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May 2007

THAI CULTURE CLASHES
by Jennifer Gampell

With a deep sigh conveying authentic Weltschmerz plus a bit of whiskey-fueled dramatics, former Senator Kraisak Choonhavan leans back in his office recliner. Ever since the Sept. 19, 2006 military coup, he explains, Thai contemporary culture has been under siege, the victim of shrinking budgets and expanding censorship: “The conservative Thai state sees contemporary art as a threat to traditional identity of being Thai. They look at it as subversive.”

For decades, 59-year-old Mr. Kraisak has championed the arts along with many other underdog causes like human rights. In 2002, he and other liberals successfully lobbied the Thaksin government to create the Ministry of Culture. Naively, they assumed its ancillary Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, headed by respected professor and international curator Apinan Poshyananda, would advocate the cause of artists to conservative bureaucrats.

Instead the bureaucrats got a new platform with which to brow-beat the bohemians. Before the coup, OCAC under Mr. Apinan funded various Thai contemporary artists to attend biennales and other international exhibitions abroad. But contemporariness was overshadowed by reactionary MoC pronouncements on minutiae such as women in spaghetti-strap tops, pop-song lyrics and photos in a Bangkok guidebook.

Since the coup, the morals crusaders at MoC have ratcheted up their campaign from media comments to policy recommendations. They imposed a 10 p.m. Valentine’s-Day curfew for under-18s, and pushed a bill to ban all alcohol advertising and raise the drinking age to 20, still under consideration. Mr. Kraisak now calls MoC “a censorship bureau.”

Last November, officials from the Thailand Cultural Center (administered by MoC) ordered internationally renowned composer Somtow Sucharikul to change the final scene in his latest opera Ayodhya, a modern retelling of the Ramayana epic. They said that depicting the death of the demon-king Ravana on stage violated khon (masked dance) traditions and could bring bad luck to the country. Mr. Somtow acceded even though Ayodhya was opera, not khon. The following day he received a revised contract that included an extra clause stating that if anything in the production transgressed against the “morals or culture of Thailand,” the show would be forcibly closed. He signed it reluctantly. Mr. Kraisak, who termed the ministry’s actions “ridiculous,” later learned the ministry had acted arbitrarily on its own.

For all his well-publicized flaws, Mr. Thaksin did initiate several worthy contemporary projects during his five years in office. In January 2003, the Thaksin-appointed governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand launched the Bangkok International Film Festival. Conceived primarily as a tourism booster, it focused more on feting B-list Hollywood celebrities than promoting films and filmmakers. Still, despite its many flaws, after four years the film festival had established itself on the international film festival circuit.

In December 2006, the new military-appointed governor of TATpostponed the January 2007 festival until July 19, 2007, ostensibly due to a lack of available venues. In fact, TATcouldn’t pay its American organizers because the Surayud government had halved its reported 180 million baht ($5.5 million) budget. In February 2007 TAT announced it would focus on Asian cinema to save on costs of shipping film and entertaining international guests. The local team resigned and now, just months away from the opening, TAT is scrambling for a new one.

Beyond the budget cuts, the film festival was hamstrung by its archaic operating structure, a problem affecting all Thai government-sponsored cultural projects. “These big government organizations should act as financial backers and provide a forum to facilitate people working together. But they don’t know how to do that,” complains Gridthiya Gaweewong, an independent curator and artistic director of the hyperprofessional—and private—Jim Thompson Art Center.

“Everything here depends on personal agendas and interests. The Bangkok International Film Festival should have had its own office, programmer and festival director like any other international film festival. As the main sponsor, TAT should have sat back and let everyone do their jobs. There are young Thais out there who can do the work, but the older generation in these kinds of institutions doesn’t trust them.”

Meanwhile in 2004 Connelly LaMar and Robert MacCready presented the concept for a Bangkok International Art Festival to Bangkok’s municipal government. It encompassed visual and performing arts, community activities and musical events, all held in free public spaces like parks and abandoned buildings. “It was an incredibly radical proposal,” admitted Mr. LaMar. The Bangkok municipal government “said they wanted a festival to compete with the Singapore Biennale, but better … and cheaper,” he continued.

In late 2005 Bangkok’s municipal government finally approved the international arts festival for October 2006, with English-language newspaper the Nation handling media and local organization for the projected 150-plus Thai artists. Messrs. LaMar and MacCready organized sponsorship and contracts for some 30 international participants. Then in February 2006 Mr. Thaksin dissolved parliament. The results of the nationwide election he’d called in April were invalidated and a new one set for October.

“After that [the Bangkok municipal government] got scared,” recalls Mr. LaMar. “They worried about security, demonstrations in parks and campaign posters on streets.” BIAF was rescheduled to February 2007, but a few days after nine bombs exploded in Bangkok on Dec. 31 the project was scrapped. To salvage something from their two-year effort, Messrs. LaMar and MacCready scrounged funding from sympathetic foreign embassies and local sponsors. The truncated BIAF they launched on Feb. 23 comprised just seven artists—two Thais and five foreigners—exhibiting in a handful of private and mostly indoor venues.

Mr. Thaksin’s most ambitious contemporary project was hardly motivated by love of culture. The Office of Knowledge Management Development, an umbrella state agency of seven separate organizations, was founded in mid-2004 and headed by his outspoken chief policy advisor, Pansak Vinyaratn. According to the Web site, its seven independent centers had a single objective: “to trigger new ideas and inspire creativities.” Mr. Pansak and his boss believed Thailand could only remain competitive in the global market by creating value for its own products, not adding value to someone else’s.

The jewel in the crown of the Office of Knowledge Management Development was the 4,490-square-meter purpose-built Thailand Creative & Design Centre, which opened in November 2005 on the top floor of the Emporium, a downtown shopping mall. The only world-class design space in Bangkok contains two exhibition spaces, one permanent and one temporary, and a 15,000-volume design library, the largest in Asia. To introduce Thais to sophisticated international design benchmarks, TCDC created its own exhibitions and adapted several international ones to the small gallery space.

The office of Knowledge Management Development and especially the international-standard TCDC have come under intense scrutiny by the new government. Soon after his appointment, Prime Minister Surayud announced a two-pronged policy platform of national reconciliation and sufficiency economy (based on the principles of moderation formulated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej). “The mistake the government committed early on was not defining the parameters of sufficiency economy,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University. “There’s a lot of confusion and that’s left space for people to turn it into their own agendas.”

After the coup, the TCDC budget was reportedly slashed by 70%. Mr. Pansak was fired and replaced by Apinan Poshyananda, who appointed Kraisak Choonhavan among others to a board tasked with allocating drastically reduced funds rather than triggering creativity. According to Mr. Apinan, design is now considered elitist. “There’s a complex mood of ambivalence at the moment, a sense that under Thaksin the pendulum swung too far to one side, making Thailand ever more open,” agrees Mr. Thitinan. “The mood is swinging the other way but the government hasn’t set boundaries about how far back it should go.”

“If we are to keep TCDC going we have to adjust,” adds Mr. Kraisak. “Politically that’s what I have to work with. And it’s very frustrating.” Despite the many rumors flying around, Mr. Apinan insists there’s no intention of closing TCDC. “That’s coming from the devil’s mouth,” he laughs. But nobody is talking about how or whether TCDC can fulfill its original mandate under such straitened circumstances.

None of this surprises Mr. Kraisak. “The Thai state, no matter which government you’re talking about, including this one, has always had an inherent weakness about promoting contemporary art, no matter in what form,” he concludes. “Culture and art remain to serve the power.”

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based free-lance writer.


Copyright 2007 Jennifer Gampell