Ten Things you Need to Know About the Bangkok Art Biennale

The Bangkok Art Biennale will take place from November 2018 to February 2019. 2Mag breaks down what you need to know about B.A.B. and why it matters.

July 07, 2017
Much fabled and talked about in recent years has been the idea of a Biennale here in Thailand. First there was an announcement in 2013 of a Pattaya Biennale during the opening week of the Venice Biennale: a time when the art world converges on this city on water, not a time to make empty promises (The Pattaya Biennale has not happened). Later, Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, together with Thapanan Sirivadhanabhakdi, made the announcement at this year’s Venice Biennale opening, in the presence of relevant Italian officials, that the Bangkok Art Biennale would take place in 2018.

The very first Biennale to take place in the Kingdom of Thailand: to some in the art world, a dream come true, though as with all things cultural here in Thailand not necessarily something that is guaranteed to attract the support necessary for it to thrive (i.e. the lack of continuous support of the public sector, not to mention the occasional restrictions on freedom of expression that have left some in the art world disillusioned).

Nonetheless, the press conference on July 4th left us feeling hopeful, albeit with questions. The press briefing that followed dispelled numerous concerns, allowing us to share with you the essential information that you need to know about the #bkkartbiennale–especially for those of you who want to get involved or are just plain curious to know what this Biennale business is about.
1) What is the Bangkok Art Biennale?
An art biennale is an art show that takes place in a given location every two years. It is an opportunity for the artworld, art enthusiasts, and the public to come together in a city to experience contemporary art in all shapes and forms. The first art biennale took place in Venice in 1895. Today, Venice remains one of the most important points of convergence in the art world, much as Documenta in Kassel does, although that takes place every four years. It is not an art fair where works are for sale but rather an exposition of art for all to enjoy. The Bangkok Biennale follows from this and the example of countries that have hosted biennales before. Ours will be a medium sized biennale, unlike the very grand one in Venice, more in line with the scale of the Yokohama, Gwangju, or Singapore Biennales. To date there are around 200 biennales and triennales that take place around the world.

2) Is there an overriding concept or theme?
Some biennales have an overarching theme: for example, the theme for Venice this year is Viva Arte Viva. For the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale the theme will be Beyond Bliss. Dr. Apinan describes this notion as something that is intrinsically linked to Buddhism and the way of life that we conform to in our country: we seek for bliss. Attaining bliss, however, is perhaps a common objective of all humans, though there may be various interpretations of the term or methods by which one arrives there. To be in bliss may not be the absence of problems nor even the discovery of solutions to those problems but rather finding a place that is safe from the trials and tribulations of the world today. Under the state of rapid change, the threats of extremism, the whims of world leaders, and/or other real and constant threats to our lives and our basic rights, we seek escape. Beyond Bliss considers that place where we can escape to, and in Bangkok, long considered the Venice of the East, artists can show how art can be a means by which one can find bliss, happiness, or contentment. It is a lens through which to view the world and artists will take this overarching theme into consideration.

3) When will it take place?
Though many biennales take place over six months, the first Bangkok biennale will take place over four months, from November 2018 to February 2019. The period in which the first Biennale will take place fits right in with high season: the best time to visit Thailand. Expect a dry climate with the perfect temperatures. After a stint in Bangkok, a trip down to the beach is probably not out of the question. A biennale in a part of the world that everyone wants to be in is just perfect. Just book in advance.
4) Where will it take place?
The Biennale will take place throughout the city, with Bangkok’s main sites and attractions already confirmed to engage with the project. Siam Piwat and Central Group have committed their properties to host the Bangkok Biennale, so have Bangkok Metropolitan Authority. In a riveting and passionate speech expressing her love for the arts and culture Minister of Tourism Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul confirmed the Tourism Board’s support for the Biennale.

The support of the public sector means that the Biennale will be able to host artists at three of the main temples in Bangkok: Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and Wat Prayoon. This will be the first time that our temples, normally hosting 8000 people per day, will witness an intervention of contemporary art. As Dr. Apinan responded at the press grilling to “Why temples?” he said “Why not?” To be able to merge elements of our past and our culture with contemporary or art that is “alive” could be offer an interesting lens. Moreover, our city is filled with juxtaposition: to host an artist’s project at a temple is surely no different from hosting one in an Renaissance church (a norm in Venice, exemplified by the Ai Wei Wei installation in the Church of Sant'Antonin in Venice that featured contemporary art creating a dialogue in an ancient and holy place).

