By Saksith Saiyasombut & Siam Voices Jan 16, 2015
By Thitipol Panyalimpanun
Looking at a newly finished abstract painting by highly respected Thai artist Kamol Tassananchalee, with a caption saying the artist will be representing Thailand at this year’s Venice Biennale, the Olympics of the art world, Thip Sae-tang raised a question on Facebook. Finding out the selection was carried out behind closed doors, Thip, who is the son of another respected artist Jang Sae-tang, asked about legitimacy and transparency of the process, before more people in the Thai art scene joined the conversation with different opinions. A heated argument ensued; names were called; and the media coverage followed.
While this exchange of slurs and vulgar words does not much help unite people in Thai art, it might actually do it a favor. Not only did it gain Thai art public attention, it asked an important question: “Who has the right to choose what represents Thai art?” The dispute brings into focus the ongoing friction between the traditional idea of Thai contemporary art and those looking to break it.
Kamol Tassananchalee, whose artwork often drew its essence from the philosophy and spirit of Buddhism, is undoubtedly a seminal Thai artist. He was awarded the title National Artist in 1997, founded the Thai Art Council USA and has been exhibited in many international exhibitions. No questions too were raised against his contribution to Thai art, but it was his artistic merit today compared to other Thai contemporary artists that was under debate. Kamol was one of the artists who at one point were the delegates of Thai modern art, along with the two most locally famous Thai artists, the loud and provocative Chalermchai Kositpipat and the late Thawan Duchanee, whose death last year was grieved by the nation.
The emergence of what we see today as the major style of Thai modern art, one that occupies the major part of The National Gallery, started back in 1923 when Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci came to Thailand to work on national monuments. He later took post as a teacher, assumed the Thai name Silpa Bhirasi, and became the father of Thai contemporary art. Bhirasi guided his students to progress from working as copyists of Thai classical art to pursue their own initiative. The Italian introduced the techniques, theories (up until Post-Impressionism) and aesthetic values of Western art, while encouraging artists to look at their roots to produce new work. His students became teachers, and many of them national artists. Bhirasi’s legacy certainly lived on and, indeed, the father of Thai contemporary art has been influential. But what mattered more was the preserved value that was kept along this close knitted mentorship.
As with many ultimately revered things in Thailand, take traditional dance Khon for example, that value has been conserved and protected. Many in Thai art, who are supposed to be catalysts for change, still strictly uphold the belief that a good work of art must yield aesthetic values and exhibit excellent craftsmanship. In other places, however, contemporary art has gone past these aesthetics. Medium and skills no longer have to come first and it is more about one’s ideas in conveying or reacting to life. And while it is true that one should be true to one’s roots, has the belief gone too far to restrict Thai art?
Like the arrival of Feroci, the Internet has opened the world to a new batch of Thai artists whose responses to the contemporary world are different from the old normative view. Gone are the days when a Thai artist must be a servant of Buddhism who draws beautiful lotuses and displays explicit rejections of materialism.
The not-so-contemporary ideas in Thai contemporary art are losing touch with the reality, and will soon with the people. And with Thai society becoming more and more globalized, Thai modern art no longer excites or responds to current society as much as it used to. The dilemma Thai contemporary art is facing in defining itself is akin to the Thai society and its rigid definition of Thainess.
The old traditional ideas still hold sway, and are preventing Thai art from moving forward. And while many other Thai artists have been doing great internationally, things are much different at home. Very few Thais are familiar with names like Montien Boonma or Rirkrit Tiravanijaor. Even the flamboyant Korakrit Arunanondchai, Arin Rungjang, who represented Thailand at Venice Biennale 2013, or Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, whose retrospective show opens this month at SculptureCenter (Jan 25-Mar 30), barely get recognition locally.
The bottom line remains that Thai art is still lacking attention on its own turf. It’s hard to say whether it is Thai people, the government or the art itself that are to blame. Conflic people in the already small scene into even smaller groups. In time when the junta and outdated concepts still rule, where art is lacking space, perhaps controversy is a good shortcut to bring Thai contemporary art to the light. When Andrew Shannon punched a $10m Monet at the Irish National Gallery in 2012 he sparked a media frenzy. But who would dare imagine punching a Thawan or a Chalermchai in Thailand?
About the author:
Thitipol Panyalimpanun is a Thai writer from Bangkok who writes mainly about art, films and culture. He is now based in New York City, where he pursues a master’s degree in publishing at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ThitipolP.