Interview with the Artistic Director of Bangkok Art Biennale Prof. Dr. Apinan Poshyananda
Professor Dr. Apinan Poshyananda was born in 1956. He received his Bachelor and Master Degrees in Fine Arts from Edinburgh University and Ph.D. in History of Art from Cornell University. Also, Poshyananda is the author of several books on Thai and Asian art. He became professor at the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. Poshyananda served as Director-General, Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Director-General of Cultural Promotion Department and, the Permanent Secretary and Acting Minister, Ministry of Culture, Thailand when he was to commission and curate the first Thai Pavilion at 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.
He has curated and directed international art exhibitions in Asia, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a committee member of the Asian Council, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Research committee of the National Gallery Singapore; Advisor to President and CEO, Thai Beverage Plc; and member of Art and Culture Development Committee, One Bangkok.
Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) has spanned across various venues over a period of 4 months (22 October 2022 – 23 February 2023) and helped to transform the bustling city of Bangkok into a lively hub that celebrates art, creativity, and culture. Visitors were able to immerse themselves in an array of artworks from a diverse range of artists, both local and international throughout the city, in arts and cultural spaces, iconic landmarks, temples and public spaces. In 2020 the biennale expanded to a virtual platform, allowing people from all over the world to see the exhibition online. In addition, BAB was accompanied by a variety of events ranging from educational conferences, talks, hands-on workshops, guided visits, publications, and online programs to ensure a memorable, educational, and fun experience.
During this year (24 March – 30 June 2023), Bangkok Art Biennale recalled the past 6 years of its memorable art and creative experiences through BETWEEN BAB exhibition featuring over 60 selected artworks by 29 artists from the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation collection from all three editions of BAB: 2018, 2020 and 2022 themed Beyond Bliss, Escape Routes and CHAOS: CALM respectively.
E.L.: The first three stages of the biennale have concluded and the budget for the next Bangkok Art Biennale has been accepted. Can you speak about the next biennale and your next 6 years?
Dr. A.P.: We are in a transition period at the moment! We have done our three editions and it is like infinity, as in 2018 we had Beyond Bliss, then in 2020 we organized Escape Routes, and the last one last year was CHAOS: CALM. It was important for us to create Bangkok Art Biennale in a different way as there are so many biennales nowadays, and they all are single editions which are opened to the public after each couple of years. In this way sometimes there is no time to reflect as each biennale has a new team as well, and then biennale is just a moving on process without time to follow up. We decided to organize the biennale in three editions, we presented the idea of three editions following each other after each two years to our community, and they were satisfied with our vision, so now they said you can continue with another three editions!
E.L.: Why are there three editions? Why is it a trilogy?
Dr. A.P.: When the idea of Bangkok Art Biennale was born, I was thinking that Bangkok is such a fascinating place for people to come to and that we have a lot to say, and at the same time I wanted to create commitment. Also, we needed a proper and solid foundation that means stability and insurance and that this will not be a trial project or that after the first edition the organization of the next biennale will be under question. Any organization needs to prove themselves and it is not enough to have one trial opportunity. The event needs to experience more projects before the honest value comes. Sometimes it might take years before you have been accepted. Luckily our supporters were willing to face the risk and provided the support for the biennale. I am happy we have been supported again and there will be the next Bangkok Art Biennale on display during the next years.
E.L.: After creating three editions of Bangkok Art Biennale, how do you see yourself among other biennales, specifically in Asia?
Dr. A.P.: We are still a very young biennale, but I have had many chances to see different biennales all around the world, and in Asia, for example, in Singapore, Jakarta, Manilla. Our region is very rich and very often people are not coming for the art work, but for enjoyment, holidays and they are coming here with a touristic purpose. Tourism is very important for Bangkok! In this way, we decided what we have to offer for visitors. For example, Singapore is quite limited in resources because it is an island.
In this situation, we mapped biennale in two loops: river loop and city loop. This immediately became our concept and we used heritage places for exhibiting art works. We chose this perspective as we created an idea of heritage and contemporary in the first place and in the same time! Also, this concept is something that would attract and make people want to see and attend the biennale. This idea is quite familiar for people when you are mentioning Venice, but at the same time it is a unique concept as has been realised in Asia and in Bangkok.
