Research Log | Northern Lights

Harmonious Discordance
Landscape and Memories
Northern Hospitality

A survey trip to Chiang Mai and Lamphun, 22–28 July

My recent trip to the north of Thailand offered a cool refuge from the heated political and social situation in Bangkok. Home to many artists and intellectuals, the north has a distinct charm of harmonious existence between the old and the new — a unique nature that also prevails in the realm of the arts...

Since its beginnings as the capital city of the ancient Lanna kingdom in the 13th century, Chiang Mai has been an important cultural and religious hub in the northern Southeast Asian region.

In 1992 the Chiang Mai Social Installation emerged; a seminal event that helped initiate Chiang Mai as the spiritual home of relational art. The three-month-long alternative public art and cultural festival incorporates art installations, performances, talks and participatory events held in public places throughout the city.


Harmonious Discordance

While the Bangkok art scene arguably has no conspicuous center of gravity — the nucleus seems to be everywhere and nowhere — it is obvious that the centricity of Chiang Mai art community has been the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University. Despite recent skepticism about the University’s curriculum, criticism of Chiang Mai University Art Center, and certain internal conflicts, Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts has undoubtedly been one of the dominant forces in contemporary Thai art for the past 25 years, with well-known alumni as the late Montien Boonma, Kamin Lertchaiprasert and Navin Rawanchaikul and established current faculty including artists Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Kade Javanalikikorn, Uthit Atimana, and scholar Somporn Rodboon.

Indeed, ideological friction among artists and intellectuals might propel constructive discussion. Such is the case with extracurricular learning programs initiated by two groups within the faculty: Midnight University, an online educational and academic resource offering downloadable original and translated essays and articles edited largely by Somkiat Tangnamo (Faculty of Fine Arts’ Dean); and Hell University, spearheaded by Kade Javanalikikorn, an alternative art curriculum offering free two-and-a-half-years hands-on course for non-art students — a reaction to Midnight University’s rather theoretical and intellectual approach.

Another interesting dimension in the Faculty of Fine Arts is the movement within the recently established Department of Media Art and Design led by the vigorous Uthit Atimana who, with artists Kosit Juntaratip and Thasnai Sethaseri, attempts to foster forward thinking and technologically progressive curriculum. Kosit had, moreover, has set up his own art space called Pong Noi, an alternative space focusing on showcasing new media works by emerging artists.

Landscape and Memories

One of the most remarkable impressions during my visit to the north is the distinct sense of place that generates close bonds between local artists and the landscape in which they live and work — a particular relationship that results in numbers of diverse and unconventional art spaces in and around the city. Besides the typical handful of commercial galleries, Chiang Mai does not contain many generic four white walls; more visible is hybrid or multi-functional art spaces.

The most well-known of experimental spaces is The Land Foundation, a functioning rice field that also operates as a space for exploratory ideas and modes of living for artists and surrounding community. Founded by artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert, The Land combines two diverse approaches — the collaborative architectural and community project of Rirkrit and spiritual and self-sufficient agricultural project of Kamin — to form an ostensibly idyllic and idealistic living entity, with varying degrees of success (for example, there is rice aplenty in the field but the majority of buildings there are non-functioning). The Land’s program culminates in the One Year Project, a one-year residency program that focuses on self-sustainable living, meditation, art and media study. This year in July, Land of Forum, a 12-topics-in-12-days series of seminars was organized by The Land as part of the One Year Project, with special concentration on globalization, natural farming, meditation, media and contemporary art in Thailand.

Compeung is another international artist-in-residency program located in Chiang Mai. This sizeable site in the middle of a natural setting concentrates on hands-on sustainable living with the opportunity for participating artists to build, implement and decorate adobe houses in which they live during their residency period. Under the direction of Pisithpong Siraphisut, Compeung also encourages artists to interact and collaborate with diverse local and ethnic communities through various workshops and activities.

Another interesting space is Chiang Mai Art on Paper (C.A.P.), a printmaking studio and gallery established and run by artist Kitikong Tilokwattanotai, who experiments with innovative printmaking techniques and producing collaborative works with established artists. The studio also emphasizes training art students in the field of printmaking.

Northern Hospitality

Lamphun, a small provincial town south of Chiang Mai, has its fair share of artistic credence, particularly with the trio of major Thai modern and contemporary masters — artists Inson Wongsam, Prasong Luemueng, and Mitre Jai-In still live and work in the area. Mitre kindly showed me around Lamphun — with visits to Hariphunchai National Museum, Mitre’s own studio and Prasong’s house.

My final destination in Lamphun is Inson Wongsam’s bucolic house and studio, which holds impressive numbers of his lyrical sculptures and prints. Inson is also the subject of Navin Rawanchaikul’s documentary installation and community based project in Lamphun and Chiang Mai, Fly with Me to another World (1999-2005). Next to Inson’s national artist house is Vanida Wongsam’s (his wife), Dhamma Park Foundation, where Buddhism and the arts peacefully coalesce.

Memorable experiences from my survey trip to Chiang Mai and Lamphun, particularly the diversity of art activities and spaces, the interrelation of artists and their natural settings, and the warmth and generosity of people in the art community, make it apparent why the north is still considered the premiere artistic and cultural destination of Thailand and the pivotal hub of contemporary Thai art.




Mon, 28 Jul 2008

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