Bangkok Art Biennale Returns for Its Second Run

Among the highlights of the three-month festival is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s refugee-themed exhibition “Law of the Journey” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.

Ai Weiwei’s “Law of the Journey” exhibition at the Bangkok Art Biennale. (Photo: Ron Gluckman)

At a time when art events around the globe have become casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, the Bangkok Art Biennale boldly forged ahead, with 82 artists from three dozen countries spanning five continents, showcased at 10 venues around the Thai capital. Included are big-name artists like Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono, and Anish Kapoor, alongside plenty of Thai and regional Asian creators.

“We discussed whether to go ahead, cancel, or postpone until later,” said Apinan Poshyananda, chief executive and artistic director of the Bangkok Art Biennale and a former Thai minister of culture. “There has been a collapse of the entire art circuit,” he lamented. “Just going online wasn’t an option. It’s not the same with an auction or exhibit online. People want to see art, experience it, be touched.”

Indeed, the second edition of the Bangkok Art Biennale is a citywide celebration of creativity, with contemporary pieces on display not just in white-box galleries but also a range of historic sites, including the riverside Lhong 1919 precinct and some of Thailand’s most prominent temples, like Wat Pho and Wat Arun. But the greatest collection of artworks is found in the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC), steps away from National Stadium BTS station.

Sky Mirror, an installation by Anish Kapoor at Wat Arun. (Photo: Ron Gluckman)

Here, prominent Chinese artist, activist, and exiled dissident Ai has a major installation filling an entire room. In the center is a huge black raft, with huddled figures representing refugees fleeing fighting or persecution in the European crisis of 2015. A wall is filled with photos from refugee camps—Ai visited 40 camps in two dozen countries, interviewed 600 refugees, and then produced a documentary film, Human Flow, from those travels. The exhibition is called “Law of the Journey,” which Apinan said exemplifies the overall theme of the biennale: “Escape Routes.” More of Ai’s work—inspired by the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong—can be found at Tang Contemporary Art, one of several galleries at the River City mall also participating in the Biennale. Taken together with “Law of the Journey,” it represents the acclaimed artist’s first showcase in Thailand, which Chinese officials sought (unsuccessfully) to block during the planning stages of the festival.

Other artworks address issues ranging from climate change to isolation, the latter theme not anticipated to be so relevant when chosen years before Covid-19 first emerged. There is also plenty of political art, including works from Thai artists who have largely operated in an era of heightened censorship and fear since the military staged a coup in 2014.

Thai artist Lampu Kansanoh poses beside one of her oil paintings. (Photo: Ron Gluckman)

Lampu Kansanoh is exhibiting a series of large oil paintings depicting local scenes and politicians, as well as controversial figures like American president Donald Trump. For her, the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic provided artistic fuel; she worked in 13-hour stretches each day. Pen-ek Rattanaruang’s contribution is Two Little Soldiers, a new short film inspired by French author Guy de Maupassant’s short story Deux Amis (Two Friends) and produced especially for the Biennale. It focuses on the lives of two young army recruits stationed at a Thai garrison in the countryside, and juxtaposes their carefree existence with news of escalating social turmoil in Bangkok. It reminds viewers how the individual personalities of soldiers are often lost amid the stereotypes that come with the uniforms they wear. Apinan added, “This is the role of art, to stimulate discussion and offer ideas. Art matters, and can be part of the facility for discussion and understanding.”

The Bangkok Art Biennale runs through January 2021, and all exhibitions are free. Visit bkkartbiennale.com for more details.

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