Thai Contemporary Art -Past and Present-


Aura Contemporary Art Foundation
Representative Yabumoto Yuto
International Communication Design Program, Chulalongkorn University
Senior Lecturer Eiji Sumi

Money, Tawang Wattuya, Photo Eiji Sumi at Bangkok Art Biennale 2020
* All photos were taken by Eiji Sumi except for the one marked 'courtesy of the artist', but no photo credit is required.

Aura Contemporary Art Foundation was established in response to prevent the evanescence of the wonderful human qualities, objects, and values that originally existed in Asia as a result of rapid modernization and urbanization.  The foundation is based on the vision to maintain and further develop the values (aura) that can only be found in this region' and aim to pursue the stability and peace in the world, therefore, conducts grassroots activities to support exhibitions, symposiums, regional studies, and supports grants for artists and their collections of artwork.  

In this article, we would like to provide 'an overview of the current situation of contemporary art in Thailand' and this article was co-written under the supervision of Eiji Sumi, a renowned contemporary artist who works in Japan, New York, Thailand, and recently in some neighboring Asian countries, but predominantly lives in Thailand, and teaches at Chulalongkorn.
In recent years, While Thai contemporary art scene has been producing many active artists who participate in the well known International exhibitions, the domestic art scenes (Domestic galleries, Provincial city museums, Problem-defining exhibitions) as well has been developing and draw great attention from the world.
Beginning with the introduction of the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB2020) which Aura Contemporary Art Foundation provides a grant, the reason for the foundation's support for BAB2020 is because of our empathy with BAB's founder, Mr. Apinan Poshyananda for his great personality. When he was the undersecretary for the ministry of culture in Thailand, he has tried to organize the international exhibition, but that could not be realized.  Since then, he could not abandon his idea of the international exhibition in Thailand, and with the help of artists and sponsors, it could finally come to fruition in 2018 for the first time. 
And this year, despite in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and political demonstrations, 2nd editions of BAB 2020 has realized as a large-scale international exhibition with more than 200 works by 82 artists from 35 different countries in ten locations in Bangkok. (29th October 2020 to 31st January 2021).
In addition to the BAB, There are 2 other Biennale, one of them is government-led (OCAC -Office of Contemporary Art and Culture ) Biennale called Thailand Biennale and will be held in early 2021 in Korat with Yuko Hasegawa as the head curator and an artistic director.(A Professor at Tokyo University of the Arts and an Artistic Director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, one of  the leading curators in Japan)and Vipash Purichanont, as assistant curator.  And another is Bangkok Biennial (Founded by Jeff Gompertz, Lee Anantawat, and Liam Morgan) anti-centralized, and grassroots independent art exhibitions started from Oct 2020 and last until Oct 2021 with 3 separated seasons.
Speaking of BAB, since the previous Biennale was the inaugural exhibition, somehow, it gave a slight impression of touristic driven art events.
On the contrary, this year's exhibition, titled 'Escape Routes' shows many art works with social, political, environmental, and other issues. 'Escape Routes'  are based on various world issue as to what kind of escape routes we are given, such as, escaping to overseas, from our home country, into the underground in space, hiding indoors, jumping through other spaces, to another dimension, being embraced by a great power, and excluding minorities, an d in the world of COVID-19, 'Escape Routes' metamorphose a place where many suggestions also were given.
What is noteworthy for this year’s Biennale is the change of interest in art and politics among young people. The current demonstrations against the military regime, which started under the initiative of students and youth does not seem to be dissolved, and chaotic situations have further developed into demands for a reforms of  the monarchy. 
This keen interest in politics, combined with their interest in contemporary art which handles the current social issue among young people has led to a major tectonic shift and you could see a large number of young Thai visitors for BAB at the Bangkok Cultural Centre (BACC) and other venues. 

Although, we were hearing that the number of video works has increased due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, among the works from well known artists, Ai Weiwei’s refugee-themed 'Law of the Journey'(2016) and Anish Kapoor’s  'Push Pull II'(2009) at Wat Pho Temple are quite a large scale pieces of work and well worth seeing. Marina Abramović who participated in the­­­­­­­­­­­ last BAB exhibits her work 'Rising' (2018), the theme of climate change that allows visitors to have VR experience. Classic art-works such as Yoko Ono's 'Cut Piece' (1964, 2003) are also included and seen in this exhibition. 

