Propaganda amid the protests? Thailand’s Bangkok Art Biennale stirs debate among critics and participants



a woman wearing a costume: A Thai pro-democracy activist flashes the three-fingered salute during an anti-government protest in Bangkok. Photo: EPA


A Thai pro-democracy activist flashes the three-fingered salute during an anti-government protest in Bangkok. Photo: EPA

Can the involvement of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and an open letter in support of Thailand’s student-led protesters burnish the image of the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB)? The corporate-sponsored, star-filled spectacle began its second edition on October 29 amid critics’ assertions that it is merely helping the kingdom’s rulers maintain a pretence of normality as thousands gather daily to call for the government to be ousted and reform of the monarchy.

The BAB is paid for by some of Thailand’s most powerful family-owned businesses and has received the support of government ministries. Such ties to the establishment are not an asset to an art exhibition, especially in places where cultural activities are subject to censorship by an authoritarian government. The success of BAB depends on its ability to use art to create original and alternative narratives about society and not parrot the views of those in power.

Apinan Poshyananda, the BAB’s chief executive officer and artistic director, knows that. He is a seasoned navigator of the treacherous cultural landscape in a country with strict lEse-majeste laws and an ongoing crackdown on press freedom. An art historian and former senior government official in the Ministry of Culture, he has managed to keep the biennale’s backers on board while being openly critical of the current government’s “nationalistic jingoism” and describing the cultural ministry as a “propaganda machine”.

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This year’s BAB, which runs until next February, was a difficult one to pull off, Poshyananda says. Many of the 82 participating artists live outside Thailand, but it had to go ahead in spite of pandemic-related travel restrictions and a lack of tourists, he tells This Week in Asia.

“We are a young biennale,” he says. “To postpone it will mean missing the rhythm of holding it every two years. We want to give assurance and confidence that Bangkok is a place to come when the pandemic is over.”

As for the protests raging on the streets, Poshyananda says they “add more spice” to the biennale’s theme, “Escape Route”.

“There are often protests just outside the main venue, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, where Yoko Ono’s symbols of peace and activism are displayed,” he says, referring to the Japanese artist’s video recordings of her performances of Cut Piece in 1965 and 2003, in which she invites members of the audience to cut off and keep pieces of the clothes she had on. “So outside the centre, people are expressing themselves in a way that sometimes becomes art actions. Inside the art space, they can reflect on what’s going on outside.”

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Poshyananda says he also faced pressure from a group of Chinese artists and officials who asked the BAB to drop Ai, who has made films recently about the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan and the protests in Hong Kong. The artistic director has told the press he refused the request, and reassured the group that Ai’s works in the biennale are about migration and the general, despondent state of the world in 2020 – not about China.

HIDDEN AGENDA?

The BAB was the first large-scale contemporary art event in Thailand, with a multimillion-US-dollar budget and a roll-call of world-famous artists. It is a private endeavour, unlike the government-run Thailand Biennale that has postponed its second edition to 2021, and received the “best cultural moments of the year” award from now embattled Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha after its launch in 2018.

Its stated mission is unapologetically pragmatic: to attract high-quality, cultural tourists to Thailand. The 2018 biennale “stimulated” 4.5 billion baht (US$144 million) of tourist spending, according to the organisers, and drew more than 3 million local and international visitors. The BAB does receive government support, which allows it to place art within some of Thailand’s most venerated Buddhist temples and to arrange for overseas artists such as Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo to attend in person despite strict restrictions on foreigners entering the country.

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However, it is the sidestepping of direct confrontation with authorities – such as Poshyananda’s promise to the Chinese contingent – that makes the artistic integrity of the BAB suspect in the eyes of its critics.

There has been a lot of debate on social media among Thai artists about whether they should participate in an event that is seen as bringing prestige and legitimacy to the institutions that stand in the way of change in Thailand, says Bart Wissink, associate professor in urban studies and urban policy at City University of Hong Kong.



a large crowd of people: Pro-democracy activists protest in front of the prime minister's office in Bangkok on October 21. Photo: AP


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Pro-democracy activists protest in front of the prime minister’s office in Bangkok on October 21. Photo: AP

Wissink, the co-writer of a critical academic paper about the BAB with independent art historian Lara van Meeteren, says Poshyananda cynically manipulates public opinion to conceal the event’s hidden agenda.

“He projects an image of being critical. He knows that that is crucial for the biennale’s image,” he says. “But the BAB is in fact an example of the dramatic appropriation of art by corporates and the state to maintain the status quo.”

