AAA spoke to artist Varsha Nair about her mixed background, her views on female artists, the art scene, and recent turmoils in Thailand and India.
AAA: You have been living and working in Thailand for over a decade. Can you tell us about the background of this move? How has this move affected yourself and your art practice? And, what is your relationship with the Indian art scene now? (Your projects such as In Between Places and Passage On Negotiating a Sense of Dislocation can be seen as a manifestation of this voluntary displacement.)
Varsha Nair (VN): The move to Bangkok in 1995 was a culmination of a spate of moves, from the United Kingdom to India and then here, in a short space of time. It was for economic reasons (my partner was offered a job here). It was voluntary but it didn’t come out of happy circumstances. Wanting to go back ‘home’, back to the east, we moved from the United Kingdom to India thinking it would be for good but things didn’t work out that way. With the many dislocations that ensued, there were also other aspects of personal life that brought up questions of ‘belonging’ to a place. This was further heightened on losing a family home in India where I had grown up. It all happened at the same time as I was engaged in the process of having to install my own home over and over again, and mostly living out of boxes.
Given this background of many ‘maps’ that are part of me, one of the more specific things I attempted to tackle in my work is how one locates a sense of belonging and what goes into defining ‘home’. I do think that for many of us, home is perhaps not any one place at all but one that is located in movement – not permanently fixed but something ephemeral. This is also an aspect I address in my performance piece Point 33 - Distilled.
The being of ‘in between places’ quite aptly speaks of my dislocations and relocations, and a general familiarity with many places rather than being firmly rooted in one. An aspect or outcome of ‘negotiating a sense of dislocation’ is also that one’s sense of belonging is distilled – that is, one has to be strongly rooted within one’s self and can ‘be’ in or ‘belong’ to any place one finds oneself in, and call it/make it home.
Bangkok (and Thailand) is very significant in terms of a place where so much started to and continues to be distilled. I have been living and part of the growth of the art scene here since 1995. The late nineties was an exciting period in terms of an emerging contemporary art scene – an exciting period of experimentation and possibilities, of opening up and breaking out of ‘frames’ in terms of my own art practice. It was also to do with my own ‘frame’ of mind at that time, something that I still maintain - that I am free to do what I want, I don’t set limits. And, this place and the art environment became a driving force – here is where my art practice blossomed and went way beyond set notions, at times even surprising myself.
I can’t say that I have an active relationship with the Indian art scene in the sense of belonging to a gallery; it is the same in many ways with the Thai art scene though by the very nature of being here, yes I have more interaction with what’s going on in my environment. But I don’t see why one has to be part of a scene; one can work and exhibit regardless. Out of the few art events that I have been part of the significant ones are ‘KHOJ Live 08 Festival’ in Delhi and a residency at Kashi Art Gallery, Cochin also in 2008. They are significant to me because they are both the kind of free-minded platforms of experimentation that I can relate to and see myself interacting in. I continue to develop work each time I go back to India, which is usually twice or three times a year. Some of it connects the two places that I call home. This is an ongoing process and I have presented components of it (such as In Between Places).
AAA: During your stay of over a decade in Thailand, what do you find special/distinctive about the art community in Thailand (both positive and negative)?
VN: Starting with 1996 the art scene here was abuzz with a special kind of energy, one that was mainly created by artists who were very active. The first ‘Womanifesto’ was being planned; a performance conference took place organized in collaboration by artists from Thailand and Germany; Manit Sriwanichpoom along with Arahmaiani (Indonesia), organized a project called ‘Mega City’ which took place at demolished shop houses in Huay Kwang; then a rapidly developing suburb of Bangkok. Soon enough experimental spaces like Project 304 and About Café opened. Chitti Kasemkitvatana was About Café’s first curator and he set up AARA – About Art Related Activities, and a regular event called ‘Art Mart’ along with an exhibition program. One of his aims was to initiate cross-disciplinary exchange, encouraging people to come and even barter their works at these gatherings. Suddenly young people from all walks of life – art, fashion, design, music etc. had a space to let loose their creativity. The place was open all sorts of hours, and open to just about any idea that one might have. These were vital meeting points, where one could hang out and chat, and they do not exist any more. The art scene is active but there seems to be a break in communication between artists, and there are fewer artist-led projects. Funding is still an issue, however The Office of Contemporary Art at the Ministry of Culture is funding artists and projects so that is a positive development. The Bangkok Art and Culture Center opened recently and this is where ‘Asiatopia’ was held. This was the 10th anniversary of the festival and it brought together quite a large number of artists from all over. For me it did set up a meeting point and it was well attended. I hope that the center will continue to support such events, not just in terms of performance art but also by considering part of the space as a sort of a laboratory for artists working in different media who want to experiment.
AAA: With consideration to the recent crisis in Mumbai and Bangkok, art is often the last thing on people’s mind in these particular moments of political turmoil. Do you think art is by nature, vulnerable or even powerless in circumstances like these? How do you see your position as an artist?