  • Ai Weiwei
    Law of the Journey, 2016

  • Anish Kapoor
    Push Pull II, 2009

From Thai artist, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, '98 species of plants' (2020) shows plants that can survive in a variety of harsh natural environments so as to express a world that has become uninhabitable. Filmmaker, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's 'The Little Soldiers' (2020) express a poignant criticism of Thai politics through ordinary military youths. Tawang Wattuya (2020) create giant watercolor paintings of banknotes of different currencies in the world. In 'Dragonpanzer', Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch expresses brutal war and glory by his porcelain chariot.  

  • Ruangsak Anuwatwimon
    98 species of plants, 2020
    Courtesy of the artist

  • Tawang Wattuya

  • Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch

For social media topic, Scottish artist Rachel MacLean's 'It's what's Inside That Counts' (2016) depicts mutants of youth in a hyper-social media parallel world. In addition, Thai artist Lolay’s sculpture 'Do A TO MII-Doll1939, Doll2020' is reminiscent of Thai youth who has mutated by global cyberculture and do not adhere to the conventional values and perception in the past. We can perceive from these two works that the sensible connections between mutated young generations and the current political protests taking place in Bangkok.

  • Lolay
    DO A TO MII Doll 1939, Doll 2020

Among the works from Southeast Asian artists, Khvay Samnang's 'Popil' (2018, in the Foundation's collection) depicts the close historical relationship between China and Cambodia through the dragon masked Khmer dancers. 

  • Khvay Samnang
    Popil, 2018

History of fine art and contemporary art in Thailand has a close relationship with royal patronage and its history from the Sukhothai Kingdom to the current Rattanakosin /Chakri Kingdom. 
Among them, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) advocated traditional Thai arts and crafts to enhance Thai nationalism and its identity while accepting Western cultures and styles. His reforms to modernize the country, known as the 'Chakri Reformation' played a major role in the development of the country's railways, and education system, as well as temporary abolition of slavery, conscription, and declined French colonial ambitions by claiming its territory. 
While King Wachirwit (RamaVI), whose motto and role as the king was to maintain national interests and protect Buddhism, he has formed an army unit which was under his direct control. As a result of that, it had created a factor in the revelation of a 'constitutional revolutionary coup dé tat' plan by young military officers who were dissatisfied with the absolute monarchy.
Although, Kingdom’s reforms partly protected national interests, there were many resistance against the pressure of the Siamese state around the Mekong River basin, which was originally the territory of the Laos people.  In Ubon Ratchathani, the Phibun Rebellion (1901-1902), the Free Thai Movement (1933-1949), and other anti-political movements against the Siamese government took place repeatedly.

At the UBON AGENDA 2020: Manifesto Agenda Summit (Ubon Ratchathani) which began in November, the theme was ‘hidden historical agenda’ of the areas mentioned above – the monarchy, borders, ethnicity, education, history, and protest that are currently taking place in the nation. The participating artists include Nipan Oranniwesna, Thanet Awsinsiri, I-na Phuyuthanon, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon (All participated in the BAB),  Dusadee Huntrakul (Singapore Biennale 2019), the pro-protester Guerrilla Boys, Wantanee siripattananuntakul and Eiji Sumi (Art Science Museum Singapore2018) and more. 

Also, on 10th December, (Constitution Day),  Eric Bunnag Booth, who founded the MAIIAM Museum in Chiang Mai, has opened the MAIELIE Museum ('MAIELIE' means 'brand new' in Isan's language) in Khon Kaen with an inaugural exhibition Khon Kaen Manifesto 2020. Under Thanom Chapakdee, (Founder of the Khon Kaen Manifesto) artists participated to discuss and create art-works for the historic agenda of the Isan region.

  • Nipan Oranniwesna
    Then, one morning, they were found dead and hanged, 2020

During the reign of King Rama VII in 1932, first democracy was introduced to the country of Thailand shifted from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy by the 'Siamese Revolution', a group of liberals led by Pridi Banomyong. This event was the beginning of a long history of  coup d'états in Thailand that have occurred multiple times up until the present day. The liberals of this period used art and architecture as 'symbols of a class-free democratic manifesto', and they built many buildings with flat roofs along Ratchadamnon Road in contrast to the monarchy era style architecture, and 'democracy monuments' were decorated with low-relief sculptures proclaiming the true history of Thailand. Democracy Monument has played important symbolic roles in the frequent political demonstrations in the past and the current protests. It is fresh in our memory that Arin Rungjang exhibited his sculptural installation and video work '246247596248914102516..And Then There Were None' to indicate the 'Democracy Monument’s ideological signification in Documenta14 (2017).

