A tale of two biennales

‘Singapore has one, Shanghai has one. So do Taipei, Busan, Jakarta,” Prof Apinan Poshyananda says, laughing.

Last month, Bangkok announced it will finally join the pack of cities (over a hundred of them) that have their own art biennials — not to mention triennials and quadrennials.

Thus from next year onwards, the city will take part in the global race to court star curators and big-name artists to compete with one another in drawing art lovers and tourists as well as generating revenue. The “biennale” label generally conveys an ambitious large-scale congregation of art from local and international artists, a high-impact event that can lift the profile of cities as art destinations as well as boost the dynamics of creation and appreciation.

Apinan — art professor and former Culture Ministry permanent secretary — is now artistic director to the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018, and he found time to sit down between business trips to discuss his plans for the event.

The first edition of the Bangkok Art Biennale is to be a lavish affair, bringing international artists and curators into the capital, from November 2018 to February 2019. Artworks, as projected, will flood the city, from museums to parks, shopping malls and historic locations, including ancient temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Local and international artists will be featured, though the curatorial efforts will begin later this year.

“The Bangkok Art Biennale will draw its uniqueness from its various locations,” Apinan says with confidence.

Taking after the original Venice Biennale, the world’s most famous biennale set up over a hundred years ago, the event will capitalise on Bangkok’s heritage buildings and sites. In Venice, art pieces are shown in cathedrals and churches, or in old villas and houses, and Bangkok will follow suit.

Revelling in the parallel between both cities (Bangkok has after all been dubbed the Venice of the East), Apinan chose to announce his forthcoming event while attending the Venice Biennale last month.

But he didn’t expect to be met with competition at home. In the weeks that followed Apinan’s press conference, a website surfaced called Bangkok Biennial (a separate event; don’t let a near-identical title confuse you).

This Bangkok Biennial — which many in the art world were at first tempted to brush off as a hoax — is confirmed to be taking place from July to September next year in several galleries and private locations.

While both contemporary art events stem from private initiatives, the differences of scale, vision and organisation are stark. For art lovers, both events look set to enliven 2018 as a major year for contemporary art in Thailand.

There have been ongoing talks about holding a Biennial or Biennale in Bangkok for several years, Apinan said. However, Thailand’s political turmoil, from frequent government changes to street protests, has hindered the momentum.

“One of the main elements of a Biennale is continuity,” he adds. “It’s a commitment, to organise such an event every two years.”

Four years ago, art enthusiasts were joyed to hear that a Pattaya Biennale would be held in October 2014.

Although the resort city is more famed for its night-time attractions than for its contemporary art, the show would have been the first of its kind in Thailand, had it not been thwarted by the May 2014 military coup.

Apinan aims for the Bangkok Art Biennale to run its course for at least three editions over the coming six years. Ideally, it would keep going for longer.

Largely funded by private-sector companies, including Thai Bev, the Biennale received warm support from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

“I believe that we are well enough prepared and have sufficient resources to make this event emblematic of Bangkok,” Apinan says.

Biennials are a common tool of soft power in many countries, including Southeast Asian neighbours Singapore and Indonesia.

“It enhances the city’s image and reputation, and draws in quality visitors who will contribute to the economy,” he adds.

Indeed, so much talk of the Biennale has been centred on financial advantages, it has left many Thai artists wondering about its artistic vision.

“Beyond Bliss” is the theme that Apinan and his board of curators, to be announced on July 4, have chosen for the Bangkok Art Biennale.

It sends a positive message in dark times, although Apinan says it will be up to each artist to interpret it as he or she wishes.

“I agree that it sounds optimistic. But beyond bliss, there could be paradise or hell. Or it could be our collective quest for bliss — and maybe that’s unattainable,” he adds.

Thai and foreign artists will be invited to work on-site in the many locations that the Foundation of the Bangkok Art Biennale is working to secure. These include historic temples such as Wat Arun, Wat Pho or Wat Prayoon.

In bringing art into public spaces, Apinan hopes to engage with local communities — not simply the art crowd or wealthy collectors.

As the art scene becomes increasingly commercial, the Biennale won’t be an art fair, he promises. “You don’t have to be a buyer. You can just come and enjoy it.”

The financial aspect of art biennials is nonetheless a reality, Brian Curtin, an art writer and curator based in Bangkok, says.

“A point to make: when the economy of Ireland, my home country, collapsed a few years ago, the government almost immediately created an art biennale,” he writes in an email.

Cultural tourism is now a given fact, and events such as biennials provide public relations for a nation.

“In the context of Thailand, a biennale under a military government carries pernicious implications,” he adds.

“We could compare it to the Thai contributions to the Venice Biennale. Most have been to promote Thailand in some ways. Why would this biennale be different?”

While Apinan and his team aim to build on the historic prestige of Bangkok and bring art into the city, Curtin adds that they are working in the context of aggressive “clean-up” campaigns and a conservative notion of internationalism.

Critical discourse is near to non-existent and, although the Bangkok art scene has seen an upsurge in recent years, no space is involved in education programmes that might cultivate audiences.

“Audiences are bound to remain limited, and art is divorced as ever from most people’s lives,” he writes.

Situated on the other end of the spectrum, the Bangkok Biennial is akin to a guerrilla operation.

“It has zero budget. Each ‘pavilion’ will be self-funded and self-curated,” says one of the persons behind the event, on condition of anonymity.

This modus operandi enables the Biennial to run on minimal resources (as opposed to the well-endowed Bangkok Art Biennale, which already has tote bags and USB keys ready with its logo).

Unlike the Bangkok Art Biennale, the Bangkok Biennial has no theme or central curating committee, allowing artists and curators to work off their instincts.

The result is likely to be an organic, free-flowing celebration of art, rather than a well-calibrated event that relies on hierarchical organisation.

Furthermore, the collision with the Bangkok Art Biennale is purely accidental, although Apinan’s announcement in Venice technically didn’t come as a surprise.

“We’d heard rumours, but honestly didn’t know what he was preparing.”

Although the group has invited several international artists to take part in the event next July, they are less concerned with international prestige than bringing passionate people together.

“Bangkok’s art scene — both the independent and institutionalised units — is very fragmented. There are different cliques, different sets of people.”

The Bangkok Biennial thus started as an invitation, for all interested.

“We wanted to keep our anonymity because things in Thailand tend to be defined by the names and reputations of the people involved. We didn’t want to alienate anyone.”

It is interesting to note that both projects are private initiatives. In the case of the Bangkok Art Biennale, support from the BMA and the TAT were sought only at later stages.

State support for arts and culture, especially in the domain of contemporary art, has progressed in recent years but remains minimal, Apinan says.

The creation of the Office of Contemporary Art under the Culture Ministry has been a step in the right direction but more needs to be done. In particular, government changes have interrupted policies and progress that need to be continuous.

“When a new minister comes in and bans the term ‘creative economy’, because it was used by his predecessor, and replaces it with another term, officials must get acquainted with the policy details all over again,” he says.