Public areas such as MRT and BTS stations will be main parts of the program. TCC Land and Thaibev, the main supporters of the project, will also offer their key venues in the city; with Khun Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi (founder of ThaiBev and chairman of TCC Group) as one of Bangkok’s premier landowners, historical locations that have not been used for such purposes before will be in the spotlight once more. With Siam Piwat’s involvement, the new Icon Siam Property will showcase Bangkok’s ties to water as the Chao Phraya River will be a part of the program. The focus on the river harks back to Dr. Apinan’s comparison of Bangkok to Venice. Spotted at the Press Conference were members of the family that run the Chao Phraya Express Boat Service who also have the concession to the piers and run many riverside properties suggesting that the Chao Phraya will play a key role (Vaporettos = Chao Phraya Express Boats).

5) Who is involved? The curators, organizers, and investors.
The B.A.B was founded by Dr. Apinan Poshynanda who will also serve as Artistic Director. It’s seed funding has been provided by Thaibev: founder of Thai Beverage and chairman of TCC Group, Thapanan Sirivadhanabhakdi, will serve as both Board Member and Director of the B.A.B. The Biennale’s curators are Luckana Kunavichayanont, Sansern Milindasuta, Patrick D. Flores, and Adele Tan. Its Project Manager is Wutigorn Kongka and its international advisors are Alexandra Munroe, Stuart Elliott, Dr. Eugene Tan, Nanjo Fumio, Nigel Hurst, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Sungjung Kim. Additional investors and partners include the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority. Private partners include the Central Group and Siam Piwat, thus far.
6) What is the selection process for artists?
There will be around 70 artist who will participate in this first Biennale. Of the 70, around 40 will be Thai artists and 30 international artists. There will be two types of selection for the artist who will take part, firstly on an invitational basis by the curators who will select artists they deem relevant and appropriate for the theme. Secondly, as of July 1st, there is an Open Call for Submissions from all artists with specific conditions found on the Biennale’s website. The Call for Submissions will continue to September 30th.

7) How will it be funded?
The Biennale will be privately funded. ThaiBev has committed seed funding both in cash and in kind to a Biennale Foundation, which will operate the Biennale as a Non-Profit organization. A commitment has been made for three biennales spanning six years. This is based on the belief that the success of the project requires it to be ongoing. Other partners involved have committed their venues to the Biennale as is the case with the various public sector authorities. The B.A.B organization is currently in negotiations with these various partners to finalize other aspects of funding. Some embassies have already expressed their support for the Biennale so that participating artists from foreign countries can receive adequate support. Other private sector involvement will also be a part of the effort, namely private patrons and artists’ galleries, as is the case at other biennales.

8) How can you be a part of the Biennale?
Both private sector organizations and individuals can be a part of the Biennale even without being official partners. As with Venice, where the big Italian fashion brands also have great presence with their own foundations, the opening week of the Bangkok Biennale welcomes involvement for diverse organizations. Galleries in the city, of which there are now many, are welcome and encouraged to create their own programs that can complement those of the Biennale, as are any other organization that might have an interest in getting involved. Hopefully there will be a comprehensive Biennale guide that highlights not just the official program but satellite programs and events that will take place throughout the city.

9) How can I visit the Biennale?
More information will be released in the coming months but, as you can imagine, the event will take place all over the city, especially in the main hubs, so you can see and experience art as you move through the city.

10) And finally, the golden question, why a biennale in Bangkok and why now?
Why a Bangkok Biennale? As Minister Kobkarn stated so eloquently, “It must be Thailand, it must be here.” What this summarizes is a fact: Bangkok is a golden city, and we are creators. Some of the most prolific international artists call Bangkok and Thailand their home. Moreover, we are a huge tourist destination, and as festivals like Film on the Rocks Yao Noi in Phuket years ago show is that we have the propensity and potential to inspire those who come to Thailand to create work inspired by its unique landscape and culture. Finally, we have the structure to not only support the great talent in this country but also share it with the world (via galleries, trains, boats, curators, collectors, a hub for a more inter-connected Asia).

Why now? Because there is a private sector partner/investor who understands the value of art – culturally, socially, and economically. Thaibev and other partners provide funding and support that converts baht into cultural enrichment for all those involved, althogh the positive collateral is also economic, supplementing our GDP with cultural spending and providing a boon to tourism.  Also, with regard to the “Now” question, as the world searches for bliss or an escape for the dire state of politics that they now face, the Venice of the East can capture the imagination through artistic expression. When Asia offers hope, which the world so needs right now, NOW is the right time for Beyond Bliss.

*** We will be updating our Bangkok Art Biennale column as more information arises. Please visit B.A.B. website for more information. ***