E.L.: What are your thoughts on the fact that there are so many new biennales nowadays?
It depends how you are doing it and how restricted you are because in many counties you are still under control and the scrutiny, but the art and artists want to express themselves as much as possible. During our six years since we started the biennale, we had faced the pandemic and it was a big challenge, too. In 2020 there were many cancellations, but we decided to continue and it brought another vibe into the biennale. BAB became something like a challenge not only in the premixtures of art, but in politics. In 2020 in Thailand, we had riots, demonstrations on the streets on top of the pandemic and we became more and more open. People understood what is going on and in many ways a lot of political content was exposed.
I personally hope and would like to see that the rise of biennales is not in a sense of the economy anymore because we all are dying fast and there are so many symptoms from the earth signalling that all is not well and that we should, and we can use biennales as a platform to let people think about global issues and movements.
E.L.: But how would you describe South-East Asia, the region that develops now because of the certain historical and political changes as well as economic development that has happened in this region during the last decades?
Dr. A.P.: During the times when the economic situation was on the rise and Asia was seen as a tiger, there were big tigers like China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and even Singapore, and then there were little tigers – countries from South-East Asia. This group of smaller tigers had to link together as these are smaller countries which have to stick together for a more powerful existence. That’s why there is a community called ASEAN that consists of 10 countries. It might look well on the surface, but there are problems, as well. The region can have a variety of opportunities to continue development, but at the same time, there are lots of problems, even killings… There are many differences in religion… There are challenges…
E.L.: Ex-Soviet Union countries after 30 years have created new arts institutions that in a certain way now have proven their ability to be world-level organizations. Is South-East Asia’s art segment ready for the world’s stage?
Dr. A.P.: It depends on how you measure it. For example, if you look at the EU countries and nations around this union then you can see the problems - one example is what is happening in Ukraine now. These are problems from post-war times, too. In Asia, we are always in the middle of something, in the middle of such powerful players as America and China, even Russia. We always need to consider countries like Japan, Korea, China or Taiwan. All smaller countries are ineffaceable! You probably understand this situation from Latvia’s experience. In this way, the world’s art stage creates an international stage by joining the circle of biennales and this is the way we can point out what your level is and how can you continue. Likewise, here in Bangkok, we will have the second round of our three editions, and this shows that we have not collapsed. It shows we have not gone bankrupt; despite the politics and environment, we are moving forward. This is a measure of how the international world expects us to prove ourselves.
E.L.: How exactly did the world accept you? What is your evaluation after the first three editions of the biennale? And also, how the local community accepted Bangkok Art Biennale?
Dr. A.P.: I would say that our main evaluation is how the people view us. And for us, it was very important that Thailand accepted us better than we expected. There is a solid acceptance not just within our circle, but from the public itself, too. People now know that every two years something will be happening and this is a very important point. People know that everyone can benefit from the biennale in relation to appreciation, investment and time activities. There is another event - Thailand Biennale, sponsored by the government, it is organized all around the country. This just shows that we are maturing in Thailand. During our previous three editions, we always took some space for artists from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, so we hope we have a platform where we can open opportunities for these neighbouring countries, too. We have done this with respect as, for example, we had a performance artist during the last edition of the biennale. The artist performed more than 30h performance about the disappearance of people. It was a very powerful, but also sensitive performance. We had to be careful how we presented the performance to the diverse public. The feedback from people and media was that Bangkok Art Biennale is a part of the international community.
E.L.: How did you choose artists? Is it only based on each edition’s main message or are you trying to make the biennale as diverse as possible?
She is a good and close friend and has been supporting us every time by contributing to the biennale. She is like a DNA for Bangkok Art Biennale despite that she is not Asian, she gives us a platform and every time when she comes, she is very open and collaborative with all her heart.
E.L.: How did this friendship start?
Dr. A.P.: I know Marina for nearly 20 years and when I met her, she was not as well-known as we recognize her name now. We became friends and she has been coming to Bangkok to do activities regularly and years before BAB was founded. For example, she did the performance at Phuket after the storm. Also, Marina regularly introduces us to many different performance artists we work with now. It is a close friendship and partnership at the same time.