VN: It's not just art/artists, all are vulnerable in such situations. I felt a great sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Vis-à-vis Mumbai, the media reporters who were very much focused on the tragedy unfolding at the hotels, in many ways on the elite, generally did not go into detail of the many who died at the railway station. But one thing that did get reported on was the damage done to the Taj Hotel’s significant collection of contemporary art and artefacts. So, ‘art’, in this case ‘valuable objects’, did get a mention. But surely that’s the last thing, if at all, on the minds of people who lost loved ones.
As far as artists are concerned, for some, crisis situations permeate and in time manifest in their works. Or, they might bring forth an instant reaction. At the ‘Womanifesto’ residency that just ended (November 08), both Liliane Zumkemi and I made short video pieces (The Peace Audition by Liliane Zumkemi; Lullaby for a Storm by Varsha Nair) that are in many ways informed by the contrast of being in the lush surroundings of the farm, where nature was very much part of daily life and in many ways even dictated ones way of being, and the man-made situation of political turmoil both on the Thai Cambodia border (the farm is located 36 km from the disputed land around the temple on the border, at the start of the residency there was an exchange of fire between the two armies), and the protests in Bangkok that were followed constantly on TV by the residents of the farm. Perhaps other related expressions may emerge later.
As Judy Freya Sibayan remarked in our email exchanges on the situations ‘…I can only imagine how you are psychically - the two countries you call your home in turmoil…’ I do feel that if one has experienced or witnessed any kind of crisis, whether it’s of a mass scale and happening in the public arena or it’s a personal one in one’s home and life, it takes time to work it through one’s system before one can deal with it and find a way/language to express it in a sensitive and meaningful way.
AAA: From our previous communications, you seem to feel a sense of helplessness towards what's happenings in the two countries. From what you have observed, what has been the art community's response to the political situation in Bangkok, since May 2008? How has it affected the morale of the Thai art scene?
VN: Not just since May 2008 but if we think back to the coup in 2006, I have not seen much related response in the art community here, except with the recent situation some artists joined the PAD protests. But I think that is problematic because, let’s face it, each side has their own agenda. I think as artists we need to look at things more in depth, under the layers, and not become part of the noise. We need to discern, and then make the choice to present a vision and voice. Perhaps responses from artists to what has transpired here might come in time.
AAA: Five years ago, you participated in ‘Text and Subtext’ which showcased artworks by Asian female artists. There was a review commenting that it was ‘an exhibition of women artists [seeking] to debunk the Asian preconception that female artists are mere dabblers’. As an active artist for over two decades, have you witnessed any change to this prejudice?
VN: Yes and no. I have never thought of my female colleagues and myself as ‘mere dabblers’. There is a lot of good, strong, sensitive works being made by women; we saw that at the ‘Womanifesto’ Residency. But this misconception of being dabblers gets pinned on to women artists, as there comes a stage when as women, life demands that they do different roles. For instance, an artist couple I know; when their first child was born, the woman became a full-time mother with little time to give to her art and thus was seen to have “dropped out” of the scene, whilst the man continued to be invited to go to various parts of the world to exhibit. Another example, my colleague and co-organiser of ‘Womanifesto’, Nitaya Ueareeworakul not only married and had children but she also moved away from Bangkok (the center) and so it’s like you don’t exist, hardly anyone asks about you, your work, let alone invites you to exhibit. But along with settling into a new place, life and bringing up two children she has throughout found time and continued to make significant work; this is not mere dabbling. Between all the players in the art world – the curators, commissioners, researchers, critics, historians, someone needs to seriously research into what it means to be a woman and an artist. In some ways Binghui Huangfu attempted to do just that with ‘Text and Subtext’.
AAA: 2008 sees the 10th anniversary of the ‘Womanifesto’. As a participant and co-organizer of the event, how do you see the future development of it?
VN: Instead of running different projects as we have in the past, we’ve established the residency in Isan (North East Thailand). We’ll continue to host artists for a six-week residency, inviting not just visual artists but also writers, poets, musicians. The residency can take the form of thematic projects, its open to variations. There are few platforms that support emerging women practitioners, so we decided to particularly engage the younger generation of women and place them together with the more established ones. This already happened at the 2008 residency where we had women from different generations and backgrounds meeting together and it has been successful.
AAA: In the midst of the biennale craze, what is your take on the possibility of having one in Thailand?
VN: There has been a biennale in Thailand since 1997 – ‘Womanifesto’. I don’t think that has even registered in people’s minds. And the fact that it was established locally to engage globally, independently as an initiative led by artists working on a huge dose of passion and with the most basic and, at times, downright frugal funding, was way before this current “biennale craze” took hold.
Also, talking about the biennale craze, one reaction to this is combined with the political turmoil - in the midst of the uncertainty created by the 2006 coup, Ark Fongsmut initiated and curated ‘Bangkok Biennale 01’. This ‘fake’ event was a sort of a curatorial playground, where he asked invited artists to include the event in their CV, printed T shirts with the logo of the biennale on one side and ‘You missed it’ on the reverse, which also happens to be the theme of this first ever biennale in Bangkok (a new edition of T Shirts will be available in January 2009). This was a political statement, one that also questions what a biennale, essentially a concept from the West and as understood in the art world of the Western or the ‘developed countries’ vis-à-vis, as he puts it, ‘our still third-world way of thinking’ where many things including politics are concerned.