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Decentralizing the Bangkok-centric Art Scene

Sittikorn Khawsa-ad, Far as Near, Everyday Experience, 2011

Sittikorn Khawsa-ad, Far as Near, Everyday Experience, 2011. Jim Thompson Farm, Nakhon Ratchasima. From the Art on Farm initiative. Photo: Phahonchai Premjai

Overpopulated and expensive, Bangkok is a problematic location for artists and many move away, often to North and Northeast Thailand.

Artist Uthit Atimana at Angkrit Gallery, Chiangrai.

Artist Uthit Atimana at Angkrit Gallery, Chiangrai. Photo: Angkrit Ajchariyasophon

Lacking a clear ethos and preoccupied with Bangkok, it took Thailand 40 years from the establishment of its first art school in the 1940s for related facilities to appear in Bangkok and other regional centers. Yet while these institutions continue to produce artists, no sufficient state or private infrastructure is available to graduates hoping to pursue a career. Many of those who stay in the country struggle to survive by teaching or doing odd jobs; others elect to go abroad.

When the Thai Ministry of Culture’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) was established in 2003, it was both too small and too bureaucratic to support the Thai contemporary art scene effectively. Since 2006, political turbulence has destabilized the country and the development of its art scene still further, impacting in particular the state-run Bangkok Art and Culture Center. University galleries lack the funds needed to produce decent exhibitions, while private and commercial galleries are still too few in number to support local artists in an immature local market with few resident collectors. OCAC’s support has barely contributed to either sector because its contemporary art and cultural departments are isolated from the national agenda and have never been developed to the level of influencing policy.

Overpopulated and expensive, Bangkok is a problematic location for artists and many move away, often to North and Northeast Thailand. Many have relocated to Chiangmai, among them Rirkrit Tiravanija, Kamin Lertchaiprasert (co-founder of the Land Foundation), Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Navin Rawanchaikul. Angkrit Ajchariyasophon started a gallery above his noodle shop and works with the local community, while more traditional venues such as Thawan Duchanee’s Black House and Chalermchai Kositpipat’s Rongkoon Temple in Chiangrai attract a steady stream of tourists. Elsewhere, neo-traditional artist Pornchai Jaima and his friends have built an art museum in Chiangmai, and Prasong Luemuang has established a personal gallery in Lamphun.

The Northeast is widely known as a site of inspiration and production for Weerasethakul’s film and video projects. Poverty in the region, which has been oppressed by the state since it was merged with central Thailand at the end of 19th century, has long driven the local Isaan people to migrate to Bangkok. Attempts to revitalize the area include job creation schemes and project such as the annual Art on Farm, a collaboration between Jim Thompson Farm and Jim Thompson Art Center through which artists including Pratchaya Phinthong, Montri Toemsombat, and Sudsiri Pui-ock are invited to make or exhibit works addressing sericulture and agriculture within a historical and cultural Isaan context.

These vibrant activities have mostly been initiated and operated on a do-it-yourself basis by artists and private interests over the past two decades. The relative indifference of the state is noteworthy; its contribution has been minimal. What has emerged is an attempt by many artists to decentralize the Thai art scene and contribute to the regeneration of the North and Northeast, often attempting sustainability by tying in elements of tourism and microeconomics, and helping to make these areas as important as Bangkok as sites of creative production.

Gridthiya Gaweewong is an artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok.

Is official indifference ever helpful to the development of contemporary art?

  • Jaffee Yee

    This is a very well-written article by an old friend Khun Jeab who has her root in the north and knows the art scene in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai very well. As she pointed out, it is often difficult for artists to work with the government due to various reasons besides red tapes, budget and widely believed corruption. Also, the very trait of all artists is FREEDOM to do things and that very trait makes them artists. There is news going around for quite sometime that the government is trying to launch a huge art project in Chiang Rai with a proposed budget to the tune of several billion baht. I’m personally sceptical as I have been waiting for more than 10 years to see that promised local art museum with a piece of land already appropriated on an island on the Kok River long ago to be built. Perhaps, it may be like another case of just empty talk for decades to connect the railway from Denchai to Chiang Rai.

  • MichaelJWilson

    The answer to the Sound Off question seems at first self-evident; surely the recognition and support of official (taken to mean
    governmental and institutional) structures could only ever be beneficial to a working artist? Who would consciously court rejection and to what end? Isn’t it always better, or at least more comfortable, to have the Man on one’s side? Yet perhaps things aren’t so clear-cut. Culture has often advanced by kicking against those in charge, and flourished outside of mainstream endorsement.
    Working within existing structures necessitates compromise; getting a grant or being included in a large-scale exhibition invariably means fitting into a box of a certain predetermined shape and size. But for those prepared to do without a rock-solid paycheck or a guaranteed place in the annals of art history, the DIY route, while risky, will always exercise a powerful attraction. When it works, there’s a mercurial energy to artist-led activity, for example, that makes museums appear lumbering by comparison.