, and in starkly human terms at the deaths in September of National Artists Thawan Duchanee and Prayad Pongdam.
The political conflict that continued on from last year affected the art scene well into 2014. The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre had anti-government protesters camped out front, and they had their own art exhibitions, with paintings, sketches, happenings and music. Among the activists were artist Vasan Sitthiket, songs-for-life musician Visa Kwantap and National Artist Naowarat Pongpaibul, who followed up with a seat on the National Legislative Assembly.
The pro-government red shirts aired their views through art as well, with music by the likes of Tom Dandee on stages at Rajamagala Stadium and Impact Arena.
The social media reflected all of this, while testing the limits of martial law with sharply political commentary by people such as Sombat Boonngamanong and political scientist Somsak Jeamteerasakul. Anti-coup protesters borrowed the three-finger salute from the “Hunger Games” movie franchise to prod the military government.
In April, just weeks before the coup, the WTF Gallery hosted the group show “Conflicted Visions”. Seven artists including Manit Sriwanichpoom, Sutee Kunavichayanont and Jakapan Vilasineekul expressed their views on the political turbulence, using various media.
Art became a virtual weapon in the hands of Chumpol Kamwanna, whose satirical portraits of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the Shinawatra siblings and Abhisit Vejjajiva went on view in the exhibition “3P: People: Politics: Power” at the Rebel Art Space.
The government fought back, with the Culture Ministry mounting an exhibition to foster reconciliation and “Return Happiness to Thais”.
The ministry’s Apinan Poshyananda put together the major exhibition “Thai Charisma: Heritage + Creative Power” to boost awareness of “Thainess”, juxtaposing historical artefacts with contemporary art “to emphasise that art has roots” and promote Thai art internationally.
The show certainly drew the attention of Richard Armstrong, director of the US-based Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation and Museum, who was in town to drum up business with the Asian Art Council.
“We’re already interested in Asian art,” Armstrong said, crediting Apinan with guiding the Guggenheim. “We’ve acquired many works by Thai artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Navin Rawanchaikul.”
The Silpathorn Awards returned this year, having skipped the previous three due to the political strife. The Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture also finally awarded the prize in the visual arts to conceptual artist Surasi Kusolwong, who jested over his prior misses with a neon sign at the entrance that said, “To be honest, it’s too early or too late.”
Also winning awards were independent filmmaker Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, stage performer Jarunan Phantachat, architect Suriya Umpansiritatana, writer Rewat Panpipat, conductor Vanich Potavanich, typographer Pairoj Teeraprapar and product designer Chaiyut Plypetch.
Amid preparations for the inauguration of the Asian Economic Community next year, several exhibitions of art from around Southeast Asia drew admiring glances.
There were pleasant surprises in terms of what’s been going on behind Myanmar’s closed doors all these years. Bangkok’s Thavibu Gallery had a nice show in May of politically charged work by Myint Swe.
“Burma: The Quiet Violence” featured 30 remarkable paintings done in Yangon between 1995 and 2005. The subject matter included Aung San Suu Kyi's tribulations and other discouraging socio-political developments. The show was quite successful, with many collectors making purchases.
The Thavibu also has on its roster relative newcomers like Nyein Chan Su, Phyu Mon and Phyoe Kyi, who work in photography, video art and installation.
Moe Satt of Yangon is well known for his through-provoking installations and performance art, presented in Bangkok in recent years at the Jim Thompson Art Centre, H Gallery and White Space. He’s the curator of the group show “General/Tiger/Gun” at the new Rebel Art Space in June. Its paintings, sculpture and installation art address Myanmar’s reforms in diverse ways.
“As recently as 10 years ago, contemporary artists in Myanmar were few and far between, and only a handful ever got the chance to exhibit abroad,” Satt said, but he rejected the notion that their experience beyond the border made them better artists than those who were “left behind”.
Commercial galleries like the Thavibu, Rebel Art Space, H Gallery and White Space have flung open the doors to contemporary Southeast Asian artists, while Chiang Mai’s Golden Triangle Art serves as the main northern gate for art from around the region.
New “alternative art” spaces made the local contemporary-art scene more active and interesting this year, while more commercial galleries sprang up, further freshening up the market.
Artists Chitti Kasemkitvatana and Pratchaya Phinthong relocated their Messy Space to Chinatown, occupying the former site of the About (Photography) Bar & AARA Archives on Maitrichit Road. Messy Sky is a platform for both young and established artists to display their avant-garde installations, books and videos and give lectures.
Messy Sky shares the building with Cloud, run by young curator Mary Pansanga. Cloud hosts movie screenings and master classes with leading artists such as South African Kemang Wa Lehulere and top filmmakers like Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”).
The collaborative project “Cloud” and video-art exhibition “Project 35 Volume 2” made for interesting viewing. “Project 35” by New York’s Independent Curators International involved videos dubbed “must-see” and was touring the planet.
In June, graphic designer Chris Grisana opened CEO Books under the same roof as the architectural collective All (Zone). The shop doubles as a bookstore focusing on art and design and a conversational hangout akin to Silom’s Reading Room. People can pool ideas and resources for planned projects.
Following in the footsteps of hip Speedy Grandma, a “gallery home” for alternative artists, Bangkok-based French patron Thomas Menard opened Soy Sauce on Charoen Krung Road in mid-year. It’s got shows by foreign and Thai artists – installations, photography and paintings.
There’s still more room for upcoming artists at the Bridge, a caf