Arts & Culture

An in-depth interview with Brian Curtin on Bangkok’s contemporary arts scene

Three biennales for Thailand this year, what's Brian Curtin thoughts?
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With the trio of biennales (the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale, the Bangkok Biennial, and the Thailand Biennale) scheduled to happen in 2018, we speak to Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh-based art critic and curator, Brian Curtin, on his views of the contemporary arts scene in the Southeast Asia region.

You moved to live in Bangkok in 2000, and have worked as an art critic and curator for much of that time. How has the contemporary arts scene changed from then till now? 

Over the last decade I’ve mostly learned not to think in terms of progressive evolution.

I am guessing that if you spoke to an early generation of art critics, such as Steven Pettifor, he would undoubtedly point out that certain concerns and preoccupations recur every few years in Thailand rather than evolve, as such. For example, there is a recurring claim about Thailand’s art scenes about to receive more international attention, or, indeed, Thailand’s art scenes about to “finally” happen. This claim is regularly made across the media and in some curatorial projects.

The lack of a sense of continuity between what has happened and is happening-and the very recurrence of a particular claim-might be best explained by looking at external forces to the “art scene” in Thailand rather than assuming an internal, forward-looking dynamic. Indeed, one might critically-if not bitchy-point out that Thai artists seem to move too readily according to greater forces.

But here we can point out that Thai artists have held a consistent presence in major events and galleries across the world since the 1990s. I think David Teh’s recent book Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary begins to approach this situation of Thai artists’ vexed place on what is referred to as the world stage: either repetitively yoked to ever-mutating nationalistic agendas at home or under-contextualized internationally. 

To look at the dynamic between artists and the contexts they move through is to get a sense of localized understandings rather than assuming universal comparability about the progression of any art scene. Bangkok is a global, neoliberal city par excellence with the northern cultural capital Chiang Mai following suit. Its dynamism can be pernicious as well as worth celebrating. As an example, or a microcosm, of what is happening generally, there is currently an urban regeneration project in a historic area of Bangkok which, as Gregory Galligan claimed in Art Asia Pacific, is a PR alliance between galleries, small businesses and real estate developers.

 The regeneration includes the moving of Thailand’s Creative and Design Center (TCDC) to the famed brutalist Grand Postal Building in 2016, the development of the riverfront as a promenade, and the opening of Warehouse 30 as a multi-purpose “creative complex” in an old warehouse. New luxury residential buildings are also planned and we can note that gentrification by definition includes private residences. 

The Bangkok Art Biennale 2018, curated by Apinan Poshyananda, is planned to make use of some of the sites in this historic area. 

This regeneration links to the spread of what we call neoliberalism since the growth of privatization and entrepreneurialism since the early 1980s, the centralizing of Bangkok as a financial hub and the demands of the IMF after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 to make local markets more amenable to international investment and also tourism.

 These are the changes that Bangkok’s “art scene” is seemingly moving with. We can talk about other changes such as the establishment of the area of N22 as a hub of galleries and studios, including Gallery VER etc. But, more urgently, we surely need to account for the forces that rupture continuity, wreck grassroots ideals of community, and start to begin to shape our futures.

What's your view on Bangkok's contemporary art scene and how does it fare across the region (Southeast Asia)?

I was part of a small conversation that recently occurred in Bangkok: the city, in fact, doesn’t have an “art scene” And here we can note that there are relatively more artists in Thailand than there are in China. Let’s think about that for a moment. What is an art scene?

I recently attended the 2nd Southeast Asian Art Residencies Meeting in the Philippines where over 30 residency programs from across Asia presented their work and it was generally agreed that a lack of regional relationships and dialogue is notable. Furthermore, we can acknowledge that Singapore is currently attempting to harness an identity for modern and contemporary art from across the region. That is, with the establishment of the National Gallery Singapore all the other cultural and intellectual endeavours in the city-state. This has its promises and problems.

