Posted:Oct 17, 2023

Contemporary Art, Internationalism, Young Artists and Censorship in Thailand: Interview with Apinan Poshyananda

An interview with Apinan Poshyananda, who as a curator, critic, and artist has continued to support contemporary art in Thailand and contributed to the country's growing international presence. What is the past, present, and future of contemporary art in Thailand? (Edited by Alena Heiß)

Apinan Poshyananda at the “BETWEEN BAB” venue Photo by Tokyo Art Beat

Thailand’s contemporary art scene: present, past, and future

A growing concern for the West-centered approach in the contemporary art world has led to an ever-increasing presence of the Global South. Located in Southeast Asia, Thailand is also home to star artists such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (1970~) and Mit Jai Inn (1960~), as well as young artists such as Korakrit Arunanondchai (1986~), who are active internationally and frequently introduced in Japan. One of Thailand’s longtime advocates of the contemporary art scene is Apinan Poshyananda, who has played a key role in the country’s growing international presence.

Born in Bangkok in 1956, he studied art and art history at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and Cornell University in the United States, where he received his PhD. In addition to his activities as an artist, he has been working as an art critic and curator both in Thailand and abroad, contributing significantly to the local art scene in academic and hands-on aspects. He has held numerous public positions, including Professor of Fine and Applied Arts at Chulalongkorn University, Director-General of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, and Permanent Secretary and Acting Minister of the Ministry of Culture for Thailand. He is also the Chief Executive and Artistic Director for the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB), held in Bangkok since 2018.

Tokyo Art Beat had the opportunity to interview Apinan at the BETWEEN BAB exhibition (Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, Bangkok, March 24 - June 30), which featured works by participants of the past three Bangkok Art Biennale. With Yuto Yabumoto, who supports the art scene and organizes exhibitions in Thailand and Asia, as the interviewer, we talked about the history of contemporary art in Thailand, its international position, support for young artists, the political situation, and issues of censorship.【Tokyo Art Beat】

Wat Arun Venue for the Bangkok Art Biennale Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale

Southeast Asia art scene in the 1990s

——What can you tell us about Thailand’s international position in Southeast Asia’s art scene?

To learn about Thailand’s art scene, we should go back to the 1990s. The rise of contemporary art was quite inconsistent in this era, and when the West looked at Asia, it was very much Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. However, the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 1989 gave the vision of how to mix up the art world, which led to curators beginning to take an interest in the region and artists like Montien Boonma (1953~2000), who is now often described as the father of modern art in Thailand, having a breakthrough too. 

Montien Boonma Nature’s Breath: Arokhayasala 1995 Exhibition view at the “Listen to the Sound of the Earth Turning: Our Wellbeing since the Pandemic” (Mori Art Museum, 2022) Photo by Tokyo Art Beat Source: -to-the-sound-of-the-earth-report-2022
Montien Boonma Nature’s Breath: Arokhayasala 1995 Exhibition view at the “Listen to the Sound of the Earth Turning: Our Wellbeing since the Pandemic” (Mori Art Museum, 2022) Photo by Tokyo Art Beat Source: -to-the-sound-of-the-earth-report-2022

But Japan was already looking toward Southeast Asia even before the worldwide excitement, and they did a lot of background work - the focus was on exhibitions and exchange through the Japan Foundation and, of course, Fukuoka, the nearest city to the Southeast Asia art scene. The idea of rising tigers and economic power created a situation where art was an exciting tool for creating cultural diplomacy - it was the beginning of soft power, but it was not yet used in the 1990s.

Around that time, Australia, under the government of Paul Keating, also aggressively began to look into the region. This led to a lot of opportunities for artists to be recognized.

——You were also appointed curator of the “Asia Pacific Triennial” (1993), which introduced contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and New Zealand, and later to various international art festivals worldwide, right?

Yes, suddenly, the focus was on the Southeast Asia region, and the artists got the opportunity to learn, improve, and promote themselves. This is when Thailand and Southeast Asia began to merge, especially in 1993.

Apinan Poshyananda featured in the documentary on the Asia Pacific Triennial (1993)

For example, I had the chance to be a curator for the Thailand section at the Asia Pacific Triennial (1993) in Brisbane, and many shows came after. In 1996, I was given a chance to be a guest curator for the Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions exhibition through the Asia Society in New York. The focus was on five countries - South Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. The exhibition got a lot of coverage in New York, traveled to Vancouver and Perth, and finished in Taiwan. The participating artists, such as Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (1957~) and Montien Boonma, became internationally famous. At that time, New York didn’t know contemporary art existed in the region, so the art scene broke the barriers and obstacles. 

Jumping to now, it has become easier for artists to show themselves, and we have numerous emerging artists contacted by curators from abroad. But Thailand, as you know, has suffered from political events, and the situation is very uneven. Everybody wants to visit Bangkok, and not only for the art, but for tourism, religion, heritage, and entertainment - it’s a cheap heaven. People say we could rise more if we didn’t have politics, but the art world is progressing well despite the economic and political trouble.

The infrastructure is not as good as it is in Singapore or Japan, and there are very few professional galleries and residencies, but Thailand has a very long connection with Japan. Avant-garde private museums like the WATARI-UM, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, or key figures of Japanese art such as Fumio Nanjo and Fram Kitagawa are interested in cultural exchange.

There are many exciting things to see in Thailand, but it is hard to plan the trip - and Japanese people like to plan before the visit - so it would be great to find information on exhibitions and events in Thailand on Tokyo Art Beat.

Navin Rawanchaikul Super(M)art Bangkok Survivor 2004-15 Collection exhibition at MIIAM (Chiang Mai) Photo by Tokyo Art Beat Born in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 1971. Navin Rawanchaikul is based in Chiang Mai and Fukuoka and has held numerous exhibitions in Japan, including participation in the Echigo Tsumari in Niigata and the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

Contemporary art and art market in Thailand

——Many young people are interested in contemporary art. What is happening in the contemporary art scene in Thailand?

Before, people in Thailand said that contemporary art is difficult to understand, but now not only young people but older generations like to go to galleries and appreciate the art. However, young people live in the age of technology; they accept video art, online art, and fast-moving images, so the communication and design of art are essential. Young generations are also very open to art, and spaces like Jim Thompson Art Center and Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) attract young people and even kids. During Pride Month, there are a lot of LGBTQ events, and everything is moving along more openly - there is more accessibility, appreciation, and patronage. 

Jim Thompson Art Center An art center adjacent to “Jim Thompson’s House,” the residence of the founder of the famous Thai silk brand, turned into a museum. The center hosts exhibitions, events, lectures, and workshops, introducing contemporary art and serving as a gathering place for art enthusiasts Photo by Tokyo Art Beat
Jim Thompson Art Center “UTOPIA NOW” exhibition view (2023) Photo by Tokyo Art Beat
Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) This spiral-shaped museum hosts contemporary art exhibitions. Located at a corner of Siam intersection filled with commercial facilities Photo by Tokyo Art Beat
Bangkok Art and Culture Center Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale

——However, the museum function is not very strong in Thailand, isn’t it?

Yes, it is very sad. A good example of a leading museum in Southeast Asia is the National Gallery Singapore. Singapore claims they don’t have many resources or heritage, but they are open and collect a lot of artwork - the best artworks of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are in Singapore.

But in Thailand, you need to work very hard to find a place, for example, to see the brief history of contemporary art. We now have a new National Gallery in Bangkok, but no exhibitions are being held. Private collectors and museums exist, but for the size of the country and the number of artists, it is not enough. 

——How about the art market in Thailand? Is it becoming bigger?

There is a strong desire for an art fair, but many obstacles exist, including the absence of a free port. Art fairs attract many people, including tourists, and it’s a good business, but the government has yet to understand its benefits. 

