Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (662) 237-3362
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Spring 2005

by Jennifer Gampell

Enter the half acre of verdant grounds enveloping the world-famous Jim Thompson House and immediately the cacophony from the nearby main road fades blissfully into the distance. The village-style arrangement of wooden structures surrounded by dense tropical foliage evokes the peaceful serenity of Bangkok half a century ago.

Yet anyone visiting the historic compound between July and October last year would have been greeted by an enormous orange and yellow poster announcing a contemporary art exhibition in the recently opened Jim Thompson Center for Textiles and the Arts. The installation by Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak featured, among other items, a room full of silk-covered soft sculptures representing the female breast. The exhibition title, Temporary Insanity, unwittingly encapsulated many people's initial reaction to encountering such overt contemporariness at this famous bastion of Thai traditionalism. How the exhibition came about is a testimonial to the dedication and dynamism of one of Thailand's most active--and least heralded--private foundations supporting Thai art and culture.

If James H.W. Thompson had died peacefully in his sleep on March 27, 1967, by now his gracious antique-filled teak house on the edge of klong (canal) Saen Saep probably would have been torn down to make way for yet another mega mall or condo. Instead, on that date, Jim Thompson--the person credited with creating the international market for Thai silk--vanished during an afternoon stroll in the jungly highlands of Malaysia. The mystery surrounding Jim Thompson's unsolved disappearance transformed the man into a legend and his house into a popular tourist attraction. His demise also brought into being the small eponymous foundation.

Established in 1975 after its namesake was declared officially dead under both Thai and international law, the James H.W. Thompson Foundation's original objectives related to preserving his legacy. "Our mission was to maintain the house and open it to the public," explains anthropologist William J. Klausner, president of the non-profit foundation since 1999 and one of the many artists and intellectuals who frequented Jim Thompson's genteel soirées at the 'House on the Klong.' "And to give grants to help preserve and disseminate traditional Thai art forms and culture."

Cultural preservation remained the Foundation's principle focus over the next two decades. But now change is in the air. Step forward Eric Booth, the son of Jim Thompson's former assistant William Booth, who took the helm of the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company (TSC) after its founder disappeared and today is its managing director as well as the vice president of the Foundation.

Eric was born in Thailand in 1969 but moved to France with his mother where he grew up in a cultured milieu and developed his life-long passion for art. Armed with a history degree from the US he returned to Thailand in the early '90s, joined TSC and became involved in various contemporary art projects.

In 1999 the Foundation sponsored an important two-day conference on South-East Asian textiles and encouraged by its success, the Board proposed building a textile museum. However, Eric began lobbying instead for an art center that showcased both contemporary and traditional works.

"Jim Thompson would have supported contemporary art today because in his day he was considered contemporary" insists Eric, his soft voice and impish grin belying a steely determination. Ultimately Eric won the Board over. However, the Foundation certainly wasn't planning to shed its origins in a headlong leap towards modernity. "The contemporary arts we support find their source in tradition but are not constrained by it," elucidates Mr. Klausner. "We have to arrive at a constructive and productive tension." He wholeheartedly embraced Pinaree's concept, noting that while her breast forms--which refer to Buddhist stupas--might be considered avant garde, they nonetheless emanated from centuries-old Thai traditions.

The new Jim Thompson Center for Textiles and the Arts opened in late 2003. With its traditional wooden façade and state-of-the-art steel and cement interior, the structure itself embodies the constructive tension between past and present to which Mr. Klausner refers. While the building generally goes by the name Art Center, the words "textiles" and "arts" in its official title provide scope to alternate between traditional and contemporary. Thus Power Dressing--the inaugural exhibition--featured traditional textiles, costumes and regalia from the 19th-century Lanna, Shan and Siamese royal courts. The following show was Pinaree Sanpitak's über contemporary temporary insanity.

That exhibition raised the bar for local art spaces and museums in several important areas. One was its four-month length. "Normally in Thailand you spend a year and a half doing the work and then you only get to show it for three weeks and it's gone," says Pinaree.

According to Gridthiya "Jeab" Gaweewong, former art gallery owner and curator of contemporary art shows in Thailand and abroad, the Foundation also differs markedly from the other established Thai organizations in its contemporary outlook. "Eric really wants to incorporate the younger generation and reinterpret silk in the contemporary art world."

Understandably, the international cultural organizations based in Thailand (Japan Foundation, Goethe Institute, Alliance Française, etc.) cannot focus exclusively on supporting Thai art and culture. However, Jeab also faults the homegrown Siam Society for being stuck in the past and not producing anything new or supporting research in the region. "They're not interested in contemporary art and culture at all."

The Foundation provides generaous artist and curator fees, produces high-qulaity catalogues and other printed materials and is renowned for its tastefully elegant openings. "I think the Foundation is effective because it's small, specific and targeted," says Jeab. "It knows exactly what it's doing, does only that, and does it really well."

Copyright 2005 Jennifer Gampell