Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Art in Bangkok: what do you want to be today?

This, I’m afraid, is what usually passes for high-profile modern art in Bangkok these days. Vague nods to Western notions of culture (tired Christian iconography filtered through an airbrushed posse of probably-Russian models) for the express purpose of selling you an expensive lifestyle. This is about food, but it could have been condos or cars or plastic surgery or whatever. Incidentally, the product it’s shifting is part of CentralWorld, the vast shopping mall that was immolated at the climax of the last bout of urban unrest here, in 2010.

So it was more duty than enthusiasm that propelled me to the clunkily titled Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia. The venue, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, has enjoyed a mixed reputation since it (finally) opened in 2008; it’s an intriguing space, built as a sort of reverse helter-skelter around an atrium with visitors strolling up the spiral slope with pictures on the walls. But the quality of the contents has been patchy at best, its exhibits neither edgy enough to fully win over the city’s small but visible hipster population nor possessing sufficient mainstream appeal to pull in big crowds. Much of the space on the lower levels has been rented out to small retail outlets, so you can pick up an ice cream or a recycled laptop bag or even a mountain bike – Bangkok hipsters love their bikes – which at least gives a vague sense of community to the place. How many of the punters actually trudge their way up the spiral to look at the art isn’t entirely clear.

But I make the effort and am slowly, grudgingly forced to review my prejudices. As the name suggests, this is a group show, including pieces by artists – established and upcoming – from countries across the region. Some of the art is brutally political, such as the Groszesque cartoons of Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Cuong and this even-handed up-yours to the protagonists in Thailand’s current electoral impasse:

Remember, this is a part of the world where, economic and political advances notwithstanding, there’s still a substantial degree of risk in mocking the elites that run the show, even more so in deconstructing the cultural and social taboos that underpin their power. But the real subversion comes not from artists who put their heads above the parapet; it’s the ones who take the spectators with them who are really challenging the status quo. Interactivity is the order of the day, whether analogue (a circular ping pong table on which we’re encouraged to play; the priapic self-portraits of Vasan Sitthiket, bearing placards written by us) or digital – several installations come to life when the viewers stumble in front of cameras, taking a role whether they want to or not.

And you’re actively encouraged to take photos. The reason this is forbidden in many Western art spaces is that the galleries decide what souvenirs you take from them, and monetise that choice; to be fair, the artists do take a meagre cut from sales of the various postcards, tea towels etc, provided they’re still alive to do so. But, despite all the boutiques and cafes at BACC, there is no real gift shop through which we exit. Instead there’s a pin board bearing recommendations for online tracts about the redundancy or otherwise of copyright law when it comes to creative work. And in that spirit, we snap away, our bodies remixing the originals in an act of casual détournement.

Which brings us back to the emaciated poseurs at the top of the page. CentralWorld is a few hundred metres from one of its biggest rivals, the Siam Paragon mall, which was recently dubbed the world’s most shared location for selfies; for any new retail development, the creation of photogenic landmarks that might raise one’s Instagram profile would now appear to be as fundamental as parking spaces and toilets. So it may seem on the face of it that BACC has simply bowed its head to the realities of 21st-century capitalism. But there is a sliver of difference between the two. When people snap themselves gurning within Paragon or CentralWorld, they define themselves as passive consumers; when they do the same at BACC, they immediately become artists, seizing the initiative, another placard that they’ve drawn themselves.

PS: (Jan 15) Rather more focused review that places the art in the context of the current upheavals in Bangkok.

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