Marina Abramovic likes durians. Twenty years ago, a humble university professor contacted the artist and asked her to give a lecture at his art department at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He told her frankly, “But I have no money to pay you.” Abramovic agreed to fly economy class to Bangkok and give the lecture on the condition that he served her durians every morning. He did, and that became the basis of their 20-year-long friendship.
Today, Abramovic is the world’s most famous performance artist and subject of numerous books and documentaries. That humble university professor is Dr Apinan Poshyananda, now Thailand’s most famous curator, and chief executive and artistic director of the brand new Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB), the biggest contemporary art event in the history of Thailand. Needless to say, Abramovic was the first artist he invited to participate in the biennale. And naturally, she said yes.
Last week, BAB opened with a bang, with 75 artists from 33 countries and 200 works in 20 locations across the city. Shopping centres, government buildings and even sacred temples were not spared from persistent requests by the organizers to showcase contemporary art within their premises. For the most part, they agreed – partly in keeping with that famous Thai hospitality, partly out of curiosity about contemporary art.
And so, Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted pumpkin balloons float joyfully in the centre of CentralWorld shopping mall. Heri Dono’s mechanical angels flutter their wings at the entrance of the Peninsula Bangkok Hotel. Yoshitomo Nara’s white dog stands tall outside One Bangkok. Elmgreen and Dragset have a conceptual swimming pool facing the Chao Phraya River. And Lee Bul turned a historical room into a silver-tape wonderland.
One of the strongest works at the biennale is Abramovic’s own: the Marina Abramovic Institute occupies a huge section on the 8th floor of the biennale’s main location, the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC). From now till Nov 11, members of the public are invited to participate in a durational performance-cum-workshop, in which they are guided by Abramovic’s assistants to carry out various exercises. Called the Abramovic’s Method, these are designed to focus your mind on your breath, movement and consciousness.
In one station, facilitators guide you to walk so slowly that you become aware of how every inch of your bones and muscles respond to the impulse of walking. In another station, you are asked to focus on a blank sheet of coloured paper. In perhaps the most difficult challenge of them all, you are made to separate and count the number of grains in a mound of rice – testing your mental and physical limits, if not your basic schedule and patience.
Abramovic, of course, knows something about mental and physical endurance. At the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, she famously sat still on a chair for eight hours a day for three months, as 1,000 strangers every day took turns staring straight at her for as long as they wanted to. It broke new ground in exploring the relationship between artist and audience – it also broke her back.
SACRED SPACES RENEWED
One feature that distinguishes the BAB from most biennales around the world is the placement of art works within temples and other holy grounds. Dr Poshyananda says: “It’s a deliberate strategy to weave contemporary art into the religious aspects of our lives, to show that art is not separate from the sacred.” These are often works by the Thai artists themselves, as they can better negotiate the general sensitivities of the Thai public, the specific concerns of the monks, and the demands of their artistic muse, to create works around the biennale theme of “Beyond Bliss”.
At Wat Arun Ratchawararam, a famous temple that is at least 300-years-old, one finds a large blood-red acrylic enclosure built around a long-neglected khao mor (an artificial stone and pebble hill that typically adorns Thai gardens). Entering the enclosure, one becomes hyper-attentive to the intricate features of the khao mor, while at the same time conscious of the outside world that’s visible through the transparent acrylic walls. Artist Sanitas Pradittasnee studied the famous 14th-century Buddhist text on cosmology called the Traibhumi (The Three Worlds) and was inspired to create a contemporary version of the sacred enclosure that allows a person to traverse different realms of consciousness. The enclosure also features stupas cast in reverse and covered with hundreds of small mirrors, simultaneously referencing self-reflection and disco balls.
Not too far from her work is Komkrit Tepthian’s particularly effective sculpture, which conjoins a Thai yaksha (a local spirit with bulging eyes and fangs) and a Chinese warrior as if they were Siamese twins. Though simple in execution, the work harks back to the complex history of Chinese migration and assimilation in the country.
Meanwhile at the 19th century temple Wat Prayoon, there is a much larger khao mor called the Turtle Mountain on which the Thais have built beautiful spirit houses. The khao mor is surrounded by a catfish and turtle pond, and the pathways around it are littered with slow-moving turtles. Thai artist Krit Ngamsom finds inspiration in the temple’s reputation as a home for turtles, which the Buddhists regard as sacred animals and symbols of tolerance. Ngamsom has created several sculptures of turtles balancing miniature houses of worship on their backs, which reference the myth (common to a few cultures, including Indian, Chinese and Native American) of the giant turtle carrying the entire world on its back as it moves slowly through time.
Nearby, his compatriot Nino Sarabutra has laid out 125,000 tiny ceramic skulls at the entrance of a stupa. She invites passers-by to walk on them barefoot – as one would on a foot reflexology pebble path – and contemplate their mortality.
There are only two Singapore works out of the 200, but they’re both outstanding. Singapore’s Adele Tan, a senior curator of National Gallery Singapore, was part of BAB’s six-member curatorial team. She selected one work by established artist Ho Tzu Nyen, and one work by young up-and-coming artist Kray Chen. Both, she says, speak of the Singapore condition, but in oblique ways.
Ho’s 42-minute video Earth (2009 -2012) was created in one long unedited take. The image is that of a group of people, arranged and lit in such a way that they resemble Singapore’s geographical shape. As the light shifts from dim to bright and dim again, the characters wake up or go to sleep, heaving collectively like a single living organism. Look closer and you’ll find every portion of the image also resembles a famous classical painting, such as Jericho’s The Raft of Medusa and Caravaggio’s David And Goliath.
As for Chen, his new work titled A Parade For The Paraders (2018) is a 14-minute video depicting former members of the Singapore Armed Forces military band. Stripped of their uniforms and ranks but still versed in the music and marching routines, they’ve come together to play their beloved instruments in their civilian clothing. Yet there’s something poignant about their performance – as if, cut free from the familiar structures of military life, these men have lost their bearings.
Dr Tan adds: “The other two works I curated for BAB are also video works, one by Malaysian artist Sherman Ong and the other by Chinese artist Tao Hui. I focused on this particular medium… because the Thais have a strong predilection for the moving image. They are, after all, famous for their TV advertising, which can be very funny or moving, but always compelling.”
The Bangkok Art Biennale runs from now to Feb 3, 2019, at 20 locations. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.bkkartbiennale.com
Q&A with Artistic Director Apinan Poshyananda
There are over 100 art biennales in the world now, and some say that’s too many. How do you hope to set yours apart?
Biennales have been going on for a very long time, because a biennale is not just about contemporary art. It’s also about economy and business, about how governments use it as a catalyst to push for other aspects of the country’s development. We mustn’t think of it as a little pond of art, but rather events to create income and interest… The fact is, we’ve been wanting to create our own biennale for a long time. But it’s only now that our plans have come to fruition because we’ve attracted major sponsors such as ThaiBev, One Bangkok, Central Bangkok, EmQuartier and Siam Piwat. They’ve pledged their support for three editions, up till 2022.
But what’s the edge artistically for BAB?
For the first edition, we’ve spread the art across 20 venues. Yes, some locations may be hard to get to, with our traffic conditions. So we encourage one to travel by boat, because there are a number of works located in temples by the river. We want the visitor to have a journey, to have time to look at art, and not just the art but the surrounding landscapes as well. Thailand has a lot to offer.
What’s the budget?
If we include cash and kind, it’s a total of 180 million baht (S$7.6 million), which isn’t a lot compared to other biennales.
Are you feeling competition from the other Southeast Asian countries which have their own biennales?
We have to be humble. We’re the new kid on the block, so we can’t go around boasting that we’ll do this and that. We have to do it the Asian way and ask, what can we learn from Singapore, Jakarta, Jogjakarta, Manila and Kuala Lumpur? Each nodal point has its own problems, but it doesn’t matter. We’re working together as a group to tell the world that if you come to Southeast Asia, we offer this much for you to see and do.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: Helmi Yusof, Bangkok Art Biennale, Kray Chen & Ho Tzu Nyen