Essays

Curatorship and Criticism in Thailand: Between Promotion and Critique

When I moved to Thailand in 2005, confined (as I still am, sadly) to English-language media, I must admit to having found the critical landscape rather barren. There seemed plenty of room for someone with my training in critical theory. Many Thais told me that, as a farang (foreigner), I was in a much better position to generate critical discussion than they were. Indeed, offers to write, curate and collaborate came steadily. But I soon had to adjust my idea of what these roles did, and should, entail. I thank the Asia Art Archive for inviting me to share my reflections on this experience. As a newcomer to the region, and the field, I can only offer a newcomer's impressions, and look forward to having any misapprehensions corrected. Loathe though I am to appear too negative, I will focus on what's missing in Bangkok's contemporary art scene ¡V curatorially and critically ¡V and hopefully open a few debates about appropriate remedies.

A new work by emerging Thai artist, Pratchaya Phintong, provides an apt starting point. Not a drop, but the fall (B-mu museum), 2006, appeared in a group show called "Melting Place" at Bangkok University's newly unveiled art gallery. A painting sits on the floor, leaning against the wall as if it had literally fallen from its place. Yet the bubble-wrap skirting it implies that it has just arrived ¡V the art object stripped bare, as it were, awaiting enshrinement in the museum. The title also refers to the lapsed "B-mu" museum project, another ambitious art facility planned by collector and Bangkok University owner, Mr Petch Osathanugrah.

Pratchaya presented a smartly framed, realist painting of the unbuilt museum, as imagined by its French architects, a chrome monolith dominating a town square. It's almost as if Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao had mated with the giant floral Puppy (by Jeff Koons) that stands outside it. With its elevated, diagonal aspect, the image has a tidy, utopian air about it, like the virtual "fly-throughs" of today's architects and town planners ¡V that is to say, it resembles none of Bangkok's public squares. The sloping afternoon light recalls the industrial sublime of Charles Sheeler, but updated to the post-industrial city with its malls and beautified tourist precincts.

However wishful, Pratchaya's piece is a timely reflection on the city's constant transformation. It is also emblematic, I think, of a strong inclination amongst Thailand's contemporary artists to question the role of art ¡V of artist, artwork and art gallery ¡V in imagining and effecting their society's transformation. Perversely, the lack of institutional infrastructure can be a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it stymies the culture of dependency that haunts Western art institutions and funding regimes. For another, it engenders a healthy suspicion of museums and the standardisation that they often bring, a scepticism that also breeds the sort of institutional critique in which Thailand's leading artists specialise (viz. Rirkrit Tiravanija, Surasi Kusolwong, and Navin Rawanchaikul).

It is no accident that Pratchaya should frame his work with an unveiling, for although these leading artists are still not accommodated institutionally, this is no ordinary moment in the city's history. The Thais love a ribbon-cutting, and right now the ceremonial scissors are getting quite a workout. Of the recent developments, we should mention: the founding of the Culture Ministry's Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, under Professor Apinan Poshyananda; the new Queen's Gallery, two years old but under-utilised; the new Bangkok University Gallery; plans to open a contemporary wing at the Thailand Cultural Center; and the long-awaited launch of the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority's Art and Culture Center, at the city's central Pathumwan Intersection (we're still waiting, but the first concrete has, finally, been poured). [1] We could add to these the Thai Government's contributions to the regional fads for "creative industries" and the "knowledge economy", such as the Thailand Creative and Design Center in the posh Emporium shopping mall. [2]

It would be churlish not to applaud the establishment of public cultural institutions. In places where the public sphere is so tenuous, contemporary art can be a vital space for critical reflection on the social reality. But it will be a challenge, first, to make these institutions sustainable, and immunise them against the vicissitudes of political life; and second, to make them plastic, places where artists find spaces of possibility, rather than expectation.

Regionally, meanwhile, there's the museum bull market in mainland China, Singapore's new biennial, and a dozen others further north. The proliferation is partly fuelled by regional competition for global tourist dollars, providing periodical dressing rooms for the constant national makeovers this demands of the competing states. It nevertheless marks some unprecedented strides in contemporary art's legitimation in the eyes of the Asian state, and promises richer exchange within Asia itself. Whereas once, artists might have positioned themselves with respect to the Western viewpoint (colonial or otherwise), they are now as likely to focus on their neighbours, whether as competitors or as collaborators.

This correspondence is well established in commercial visual culture ¡V Bangkok's vibrant street, design and illustration cultures, even when preoccupied with the Western aesthetics of Hip Hop or retro-punk, often take their cues not from the source, but from digested and re-emitted versions from East Asia. It increasingly affects the more rarefied commodities, and formats, of contemporary art. Whereas in the West, art prefers to distinguish or even defend itself from these more "applied" arts, in Thailand this dichotomy is less clear, certainly amongst emerging artists. It's made me rethink the very relationship between art and the commercial culture within which it sits, struggles, and very often drowns. Two recent Thai-Japanese collaborations prove that it can swim: the Soi Sabai Temporary Art Museum and the ongoing Soi Music Project. [3] Both had a foot planted outside of museum contexts, in the popular cultures of very different cities; and both involved multilateral international exchanges, but without a hint of exoticism between them.