E.L.: Let’s speak about BAB’s collection and foundation! What is its identity?
Dr. A.P.: The building of the foundation started naturally. Although we do not have a specific requirement, we discuss new pieces of art to be part of the collection with our committee. The identity would be artists we felt were contributing to the biennale and the community or young artists. Especially young artists are important to the biennale! Even in our catalogue, you can see unknown names, but we are giving them a chance to be seen and speak out. Also, they can be a part of the collection and in this way, they can be recognized by the wider public.
E.L.: What do you think about Bangkok’s art scene itself, and does Bangkok need more art galleries, and more support for the arts in the city?
Dr. A.P.: The art system in Thailand needs more improvements. Korea, Singapore and Japan have many art galleries, but in Bangkok, there are only mini galleries and we definitely need to have more art galleries in the city. More professional art galleries would help the artists to survive, and to get to know the art ecosystem better. The situation in Bangkok with artists and buyers is hard, as the collecting tradition has not been developed in a solid direction yet. There still is a need for a better understanding of these processes from all parties involved. There are local art fairs in Thailand and galleries also participate at fairs in Hong Kong and Taipei, but it is a very small group of participants at these events.
E.L.: How would you comment on the big popularity of the art fairs?
Dr. A.P.: Due to the Covid – 19 and following the NFTs movement, there is proof that the art really wants to survive. Also, we need a digital platform nowadays not only for selling the art, but for the continued service of exhibiting art. During pandemic, some galleries finished their work and this shows the difficult situation of the art galleries in Bangkok, too.
E.L.: And how are Bangkok’s artists feeling today?
Dr. A.P.: There is always an interest in Thai artists and there are a lot of good internationally accepted Thai artists, too. The main problem is with the system. In the ways that galleries work and the way promotion is still not completed for the art in Thailand. The talent of Thailand still cannot get fully recognized because of the uncompleted system. At the same time, many artists can be a part of the community and there is no need to go in a different direction. The idea of the third world’s system and the first world’s system sometimes overlap. The idea of the reaction against the first-class art biennale came from Cabana, Bandu, Indonesia. They translated the idea that the third-world biennales want to resist and react against the big sharks. This is evolution!
E.L.: I hope there will be a collaboration between these two worlds. I hope there will be more dialogue and acknowledgement that both sides need each other and that dividing will end!
Dr. A.P.: When the focus is on community or collaboration this becomes teamwork. For example, APY Art Centre Collective - artists we showed during the biennale with their 10 beautiful paintings. The art pieces were created as teamwork. Each artist has his or her own name, but they choose to exhibit their work under the group’s name.
E.L.: Covid – 19 proved how important a community’s life is. Art also is a healer; how do you see art from this perspective? Do you think it can help the community to flourish and help every individual afterwards to contribute to the community, too?
Dr. A.P.: Art always has been a part of the healing process. I am talking about community art and the process of how you define art.
And in the biennale system, we can give a more open approach, which is not so tight and defined. It is moving a bit away from individualism in such a way, but it is more diverse, and more nourishing, as mentioned before – some artists are even working in groups. Our last biennale was showing Art for Air work. It is a group (30 people) based in Chiang Mai and they are reflecting on the processes of air pollution and refer to Greta Thunberg as a person who signals. They create many works related to air pollution, but they also speak about the release as a different healing form. It is an idea to make art as a condition. Especially as in Chiang Mai, they have a problem of burning forests that’s why the group of artists talk about this problem and try to bring awareness of the issue in a different way.
E.L.: What is your dream at the moment, what else would you like to create or produce in your professional life?
Dr. A.P.: I have had many dreams! Some of them have failed, but many of them have been realised. It is important to accept failure, and through my career I have learned a lot. The most recent dream I have been deeply thinking about is to be a film director. And I have started to work in this direction as we already have done some filming. Next year the film will be shown to the public. In some ways maybe it is not a dream, but a new challenge for me and I am happy that this is happening!
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