Regarding the art market, the first Tokyo Gendai (2023) opened in July in PACIFICO Yokohama. It was founded by Magnus Renfrew, who also started Art Basel in Hong Kong. You can see a circle of people who move around the market circuit. There is a possibility that you can sell different works in different places. 

Exhibition view of Kawita Vatanajyankur from Nova Contemporary at the Art Basel Hong Kong 2023 Courtesy of Art Basel

——Many galleries, such as BANGKOK CITYCITY GALLERY and Nova Contemporary, are working very hard to get international collectors.

Yes, Nova Contemporary went to Art Stage Singapore (2018) along with six other galleries from Thailand and will be the only one to be featured at Frieze Seoul (2023). Nova Contemporary, BANGKOK CITYCITY GALLERY, Tang Contemporary Art, and Richard Koh Fine Art were also seen at the Art Basel Hong Kong. We are on the right track, but there needs to be more budget to be international. 

Pinaree Sanpitak Temporary Insanity 2004 Exhibition view at the “Bangkok Art Biennale 2022” Photo courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale

Growing the art ecosystem and supporting young artists

——The “Bangkok Art Biennale” (BAB), which took place in 2018, 2020, and 2022, also supports galleries and aids their promotion, right? For example, for the “Bangkok Art Biennale 2022 CHAOS: CALM,” you appointed a young gallerist, Jirat Ratthawongjirakul (Gallery VER), as a curator. 

Yes, but we only support them indirectly. When we have openings, we invite galleries and are proud to help them promote and create an art ecosystem. Notably, many Singapore galleries come to visit. 

Anish Kapoor Push-Pull II 2008-09 Exhibition view at the “Bangkok Art Biennale 2022” at Wat Pho Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery
Montien Boonma Arokhayasala 1994 Exhibition view at the “Bangkok Art Biennale 2022” at Wat Pho Courtesy of Khun Parida Limpanont & Montien Boonma Atelier. Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale Photo Wirat Kanchalard

——It is remarkable how many international galleries, curators, and artists visit Bangkok because of you. 

It was our plan from the beginning. We had our first opening in 2018 and knew we needed to do something different. We set up various places in the city as exhibition venues, not only the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. We showed art at famous temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Arun and also at shopping centers like Siam Paragon and CentralWorld. This way has a lot of reach - tourists can visit the temple and appreciate contemporary art, too.

Last time (2022), we showed Mari Katayama, Tatsuo Miyajima, Chapman Brothers, and Robert Mapplethorpe, but at the same time, we featured very young artists, too. You give them a chance to be involved, and they become the stars. Many shows were postponed during the pandemic, but we decided to continue to show.

“Sediments of Migration” (2018) by Thai artist Pannaphan Yodmanee (1988~) Exhibition view at the “BETWEEN BAB” (Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, Bangkok, 2023) Courtesy of the artist and Bangkok Art Biennale
Exhibition by Thai artist Be Takerng Pattanopas (1965~) Exhibition view at the “BETWEEN BAB” (Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, Bangkok, 2023) Photo by Tokyo Art Beat

——I saw the “BETWEEN BAB,” which featured more than 60 works from the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation collection, and was impressed by a large number of works by young and mid-career artists. How do you support and encourage young artists through the Bangkok Art Biennale and your personal work?

For example, the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) now has an Early Years Project. This initiative aims to foster a network of emerging young artists, providing them a valuable opportunity to develop their creativity, artistic approach, and skills, ultimately leading to a fully-fledged artistic career.

We know many art professors who show us artists, and the Bangkok Art Biennale has an open call, which is quite unusual for the biennale. We have a lot of proposals to go through, and artists also dream a lot when they write one [laughs]. The interviews take up a lot of time, but we give young artists a chance to show their work, and sometimes galleries take them, or they go to art fairs.

