Jennifer Gampell
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February 27-29, 2004

A FRESH LOOK AT THAI ART
"Flavours" spices up the literature on contemporary Thai art
By Jennifer Gampell


BANGKOK -- "I don't think most people in Thailand give [contemporary art] much importance. Thais don't have critical minds," blasts Kraisak Choonhavan, the outspoken chairman of the Thai Senate's Foreign Relations Committee -- and a tireless crusader for the contemporary arts. "They have a hard time understanding or appreciating artists who criticize the way the world is."

True enough, in Thailand's English-language bookstores, the word "contemporary" rarely appears in titles except as it relates to style or design. Instead, these bookstores devote large sections to colorful volumes on such uncontroversial topics as traditional Thai houses and handicrafts, Buddha images, Siamese history, waterways and tropical flora. Designed primarily for the tourist market, these lavishly photographed tomes toe the official line on what constitutes Thai culture.

Steven Pettifor's "Flavours: Thai Contemporary Art" (Thavibu Gallery, 130 pages, $35) stands out from among all this image-conscious vapidity. The cover of the new English-language review of Thai art features work by internationally renowned photographer/activist Manit Sriwanichpoom. Towering higher than the skyscrapers lining an impossibly pristine Bangkok street, a fuchsia-suited Thai pushes an empty shopping cart. Ever since the Thai baht crash of 1997, the outspoken artist has superimposed his iconic "Pink Man" on a variety of pseudo-tourist photographs to personify Thailand as a tasteless robot enslaved by blind consumerism.

Now out of print, Apinan Poshyananda's earlier book "Modern Art in Thailand" appeared in 1992. The comprehensive text--taken from the author's doctoral thesis--surveyed Thai art from the late 19th century until 1991. During this period, Western-style techniques and concepts were introduced into Thailand, but "art" as promulgated by Silpakorn University--Bangkok's oldest arts institution--remained focused on the beautiful and the uncontroversial. In similar fashion, the cover of Dr. Apinan's book is a detail from a neo-traditional Buddhist mural painting. After curating many international exhibitions of Thai art, Dr. Apinan now directs the Contemporary Arts Department in the government's new Ministry of Culture--where just about everyone else regards contemporary art with disdain.

"Flavours" author Steven Pettifor picks up where Dr. Apinan leaves off. The English-trained artist-turned- journalist has lived in Bangkok since 1992 and writes regularly on the Thai art scene for local and international publications. He prefaces the 130-page book by saying he doesn't intend to replicate his predecessor's level of detail, but instead wants to provide a "taste" of Thailand's growing contemporary visual-arts scene from a both local and international perspective. "I don't like constantly comparing to the West," he cautions. "You see international critics coming here and trying to define Thai art by their benchmarks," he explains. "I've immersed myself in the culture and can evaluate it with some degree of insider's knowledge."

Mr. Pettifor writes in an accessible magazine style, using refreshingly jargon-free prose, which unfortunately needs more editing in places. In the brisk 20-page introduction "Dishing Up Thai Art for a Global Appetite" he contextualizes the Thai art world that produced the 23 artists profiled in the second part of the book.

Mr. Pettifor encapsulates many issues relevant to the contemporary art scene: the profound effects of globalization; the 1997 bursting of Thailand's economic bubble; the increasing popularity of Thai artists abroad and their continuing struggle for public and governmental support back home, gender bias in art, and the emergence of Chiang Mai as an alternative to Bangkok's art hegemony.

The 19 male and four female artists profiled work in a range of contemporary genres: textile, performance, installation, ceramics, painting and sculpture. Their names may be familiar to international curators and art aficionados, but probably are not to the book's target audience of newcomers to the Thai art scene. In his preface, Mr. Pettifor questions a few of the choices but acknowledges that he shared the selection process with Bangkok-based Thavibu Gallery. He tactfully neglects to mention that Thavibu also represents several of the profiled artists, or that the printer nixed one of the 80-plus photos which showed performance artist Michael Shaowanasai dressed in monk's robes.

In his foreword to "Flavours," Dr. Apinan praises Mr. Pettifor for giving "creditable favour to Thai artists" and regrets "there are not more Pettifors to push contemporary Thai heritage to the echelon it deserves." Why indeed did so much time elapse between their two books?

It may have to do with the fact that Thai artists battle against a powerful and conservative art infrastructure that keeps them fragmented and fosters petty bickering among the various factions. "It's sooo hard to do anything in the Thai art world," deplores renegade Thai writer and social activist/critic Ing K. "You really stick your neck out. I admire Steve's guts. If a Thai person criticizes anything, they tell us 'go live somewhere else'."

Another roadblock is funding. Those glossy opuses extolling every tourist's fantasy of Thailand sell lots of copies. Whether in English or Thai, books on Thai art just don't sell. "Flavours" was on the drawing board for several years but would never have happened without the financial support of Liam Ayudhkij, an Irish-Thai businessman, philanthropist and art collector.

As he looks toward the future, Mr. Pettifor is encouraged that many internationally successful Thai artists who live abroad are returning home to hold workshops and classes for a new generation of students. With the rise of other universities in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, he also sees a loosening of Silpakorn's stranglehold on art education.

Among his various ideas for making Bangok a hub for fashion, design and information technology, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra also tabled a plan to make it a regional center for contemporary art. The new culture ministry, however, seems more interested in upholding traditional notions of culture than contemporary ones. It even tried to stop Thai women from wearing tank tops with spaghetti straps during last year's Songkran festival. For now, contemporary art in Thailand still rows against the current.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright 2004 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell