Jennifer Gampell
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December 6, 2002

An enduring emphasis on tradition
But younger, modern artists are struggling for the place in the sun

by Jennifer Gampell

The wedge-shaped empty area in the heart of downtown Bangkok is barely noticeable amid the nearby shopping malls and crush of people and vehicles. The vacant site, once designated for a proposed Bangkok metropolitan art centre, now remains unused, apart from a few trees, stray dogs and dozing construction workers.

The future of what was intended to be the city's first publicly funded contemporary arts museum now rests with government officials who don't quite grasp the meaning of modern art.

Three years ago, Bangkok held a Buddhist groundbreaking ceremony for a world-class art center, a project for which the capital's former governor, Bhichit Rattakul, had allocated Bt300m of city funds.

Plans for an elegant eight-story development included four floors of exhibition space, a theatre, conference rooms, and a public library, plus additional space for arts-related shops, restaurants, and private galleries.

In a city dominated by shopping, the centre was to serve as a focal point for cultural life. But it was not to be, as city elections in mid-2000 brought to power a long-time conservative, Samak Sundaravej, who immediately halted his predecessor's project. Instead he wanted a multi-storey car park and culture-related shopping mall to be funded by private developers. But no developers were interested -- and the arts centre vision was abandoned.

"Bangkok is a city dominated by commercial interests with an administration that has no idea of contemporary culture," says Kraisak Choonhavan, an outspoken senator and vocal advocate of contemporary arts.

Bangkok is home to a small but committed community of artists, who are exploring the meaning of Thai identity in the contemporary urban environment, and struggling to apply 2,500 years of Buddhist teachings to 21st century realities.

"The Thais can't live only on the heritage from their ancestors", says photographer Manit Sriwanichapoom who has documented Bangkok's gritty underbelly. "We have to create a culture that's going to become a heritage for the next generation."

Much of new Thai art encourages viewers to take refuge from the pressures of the modern world and suggests a return to spiritualism. In a culture that avoids open criticism or confrontation, Thai artists have also explored sensitive themes such as the deterioration of moral values through the rapid evolution of Asian cities such as Bangkok.

"There's been a backlash against the effects of globalisation. Artists are increasingly looking toward their own ethnicity," says artist Steven Pettifor, who is writing a book on contemporary Thai art.

Younger Thai artists are using "vogue" methods such as installations to "connect" physically with viewers, who are prompted to take fresh looks at typical events in Thai daily life -- such as having a massage or fortune told, riding a taxi, or shopping at a market.

But Thailand's art community suffers from a lack of public awareness and support and a dedicated venue. Artists exhibit at many venues -- for example university art centres, private galleries, hotel lobbies, foreign embassies, restaurants, bars and even hair salons. Private galleries rely almost entirely on the financial support of their operators. A handful of Thai visual and conceptual artists have been internationally recognized, but they are barely known at home, outside a tiny circle of private collectors

"There's nothing that supports the arts that are really happening," says writer and artist Ing K whose paintings challenge official interpretations of Thai history.

Promoting contemporary Thai culture is is a concept that few Thais really understand. The Thai word wattanatam or "culture" was coined in the 1930s, after Thailand had switched from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy -- the word "embodies notions of kingship and aristocratic art which should be conserved," explains Mr Kraisak.

Adding the phrase ruam samai ("contemporary") to a word synonymous with preservation creates a contradiction in terms. Similarly, "art" or silpa only came into the language after European artists arrived in Thailand in the early 1900s, bringing notions of art as self-expression. Until then, art consisted exclusively of painting temple murals.

Even now silpa generally connotes pleasing, non-confrontational work. Adding this term to ruam samai confuses many people. However as part of the bureaucratic reform process, Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister, has recently created a ministry of culture, with a small contemporary arts department.

No such ministry has existed since the 1950s, when it was used as a propaganda tool by the dictatorship -- while artists hoped for supportive policie and infrastructure for contemporary arts. They also hoped the ministry might use its budget to revive Bangkok's metropolitan arts centre.

But the newly-appointed minister, Uraiwan Thienthong, a retired interior ministry official -- married to a powerful faction leader in Mr Thaksin's party -- appears to have different priorities. She has called for "provincial language clinics" to correct Thai pronunciation and grammar, and plans to recruit tennis star Paradorn Srichapan for a campaign promoting greater use of the traditional hands-folded greeting -- the wai.

Copyright 2002 Jennifer Gampell