With many of the world’s contemporary art biennials postponed or canceled, Thailand is powering ahead with the Bangkok Art Biennale, hoping that, by filling the void left by major competitors, it will elevate what has been considered a “vanilla” expo into a top-shelf event.
The second edition of the Biennale opens at three venues on Oct. 12 and six more on Oct. 29. Organizers are pulling out all the stops, promising 82 top artists from 35 countries showing more than 200 pieces.
While Thailand’s suppression of Covid-19 has allowed it to stage major art exhibitions while those in the coronavirus-ravaged west have been halted, concessions still had to be made to the pandemic.
Those “world-renowned artists” will appear via video conference, not live, as the Thai government won’t let them in under current disease-control measures. The expo also had to be chopped into modules and major parties and festivals curtailed to respect social distancing.
But with only two other biennales proceeding this year, BAB has a major opportunity to raise its stature and standing in the global art world.
The inaugural 2018 edition was, by art standards, a pretty mediocre affair: a corporate-sponsored expo of international visual art with lofty ambitions.
While Thai Beverage Co., its primary sponsor, called the Biennale a financial success with more than three million Thais and foreigners attending and generating 4.5 billion baht in tourism-related revenue, the show itself failed to capture the admiration of the art world.
It didn’t help the event was staged during the first national elections since the military coup and the same year as two other biennials, including one run by the then-military government.
Apinan Poshyananda, former permanent secretary for the Culture Ministry and now the BAB’s CEO and art director, told Nikkei Asia that having the world stage mostly to itself this year is the best chance the Bangkok Art Biennale has to change people’s perception about the Thai art world.
“It’s a matter of wanting to help the image of Thailand,” he said. “It’s not just about the Bangkok Art Biennale. It’s about the readiness of Thailand or Bangkok to (host) such mega-events.”
In many ways, Thailand will be a petri dish for reviving the world art scene. The Yokohama (Japan) Triennale and Taipei Biennial also are pushing ahead during the pandemic, but with drastically different formats. The one that succeeds most will see its reputation cemented in the global biennial community.
As could be expected, the pandemic will loom large on the BAB’s exhibits as well as its logistics. Many of the artists are following themes of escape, isolation, angst and racism.
Apinan said the BAB will be the first show to illustrate the issues of these pandemic times. “Next year everybody will be doing this.”
Different personal experiences during the pandemic also drove the decision to split the BAB into three blocks, said Liam Morgan, one of three artists behind the Biennial. The first chapter unfolds from Oct. 31 to Nov. 21, while the other two will kick off in March and September.
Organizers hope the three-part structure will give a more-rounded look at the state of contemporary art.
Some may slag off the BAB’s organizers for being opportunistic, but many welcome it. believing that the event has an important role to play within Thailand’s under-funded cultural environment.
“It will serve as one mechanism to support artistic production at a difficult time,” Gridthiya Gaweewong, artistic director of Bangkok’s Jim Thompson Art Centre told Nikkei. “The issue for the BAB is how to reorientate itself and target local people instead of international tourists.”