The advent of a discount aviation market has a considerable impact here, and against this background, it's little wonder that the schedules of the region's curators have come to resemble those of merchant bankers and management consultants. 

 

 

Curatorship Adrift

Thailand's first generation of curators is now graduating to senior positions in the new institutional environment. But while their newfound administrative and directorial clout is sure to be put to good use, it's unlikely to free their hands, or their schedules, curatorially speaking. Their shoes are big ones to fill, and heirs are not apparent. Nor will they be, unless the nurturing of curatorial talent is addressed as a matter of urgency.

The plight of Thailand's young curators is a contradictory one. They have some great opportunities, working with high-calibre artists, with improving facilities and resources. They take on real responsibilities early in their careers, progressing fast as managers and organisers. But what they lack ¡V and it's a big lack ¡V is intellectual mentoring and guidance. Curatorship is not widely understood here to be an intellectual task, and opportunities for professional development in this regard are hard to come by.

This explains the distinct lack of conceptually driven, curated shows. While I've heard this complaint from many artists, it's sad how seldom the argument for professional curatorship is made here, so I shall make it. For starters, it can generate valuable educational supports and better documentation for exhibition projects; it also lessens the distracting promotional burden currently worn by too many talented, and internationally proven, artists. Good curatorship gives projects greater impact on audiences and more media attention; it gives artists, curators and critics some purchase on the framing of art ¡V and with it, the ability to transform museums, media and mindsets to be more accommodating of their contemporary ways of working.

Yet in Thailand, the word "curator" is often a fancy name for an organiser; it might mean simply branding an unruly group show with a vague marketing concept that does nothing to enhance dialogue around the work. I've seen several responses to this situation. The first is to abandon curatorship and simply manage exhibitions. The works will not have any less relevance to their socio-political milieu; but the exhibitions will. This is to surrender the potential for coherent conversations between art and its context. The second could be called a strategy of disappearance: however pivotal their role in selecting artists, the curator absents him or herself from the presentation of the show, sometimes retaining the vestige of curatorial credit, but without advancing any thematic or discursive rubric (this was the case with "Melting Place"). This does not preclude a kind of curatorship by stealth; but it means the museum's gatekeepers become less answerable, and less responsible, to their audience. A third solution is more interesting and, I think, more promising: it involves distributing the curatorial function across more parties ¡V including the curators, artists, promoters and other collaborators, and the audience. The artwork here begins to perform a sort of immanent self-critique, an approach with a rich pedigree in 20th Century art ¡V from Duchamp, through conceptualism, to later "post-object" artforms ¡V in which the artist usurps and plays with the curatorial role.

Curiously, this instinct is very strong amongst the Thai avant-garde. Whereas Thai modernism vigorously upheld an heroic individualism and the sanctity of the object, the postmodern wave has mostly abandoned these tenets. This includes some of the best emerging artists: Pratchaya and Wit Pimkanchanapong, for example, while they speak very different formal languages, share this tendency to efface and de-emphasise the artist's authorial presence in the work. Whereas once the artist-genius, embodied in the artwork, was placed on a pedestal to be marvelled at, today's artists seem more interested in making the pedestals ¡V in building platforms ¡V and then inviting others into those spaces to realise the work. Curators should be taking the hint, and figuring out how best to support and facilitate such initiatives. This resembles the curatorial approach of the "D-lab" at the recent Guangzhou Triennial; and that of the "Bangkok Experimental Film Festival", directed by Gridthiya Gaweewong and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And it is the rationale for a multi-exhibition project called "Platform", which I will "curate", along with Manuporn Luengaram (program manager at the Queens Gallery), in Bangkok in November.

Much of the strongest art being made here emerges from multi-disciplinary collaborations between artists, designers, writers, illustrators, architects, film-makers and so on. This is perhaps symptomatic of the era, in which art faces stiff competition in the attention economy. To be involved with regional contemporary art ¡V as artist, educator, publisher or curator ¡V is to be a promoter of contemporary art, as against other, better patronised forms of culture. The roles of artist and curator have inevitably become more promotional; it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. To my mind, flexibility amongst these roles is to be encouraged, insofar as it enables critical thinking at each point of the process, and yields creative approaches to promotion that are not quarantined from this critical reflection. But where does all this leave the critic?  

 

Criticism and/or Advocacy

Looking back over the foregoing Diaaalogue, it occurred to me that, notwithstanding the impressive diversity of perspectives gathered here, the majority of correspondents were writing from institutional positions, embedded within the promotional structures of Asian contemporary art. With that in mind, I'd like to take up Lee Weng Choy's insistence, made in this column two years ago, that "critics shouldn't be doing copy-writing for mediocre successes in Asian art." [4] As usual, I find myself agreeing with Weng's sentiment. Yet I suspect that this demand is rather easier to make from the comfort of a full-time institutional job. Freelancers do have to wear their various hats more diplomatically, and walk the curvy line between critique and promotion. Thailand offers a crash-course in this sort of balancing act.