  • Democracy Monument Photo

  • Arin Rungjang
    246247596248914102516… And Then There Were None
    Courtesy of the artist

Traditional Thai Art had its roots in Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. An Italian-born sculptor and art professor, Silpa Bhirasri, established Silpakorn University in 1943, where Western art was introduced, which then gave rise to non-religious or personal themes to art. At that time, however, the mainstream Thai art was in an eclectic style of traditional images and crafts and  influence of Western arts in the field of architecture, decorative arts, and painting. 

One of the major transformation periods of Thai contemporary art is because of the establishment of Chiang Mai University in the northern city of Thailand in the mid-1970s, and return of those active artists who had studied in the Western countries in the mid-1980s. 

In Bangkok, the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art (BIMA), founded by the Patronage Group which included Princess Pantip Parbatra Chumbhot  in 1974, launched an exhibition to incorporate artists other than the established Silapakorn School and the aforementioned Mr. Apinan Poshyananda was chosen as the first national artist of the year in 'How to Explain Art to Bangkok Cock' (1985). The first conceptual art exhibition (Folk- Thai-Time Exhibition, 1986) was held under the curation of  Chumpon Apisuk and many performance arts, installations, process arts, such as Kamol Phaosavasdi were introduced.

On the other hand, in Chiang Mai, Montien Boonma, who had started his bright carrier internationally returned to Thailand from France, and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook returned from Germany and both began teaching at Chiang Mai University, creating an opportunity to expand experimental style arts and artists networks with foreign countries. (From their students at that time, a large number of internationally-known artists were grown such as Tawatchai Puntusawasdi).

Boonma in particular is regarded as a pioneer of contemporary art in Thailand, known for his abandonment of expensive, traditional western painting materials such as acrylics and canvas, and for his use of alternative materials which are closely associated with rural life substances such as earth, sand, ashes, baked clay, wax, and waste materials, and he was a leading figure for the developing country artist since 1980. The internal meaning of the materials themselves, which has been nurtured in the local culture and the work which is created by the artist's ideas reflect the religious, cultural, and social context of Thailand. In 'Stone Bell Garden', Boonma installed this piece of art during the redevelopment of Tachikawa, Japan, and questioned 'What is development?', 'What is religion?' and 'What is the West and the East?'

Another turning point was ‘Chiang Mai Social Installation (CMSI)’ which began in 1992. Mit Jai Inn, who also went abroad in the 1980s, started an exhibition in a form that did not rely on established organizations, referring to the exhibition he participated in Vienna, using the temple festival rooted in Thai culture with Uthit Atimana. CMSI advocated freedom of expression by involving the general public, and ultimately, it exhibited many community-dependent works and many artists around globe till 1997. CMSI invited many artists such as Navin RawanchaikulRirkrit Tiravanija(appointed as Artistic Director of Okayama Art Exchange in 2022) who is an iconic figure in 'Relational Aesthetics' advocated by Nicolas Bourriaudand created a foundation for the establishment of today's Thai contemporary art scene. Since then, voluntary activities by the artists without relying on any institutions has flourished and stamped great significance in the area and art practices, such as Land Foundation by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Mit Jai Inn and Kamin Lertchaiprasert and 31st Century Museum by Kamin Lertchaiprasert.

As for censorship of art in Thailand among another part of South East Asia, since the criticism of the monarchy as well as past military regimes were heavily punished, many artists created works on the theme of politics with indirect expression by using color. As for the aforementioned, Rirkrit's one of the most famous works 'Who's afraid of red, yellow, and green', modeled on Barnett Newman's abstract painting 'Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue'. Rirkrit created a mural painting depicting political struggle and served three colors of Thai curry to reconstruct the divided society by politics within the gallery space. Red represents (the color of the nation, and the color of former Prime Minister Thaksin's supporters), and Yellow represents (birthday of the king, and the color of the pro-monarchy supporters).