“Iconostasis” (2022) by Bangkok-based French artist Myrtille Tibayrenc (1980~) Exhibition view at the “BETWEEN BAB” (Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, Bangkok, 2023) Courtesy Bangkok Art Biennale

Beyond the protests, politics, and censorship

——Young people have led anti-government protests in Thailand since 2020, and the opposition won the election in May 2023. There seems to be growing dissatisfaction and anger with the current political system among the younger generation. The BAB was held at the same time as these events. How do you go beyond these issues when working with young artists trying to express their political ideas?

We had to compromise from 2018, when the BAB first started, to 2020 and 2022. We are aware of the political issues, and when we work with artists, we first tell them that we don’t censor their artworks and respect their expression. Because, of course, many artists also self-censor themselves. However, we look for a way to let artists fully express themselves. 

There are plenty of political issues, and artists want to express them one way or another - some messages are subtle, and some are strong. Artists are also beginning to learn about the government and military censorship. Partially because the media they use, especially social media like YouTube, TikTok, or Facebook, is very fast. When the information is up, it spreads fast.

The expression may also be physical, such as the work of Arin Rungjang (1975~) at the BAB 2022, which was full of images of the military and religion. After seeing it, French curators have told me, “I can’t even show that in Paris.” One time, the National Defense College brought students to an exhibition where artists performed a piece about restriction and had a conversation with the generals at the end. I believe the authority begins to realize that they need to give a little bit in terms of expression. 

Arin Rungjang เมื่อปลากำลังส่งเสียงจิ๊บๆ (When the Fish is Chirping)  2022 Exhibition view at the “Bangkok Art Biennale 2022” Courtesy of the artist and Gallery VER

Art becomes a way to express protest. The proposal by Arin Rungjang is very strong, and we showed video interviews with students standing against institutions for four months. We are not showing these works to ask for trouble but trying to say that people can express themselves, not only in art. 

There is also a generation gap - young people want to express their anger - and we try to find a way to show it. But censorship is everywhere - in Singapore, Japan…everywhere. International public and curators also begin to understand that you can show strong elements in Thailand.

Exhibition by Uninspired by Current Events, a Bangkok-based computer graphic artist active since 2021 Exhibition view at the “BETWEEN BAB” (Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, Bangkok, 2023) Photo by Tokyo Art Beat

——For the last question, what can you tell us about the fourth edition of the Bangkok Art Biennale? 

We had the government evaluate the 2022 edition, and it is clear that the art ecosystem and revenue improved. We had nearly 1 million visitors on-site and over 16 million online, and our reach is quite strong. The next edition will focus on the environment and understanding. I can’t tell you all the details now, but they will soon be announced (*) [laughs]. We also plan to do a pavilion at the Venice Biennale next year. 

——With Gwangju Biennale introducing the national pavilion section and another pavilion-based exhibition, “Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023,” coming this December, there is definitely a competition between Korea and Thailand to be the next Venice in Asia [laughs]. Thank you very much for your time.

*──It was announced that the Bangkok Art Biennale 2024 will be held from October 24, 2024 to February 25, 2025. The theme is “Nurture Gaia.” An open call for participating artists and collectives will be held from October 28 to November 11. Please visit the official website for more details:

Yuto Yabumoto

Yuto Yabumoto

Representative of Aura Contemporary Art Foundation and Kinan Art Week Executive Committee Chairman. Born in 1988, lives and works in Thailand. After graduating from university, Yabumoto founded a law firm in Cambodia and has since expanded the firm’s operations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. For over ten years, he has been living and developing businesses in Thailand and other countries while at the same time providing support to the art community. He formed Production Zomia, a network of artists and curators in Asia, and organized several exhibitions, including the “AURA Contemporary Art Foundation Collection Exhibition: Trans-local Migrants on the Water: Contemporary Art from the Mekong region” (Osaka) and “Anarcho-Animism” (Miyagi Prefecture). He will be directing the “Zomia Pavilion” at the “Thailand Biennale 2023” in Chiang Rai, Thailand. He also organizes “Kinan Art Week” in Kinan, Wakayama Prefecture. On view from October 14 through October 22.