I feel we cannot afford to separate the question ¡V the figure ¡V of critical integrity from the realities of the region's art economies. The professional ideal we imagine is, I suspect, an independent critic, someone roaming the galleries, museums and caffeinated artists' villages with nothing much to lose, and sometimes lots to gain, from telling people what he or she really thinks about the art on offer. At their best, these thorny creatures sort the worthy out from the wannabes, thicken everyone's skins, and unpack the most challenging work for a wider audience. In days gone by, this species was nurtured by broadsheets; it later took refuge in universities; today, it's almost extinct, particularly in regions (like South East Asia) where independent media is itself an endangered habitat. We might want more criticism, but does that necessarily mean more critics?

To some extent, it must be recognized that the critic's role, like the curator's, has changed. In the words of Matthew Drutt, Chief Curator of Houston's Menil Collection: "Criticism at both newspapers and specialized art magazines can, in some sense, be seen as a form of marketing. In the end, one wants a critical review, even if it is negative¡K Even a bad review brings people in the door." [5] A recent survey of Australian art critics revealed a strong awareness of this bind. Most were mindful of, and sanguine about, the hybrid role they play, using words like 'advocacy' and 'persuasion'. [6] However old-fashioned it sounds, I'm not convinced that we can do without aesthetic judgement; but either way, criticism will have to find models that marry its critical and promotional functions. I don't think the old, curmudgeonly ideal is the way to go, but I'd like to hear debate on the matter.

This challenge places a huge burden of responsibility on a handful of editors, and judging by the complaints being voiced about the state of criticism in the region, this is not a healthy situation. Perhaps it explains the uneasy parental metaphor adopted by Simon Winchester in his biography of Art Asia Pacific. [7] Above all, it highlights the mixed purposes of magazines like AAP ¡V mixed purposes that will inevitably become crossed purposes: the promotion of contemporary art is a shared endeavour that draws commercial, institutional and government interests together with arts workers and, hopefully, a widening public audience. But at the same time, such journals provide essential space for critical feedback. The key to their success, and perhaps to the actual future of Asian contemporary art, may lie in their management and development of this critical space.

I don't profess to know the solutions to these problems, but I think it's imperative that they be addressed and debated more than they are presently. In The German Ideology, Karl Marx wrote that in a good society, it is possible "to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,  without becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." Perhaps the same applies to a good artworld: even if we do remain artists, curators, educators or critics, the responsibility for critical thinking lies with all of us.

 

Footnotes:

 

1. For some background, see Phatarawadee Phataranawik's "Perspectives" ofSeptember 2005.

2. Opened in 2005 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Office of Knowledge Management and Development, TCDC is a fascinatingly confused institution, part Euro-modernist wunderkammer , part ethnographic museum, part new economy propaganda showroom, and part clubhouse for the Thong Lor design elite. The excellent library's exorbitant membership fees ensure that only that tiny minority who could already afford such books themselves will have access to this publicly funded resource. TCDC also contains some of the city's best contemporary exhibition spaces. See http://www.tcdc.or.th

3. Soi is a Thai word for "street". See http://www.roomair.org/tamss and http://www.soimusic.com

4. "", May 2004.

5. Quoted by Luke Morgan in his "Australian Art Criticism and Its Discontents", Australian Book Review , March 2006 http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/March06/Morgan%20essay.htm

6. ibid.

7. "Perspectives", April 2005. The metaphor was noted by David Elliott in his "Reviewing Reviews", AAA Newsletter , April 2006. More problematic for me, though, was Winchester's indulgence of the motto "Today's art from tomorrow's world". OK, magazines need slogans ¡V and I'm guilty of this fantasy myself. But we should be wary of the daydream of an Asian-flavoured global future. I am no scholar of Asian modernity, but it seems to me this particular mythology derives not from Asian thinking, but from the West, perhaps as early as Alexandre Kojeve's Hegelian musings, in the late 1950s, on the 'post-historical' peculiarities of modern Japan. Later disseminated through cyberpunk and other Western futurist imaginings of the late-Cold War period, it now seems to have been swallowed whole by a generation of curators, editors and cultural studies academics. The fact that it has also become the official future-of-choice for some Asian governments should make us, if anything, more wary. For me, at any rate, what makes the Asian metropolis so bewitching is not its fast-track to the aesthetic future, but its enduring fascination with its past, and how this informs its daily struggle with the globalised present.


Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.

 

 

David Teh is an independent writer and curator, currently based in Bangkok. He studied art history and theory at the University of Sydney, where he was awarded his PhD for a dissertation on continental critical theory. David is also a director of the Half Dozen Artist-Run Initiative, Sydney. http://www.halfdozen.org

Acknowledgements:

These impressions were gathered during my recently completed arts management residency at the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. I would like to thank its Director-General, Professor Apinan Poshyananda, for his generous support. This residency was an Asialink project, made possible by The Australia-Thailand Institute, Arts NSW and the Australia Council, the Australian Government's arts funding and advisory body. Acknowledgement is also due to The Nation newspaper, which published my review of "Melting Place" (19/05/06), some fragments of which appear here above.

Imprint

Author

David TEH

Topic
Essays
Date
Sat, 1 Jul 2006