While we can discuss and debate the importance of professional and informal relationships, there seems to be a lack of consciousness among artists and curators about macro shifts in “Asia”. For example, how the very idea of regional and intra-Asian identities have come to us from economic imperatives: from earlier “Asian Values” rhetoric to current “Asian Futures.” And the pervasive discourse of modernization and urbanization, in which Asian cities are held as exemplary. However, as the academics C.J. W.-L. Wee and Patrick Flores have highlighted, art and its institutional representations are relatable but not reducible to these imperatives. This is what we need to be talking about now, further to “globalization,” cultural nationalism and the terrible resurgence of authoritarian values across the region (and the world). Indeed, what role does art and curation play here now? 

Please tell us about Sàn Art and your new role as the Director.

Sàn Art was founded in 2007 by the artists Dinh Q. Le, Tiffany Chung, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phunam Ha Thuc as a platform to support contemporary artists in Vietnam. Indeed, to shape a scene that was then lacking. Their programs – in exhibitions and events - were later shaped by the curator Zoe Butt. Dinh is now the only remaining founding member, and Zoe has moved to curate for The Factory in Ho Chi Minh City.

Sàn Art has proved itself a dynamic organization over the years, a dynamism that is inevitable because the contexts and conditions in which we work shift and ebb. And there is a flow of new participants who possess successively different skills and interests. 

Over the years, the organization has supported exhibition spaces, lecture and screening programs, artist residencies and countless internships. Currently we are an art library but are about to open a new exhibition space and work collaboratively with other artist groups in the city to re-establish artist residency programs. These projects should emerge fully around September or so of this year.

Here I’d like to take the opportunity to re-address reports in the art press that Sàn Art’s earlier residencies and exhibition space closed due to censorious pressure from the Vietnamese government. This is only part of the picture. There were a number of mitigating factors that affected those projects. And we are about to confidently re-emerge.

I took the role of director in April this year. We are currently finalizing Uncommon Pursuits: A Temporary School for Emergent Curators in Southeast Asia. This will take place during July-August and links critical questions of curating contemporary art in the Global South with training in research methods. A variety of great practitioners have been invited to deliver this program. Here we are aiming to address the lack of curatorial training in the country and to think through curating as the establishing of structures that can function over time and with some sense of a future. And to be underpinned by distinct and coherent ways of thinking. Potential regional and transnational dialogue is imperative in this respect, as we all suffer from a sense of isolation, and language can divide and conquer. And, as we know, critical understandings of “Asia” and art’s role in the contemporary world are already urgent.

What would you say are the key similarities and differences between Bangkok's and Ho Chi Minh City's contemporary art scene? 

I’m not sure that I want to make that comparison. I worked on two curatorial projects previously premised on a conceit of “un-compared.” These were exhibitions of artists from Manila and Bangkok and Bangkok and Phnom Penh. 

These projects sought to inquire into an open-ended approach to relating artists and skewed the vertical relationships avowed by the nation-based showcases and comparisons we regularly see across many institutions. We wanted to activate audience interest in a manner that asked how the messiness of relationships may be mapped. Including questions of how formal connections might be read through historic and contextual differences. That question was everybody’s and the conceit was very queer! Curiously, I saw the same conceit in Spectrosynthesis - Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now at MOCA Taipei last year. A gorgeously strange and idiosyncratic survey that suffered terrible reviews from critics who expect digestible categories. Or, to be politely entertained, as in the boring Queer British Art 1861–1967 at Tate Britain in the same year. 

These projects allowed professional and personal relationships between artists from the different cities to begin to unfold and evolve. That is, they continue and suggest that dialogue over time is the key to pursuing insights into similarities and differences. 

Anyhow, while I have many opinions on Bangkok’s art scenes, as yet I am reluctant to generalize about Ho Chi Minh City.

Lastly, what are your hopes and aspirations for Bangkok/Thailand/Southeast Asia's contemporary art scene? 

Some years ago the curator and educator Jay Koh claimed that a lack of critical thought is probably the only unifying aspect of Southeast Asia’s art scenes.

In keeping with what I’ve already sketched, while economic-financial imperatives continues to do its work we can note the increasing rise of a robust intellectual culture based on decolonial theories, parallel modernities and histories of the contemporary. Questions of critical thought for art and its relationship to everything else-across the region-are now tangible. The people doing this research and writing include Pamela Corey at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Roger Nelson at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Simon Soon at the University of Malaya. In turn, they are influenced by the intellectual precedents of T.K. Sabapathy and John Clark.

This is what I (am) reading now, as a resource for future projects.

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