An example, Wissink says, was Poshyananda’s insistence that Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, attend the October 12 opening of the biennale in a private capacity while antimonarchy protesters gathered on the streets outside.

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“He is pretending the BAB does not show allegiance to the monarchy, but that is nonsense,” he says. “The princess did the ribbon-cutting with soldiers giving the military salute in the background. She could not have done that in a private capacity.”

The BAB may seem relatively tame compared with other art exhibitions being held in the Thai capital at the same time. The grass roots, decentralised Bangkok Biennial, also in its second edition, uses as its logo the pro-democracy plaque that protesters installed in a public square in September before it was removed.

At the Tang Contemporary Art Bangkok gallery, a solo exhibition of Chinese artist Ai’s works includes The Defacing Marks of Colored Pigment Thrown onto Mao Zedong’s Portrait in May 1989, Tiananmen Square (2019), which represents a lot more risk-taking by the curator than Ai’s Law of the Journey (2016), the sculpture of an overcrowded lifeboat full of refugees picked for the BAB.



schematic: The Defacing Marks of Colored Pigment Thrown onto Mao Zedong's Portrait in May 1989, Tiananmen Square (2019) by Ai Weiwei. Photo: Courtesy of Tang Contemporary Art Gallery


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The Defacing Marks of Colored Pigment Thrown onto Mao Zedong’s Portrait in May 1989, Tiananmen Square (2019) by Ai Weiwei. Photo: Courtesy of Tang Contemporary Art Gallery

‘BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS’

While art historian Van Meeteren is critical of the BAB, she does not endorse the actions of the 31 artists who independently of the BAB issued an open letter in October supporting the protesters and denouncing the use of violence by the police. She says the signatories – including Ai, British sculptor Anish Kapoor and Thai artist Bussaraporn Thongchai – should have pulled out of the biennale now that political battle lines have been drawn: “Artists do not have the luxury of thinking that what they do now in Bangkok is not political.”

Thongchai says it was a hard decision given that she had worked since last year on putting together Dear Family, a taboo-breaking video installation about sex workers that is being shown in the Wat Prayoon temple complex.

“When I agreed to take part in the BAB, nobody imagined that we would be having these protests today,” she says. “At the same time, it is an opportunity for a female artist like myself to speak freely. My work also forms a small part of what we are protesting for. It is about bringing secret discussions into the open and breaking down the barriers of Thailand’s social fabric.”



a group of people standing in a room: Apinan Poshyananda, artistic director of the Bangkok Art Biennale (left) and artist Bussaraporn Thongchai with her work Dear Family (2020), a video and sound installation in the prayer hall of Wat Prayoon. Photo: Courtesy of the Bangkok Art Biennale


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Apinan Poshyananda, artistic director of the Bangkok Art Biennale (left) and artist Bussaraporn Thongchai with her work Dear Family (2020), a video and sound installation in the prayer hall of Wat Prayoon. Photo: Courtesy of the Bangkok Art Biennale

The footage of former sex workers – including the artist’s own sister – speaking frankly about their stories to friends and families is all the more powerful because they are shown in the temple’s prayer hall, which Thongchai hopes can help “normalise” the conversation about prostitution.

“As one of the participating artists, I think it’s even stronger when we use our position in order to criticise the system we are working in or living in and be aware of it all the time,” she says.

However, Thongchai is aware the BAB has been criticised as government propaganda, and she adds that in the future, she will have to think about whether to take part in a similar event.

The debate over the BAB raises the fundamental question of what an international art exhibition is for, apart from attracting tourists and projecting a nation’s soft power.



Wasinburee Suoanichvoraparch's Dragonerpanzer ceramics. Photo: Courtesy of Wasinburee Suoanichvoraparch


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Wasinburee Suoanichvoraparch’s Dragonerpanzer ceramics. Photo: Courtesy of Wasinburee Suoanichvoraparch

Jane, a 22-year-old Bangkok university student majoring in business who asked to be identified only by her first name, was inspired to visit the Ai solo exhibition at the Tang Contemporary Art Gallery after seeing his work at the BAB on Sunday.

At the end of the day, Jane thinks the BAB fulfils the local demand to see contemporary art, but she also hopes that political change will happen and that greater freedom will allow the arts to thrive in the country.

“The protesters take to the street calling for a better political environment. I think that if Thailand’s politics were better, we can have more room for art,” she says.

Additional reporting by Jitsiree Thongnoi

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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