  • Rirkrit Tiravanija
    Who's afraid of red, yellow, and green, 2010
    Courtesy of the artist

After the 2014 coup de tat, by seeking a more aggressive identity, Liam Morgan covered a skyscraper with the red light, which had been abandoned due to a failed construction attempt in the 90's, highlighting the decadence and struggle against power.
 In 'Gas-P 2t', Be Takerng Pattanopas used  red light (Color of nation) and blue light (Color of Monarchy) in his anatomic human sculptures of the void to illustrate the rise and fall of politics in Thailand.
In 'Myth of Modernity', Chulayarnnon Siriphol used drone footage with a lengthy demonstration in 2015, captured the thousands of families all wearing yellow shirts, gathering and demonstrating, and the drone gradually flew higher further in the air, with the families wearing yellow-shirts far in the distance. He made a connection to this scenery with a hierarchical map of Thailand, and asked viewers what the scene from the power side is like, and what is the lost beliefs, lofty and majestic sensibilities are. 

Nutdnai Jitbunjong exhibited “ The Royal Standard” yellow painted room with red ceramic ‘Garuda’ fether detached and floated and expressed symbolic dialogue of the royal flag and monarchy’s presence and absence.

  • Chulayarnnon Siriphol
    Center of the Universe, 2017
    Courtesy of the artist

In recent years, I (Sumi) have been working on the theme of political, urban and social issues, as well as art-science, and presented two works on the theme of Thai politics including recent UBON AGENDA2020. In 'Mango Seeds- Philosophy of Freedom', By locating the Mango Seeds with the bud in 3 colors of water (Clear, Yellow, and Blue) on the desk of abandoned school classroom with hand written manuscript of Rudolf Steiner's 'philosophy of freedom' on the blackboard, questioned the effects of indoctrination and economic reliance against the independence of ideological freedom.

Also in the work, 'Play(e)scape- Here and There' as a metaphor of our world in microcosm, Sumi had created a large circular platform with the mechanism of the seesaw which plays with the weight, the location, the number of participants, classic laws of physics and color of light, depict the ever-changing politics, escalation of socio-economic gap, and election as a foundation of democracy and its contradictory issues within. 
In a country where the primary colors of red, blue and yellow have all become the symbolic colors of politics, it is a question of how artists and society as a whole will respond to this structure.

  • Eiji Sumi
    Mango Seeds, 2020

  • Eiji Sumi
    Play(e)scape - Here and There, 2018

Mit Jai Inn is currently active at various exhibitions, including international exhibitions and biennales, but he is also known for being a political activist. In the history of various coup d'etats that have occurred regularly in Thailand since 1932, he also participated as a protester in the 'Black May' protest  (an incident of suppression in which a crowd assembled for protests against the military regime of Suchinda Kraprayoon in 1992 and caused many casualties). He also runs a gallery named 'Cartel' (Italian origin- placard, resistance, challenge), and has held exhibitions of politically profound artists within the N22 art complex, next to Gallery Ver established by Rirkrit Tiravanija. In aforementioned Bangkok Biennial 'Cartel Art Space' plays a great role as one of many independent pavilions. Significance of Bangkok Biennial is to aim voluntary participation from oversea and domestic artist by the opensource driven systems which create different dialogue from 2 other Biennale. 

  • Mit Jai Inn - H Gallery BKK
    Beautiful Futures, 2018
    Courtesy of the artist and Photo Grapher Kan Nathiwutthikun at H Gallery BKK

Over the past few years, the number of galleries in Bangkok has increased considerably, and one of the pioneers of  the contemporary art scene was the Visual Dharma Gallery, founded by Austrian Alfred Pawlin (Magic Set Exhibition I, II, Melancholic Trance, New Art From Chiang Mai 1992 ~ 1993). It held the exhibitions where many of the aforementioned artists from Chaing Mai participated, and a variety of avant-garde works were also introduced to the Bangkok scene. Alfred Pawlin passed away recently in early December at the age of 69 in a hospital in Vienna. His contribution to the Thai art scene has been immeasurable.  As Apinan Poshyananda writes in Bangkok Post “he did not fully receive the recognition and appreciation that he deserved. The Thai scene continues to overlook the importance of foreign artists, writers and gallery owners whose contribution to the art community have been essential.”

