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Mai Iam’s modern marvels

Jul 15. 2016
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By Phatarawadee Phataranawik

Thai contemporary art gets a permanent home in Chiang Mai
The art scene in the northern capital has received a massive boost with the opening of the private Mai Iam Contemporary Art Museum, whose remarkable permanent collection features some of the country’s biggest names and which is currently hosting a retrospective on acclaimed filmmaker-artist Apichatpong Weera- sethakul.
Eric Bunnag Booth and his stepfather Jean Michel Beurdeley of the Jim Thompson silk firm have established the 3,000-square-metre museum to showcase the more than 600 works that they and Eric’s late mother Patsri Bunnag amassed over the last 25 years.
“The idea is to have a permanent collection of contemporary Thai art on display at all times,” Eric says. “In no way does it represent the whole history of Thai contemporary art, but rather our own points of view, based solely on the emotional response these pieces give us. A work of art exists as a result the artist’s creativity, but also in the emotional response it produces in the viewer.”
Chiang Mai, already a vibrant centre of arts and crafts, is now home to three ambitious private museums, the others being artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s 31st Century Museum and the DC Museum owned by Bangkok-based collector Disaphol Chansiri.
“Mai Iam means ‘brand new’,” says Eric, “and in our case it refers to Chiang Mai – ‘new city’ – and to my greatgrandmother’s aunt, Chao Chom Iam, to whom the museum is dedicated. The dialogue between old and new interests us very much, and you encounter it all the time in Chiang Mai.”
Gridthiya Gaweewong of the Jim Thomson Art Centre, who curated the permanent collection and Apichatpong’s show, lauds the museum’s founders for choosing San Kamphaeng district as the location.
“San Kamphaeng has always been and always will be one of the most important areas for the arts-and-crafts tradition of the North. I hope the Mai Iam will become fully integrated within this cultural landscape and bring more exciting creativity and innovation to the community.”
The site in the town of Baan Ton Pao is a 15-minute drive from the city core, and no one could have anticipated the dramatic architecture – an ultramodern two-storey structure that over the course of 18 months grew out of an abandoned warehouse. 
The firm allzone, led by Rachaporn Choochuey, conceived the design, which includes a dazzling array of mirrored tiles on the exterior fa็ade. The mirror mosaic, found in a Lanna temple, adds to the museum’s modern appearance but also lends a traditional touch. Visitors love taking selfies in front of it.
The Mai Iam was the first art museum that allzone designed, but it’s handled art-related projects before. It mounted Pinaree Sanpitak’s vast installation “Breast Stupa Topiary” at Chulalongkorn University in 2014 and set up with space for the “Temporary Storage #01” exhibition curated by Chitti Kasemkitwattana at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in 2012.
“We wanted it to look contemporary, but at the same time not too alienated from the context of Chiang Mai,” says Rachaporn. “We tried out many materials for the exterior but finally settled on the small mirrored tiles. We searched all over the country for craftsmen capable of putting the tiles on the wall, but everyone was busy with temple work, so we asked the government’s Fine Arts Department, and they helped us develop a new technique for installation that’s faster and more efficient than the traditional method.”
With 1,300 square metres devoted to displaying art, the facility has plenty of room left for screening films in its 35-seat cinema and hosting educational workshops, stage performances and small-scale concerts. It also has a library, a 60-seat restaurant and a gift shop.
Nearly 100 people visit the museum each weekday and more than 130 visitors on weekends, Eric says. 
A selection from permanent collection, entitled “Feeling the 1990s”, is on the second floor, comprising paintings, sculpture, installations and photography.
“That was when we entered the age of globalisation,” Gridthiya explains, “and it was an important period for many Thai artists as they began to join in conversation with the global art world. With their groundbreaking work they became mentors to the younger generations of artists, who are also represented here.”
The late Montien Boonma is given centre stage with key works on display including “Painting and Candles (Stupa)”, “Perfume Paintings” and “Handprints in Cement Construction” and the installations “Venus of Bangkok” and “Sala of Mind”. Alongside you can see Rirkrit Tiravanija’s huge charcoal abstract “Untitled 2013 (Study for freedom cannot be simulated)”.
Chiang Mai-based Navin Rawanchaikul is represented by another massive work, “Super(M)art Bangkok Survivors”. On the walls surrounding it are Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s “Death is Dhamma”, an untitled self-portrait by Chatchai Puipia and Prasong Luemuang’s “Kor Kon”.
On the ground floor is Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s 1995 installation “Isolate Moral Female Object, in a Relationship with a Male Bird I”. Hung nearby are Pinaree Sanpitak’s “The black, the white and the body”, Udomsak Krisanamis’s “Paint It Black” and Cambodian Sopheap Pich’s “Far From the Sun”.
Eric’s family lineage is traced back to the Ayutthaya Period in a separate exhibition, including his great-grandmother Chao Chom Iam, consort of King Rama V. They are depicted in paintings and photos, including a portrait of Patsri by Navin that he donated to the museum.
Also sharing the ground floor and half the second is the temporary exhibition “The Serenity of Madness”, dedicated to Apichatpong. Well known as a filmmaker, his work in the other arts is less known. This show is the first time his fellow Thais are getting to see his photography and printmaking talents.
From his earliest experimental films, Apichatpong has always explored themes of memory, animism, Buddhism and the supernatural, using the narrative traditions of his native Isaan. Visitors can see the reference materials used in his films “Mysterious Object at Noon”, “Blissfully Yours” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, including scripts and production sketches. And 30 of his short films, newly re-mastered, are being screened. 
What’s on view at the Mai Iam is only the tip of the iceberg, says Beurdeley. “This is only 10 per cent of what we have. We’re planning more shows with new themes.” 
Thus we can look forward to seeing works by National Artists Thawan Duchanee and Chakrabhand Posyakrit, and Eric says he “can’t wait” to exhibit his latest acquisitions, including pieces by Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, Tawatchai Pattanatorn, Parapet Jiwarangsan, Tada Hengsapkul and Latthapon Korkiatarkul.”
The Apichatpong retrospective will be replaced at the end of September by another devoted to Kamin Lertchaiprasert. In December, Eric says, “there’ll be an exhibition dedicated to my mother, who had a unique vision of ‘what is style’. It will be a dialogue between fashion and the works of art.”
- The Apichatpong Weerasethakul retrospective “The Serenity of Madness” continues through September 10. 
- The Mai Iam Contemporary Art Museum is at 122 Moo 7 Ton Pao, San Kamphaeng, Chiang Mai. It’s open daily except Tuesday from 10 to 6. 
-The admission fee is Bt150 (Bt100 for students, free for children under 12). 
- Find out more at and the “maiiam” page on Facebook.

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