Another important trace in the contemporary art in Thailand is 'Project 304' founded in 1996, with Gridthiya Gaweewong, Edourd Mornaud as the curators, and Montien, Kamol, Niti Wattuya, Chatchai Puipia, Micheal Shaowanasai, Apichatpong Weerasethakul became the founders and created many events, media art and time-based exhibitions, Bangkok International Art Film Festival (BIAFF), Bangkok Experimental Film Festival (BEFF) 

From this era on, many worldwide leading artists of next-generation have been resurging, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Grand Prix 'Un Certain Regard' at the 55th Cannes International Film Festival), Arin Rungjang, (Documenta 14), and Pinaree Sanpitak (Yokohama Triennale 2005), and Thai Art scene has established prominent position worldwide.

Art institution spaces such as the 'Jim Thompson Art Center' (Artistic Director: Gridthiya Gaweewong, 2003-present), run by Jim Thompson, a well-known Thai Silk Company, and BACC Bangkok Art Cultural Center (First Director, Chatvichai Promadhattavedi, 2007), have continued to exhibit the works of artists in Thailand and overseas, and played significant role of Thai contemporary art to this day. The new 3,000 square meter building of  'Jim Thompson Art Center' is currently under construction and will serve the local community by providing a public rooftop garden,  art gallery spaces, an auditorium, the relocated William Warren Library, research center. 
Recently, MAIIAM Museum was launched by the aforementioned Eric Bunnag Booth (Director of MAIIAM Museum) in 2016, with Jean Michel Beurdeley and Patsri Bunnag. Their private collection, over thirty years is extensive and greatly worth seeing when visit to Chiang Mai. In addition, the museum has developed a series of exhibitions with focus on local issues, including one on Pattani, which is located on the Malaysian border where there is a conflict between Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists and the Thai army. This conflict has claimed more than 3,000 lives since it began and This exhibition, in particular, has attracted significant public attention.

Also, University art space, The Art Center Chulalongkorn University (1995-2017) and Bangkok University Gallery in Bangkok, run by Petch Osathanugrah (a well-known art collector) and a curator Ark Fongsmut (Singapore Biennale 2013) have also played a vital role in the Thai art scene during the transitional period by hosting the exhibitions of artists from Thailand and abroad. 

  • MAIIAM Contemorary art museum
    Apichatpong Weerasethakul
    The Serenity of Madness
    Courtesy of the artist at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum

The art institutions of Thailand's neighboring countries, such as Japan, Australia, and Singapore have also played a significant role in contemporary Thai art since the 1990s. In particular, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, and the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) have been a major dynamic for increasing the profile of contemporary Asian art with a focus on Southeast Asia.

In recent years, many young Thai artists who are currently active overseas have emerged, such as Korakrit Arunanondchai (Whitney Biennale in 2019, Venice Biennale in 2019), Chulayarnnon Siriphol (72nd Cannes Film Festival Special Screening),  Dusadee Huntrakul (Singapore Biennale 2013 and 2019), Samak Kosem (Bangkok Art Biennale 2018) from Pattani, and they have since been attracting a great deal of attention from around the world.  

As mentioned above, artists, organizer, institutions, and foreigners who have pioneered the contemporary art scene in Thailand are still very active and sparks with energy on global scale, country are steadily expanding its art infrastructure with the surge of emerging young artists. We look forward to seeing the new form expressions and how art in Thailand will handle social issues in art in the future.

Yuto Yabumoto:  Representative of the Aura Contemporary Art Foundation
Yuto Yabumoto founded 'One Asia Lawyers' in 2011. He founded the Aura Contemporary Art Foundation in 2019 with his own private funding. And he has been pursuing to create activities to raise and develop inner spiritual values that can only exist 'here' and 'now' in this world.
Eiji Sumi: Senior Lecturer in International Communication Design Program in Chulalongkorn University.
Eiji Sumi moved from Tokyo to New York in 1994, where he has been creating artwork not only fit in the white Cube but in urban spaces by applying optical, multimedia and collaborations with various fields. In 2012, Sumi moved to Bangkok and has been engaging in education for young Thai creators. While his work continued to evoke and extend the physical sensations of people living in megacities, he started to combines art-science practices as well as social issues with his eclectic sensibility. Sumi was shortlisted for the 2017 Sovereign  Asian Art Award in Hong Kong, and exhibited at the Art Science Museum Singapore in 2018 for the 100th anniversary of Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, Yuan Museum Contemporary Art , Chongqing China in 2020 and many more. Sumi works with the Gallery Ver and plans to show his work in Thailand, Japan, and Singapore, and more in 2021.

※All photos were taken by Eiji Sumi except for the one marked 'courtesy of the artist', but no photo credit is required.