What You Will Find in This Article
1.What is the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB)?
2. How to Visit
3. My Personal Highlights
1. What is the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB)?
Contemporary art may not be the first thing you associate with Bangkok. We rather think of temples, parties and delicious food. However, the Bangkok Art Biennale attempts to change this perception.
For the first time, the BAB is held for about three months from October 2018 until early Februar 2019. The following editions are planned for 2020 and 2022. In an effort to attract international activities to Bangkok, the event involves artists from Thailand, further ASEAN countries as well as international artists. I really enjoyed the broad range involving young artists and established ones such as Gauri Gill – an Indian artist whose works I have seen at documenta 14 in Athens in 2017 – or Marina Abramovic.
The major theme of this inaugural Biennale is “Beyond Bliss”. Human beings pursue happiness – however they define it (through money, fame or pleasure). According to the BAB, bliss is considered something superior to happiness, something non-sensual which helps us understand things the way they are. The aim of the Biennale is to challenge not only artists but also visitors to make our own interpretations of happiness and bliss.
2. How to Visit
2.1 Preparation Is Key
When you plan your visits, carefully check all the locations. I took the map on the BAB website and some locations did not have any exhibits even though they were on the list, or they said “coming soon” on the website. I thought that was probably because it was in the starting days of the Biennale. However, even in January 2019, with one month left, some locations still had the “coming soon” label online.
Some artworks rotate. For example, the big moving flower which is now in front of the BAB Box in Lumpini was initially displayed the the Emquartier Shopping Mall. The pig with wings by Choi Jeong Hwa was located at the South East Insurance Tower at the time of publication of this post. When I visited the places, it was at the BAB Box at Lumpini.
Not all the locations listed on the website actually display artworks – such as Siam Square One or Siam Center. I have marked these locations in grey on the map.
The locations of the BAB are spread out throughout the city. With Bangkok’s notoriously bad traffic, I would recommend to break up your visits. Most of the exhibits and locations are concentrated in four areas:
- The shopping district along the Siam, Chit Lom and Ploenchit BTS Stations.
- Near Lumpini MRT Station
- Around the famous hotels near Saphan Taksin BTS Station
- Along the Northern part of the river near/in the major tourist sights
Only the Theatre of Indulgence Gallery is off these major four clusters.
I would suggest to visit according to those clusters. Cluster 1, 2 and 3 can easily be reached by BTS/MRT. I strongly recommend to take public transport – it is not only cheaper but much faster. As the works of Cluster 4 are scattered in various areas, I would recommend to take a taxi or Grab. (For more information about getting around in Bangkok, check out my Bangkok Ultimate Guide.)
I have also prepared a customized map with all the BAB locations. I have marked the ones I visited in purple. The locations which I did not have the chance to visit are marked in orange. The locations listed on the BAB website but which did not have any exhibits are marked in grey.
I needed the most time at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. It is one of the biggest locations with plenty of exhibits. Furthermore, factor in enough time when you visit the BAB Box at Lumpini (especially if you want to watch the video installation which takes about half an hour).
Most of the other locations are smaller – ranging from one to three major exhibits.
2.3 Entrance Fees
Unlike many other Biennales, the BAB is entirely for free. You can register at some locations to receive further information but you are never required to pay anything.
2.4 Dress Code
In general, dress codes in Bangkok are not too strict. I would recommend to wear something versatile – it is really hot outside but usually freezing inside because of the notorious air-conditioning.
Furthermore, because some of the BAB locations are at sacred sights, your knees and shoulders (both for men and women) need to be covered.
2.5 Photography and Videography
Unfortunately, you are not allowed to film the artworks when visiting some of the locations, especially the ones which are not located outside or in malls. Pictures are allowed. This is actually one of my major criticisms of the BAB: the major goal is to make art accessible. I personally do not understand why pictures are OK but it is not allowed to film the experience. If it comes to attracting the interest of the younger audience, video is something essential.
2.6 Logistics, Hotels and Further Information about Bangkok
Please refer to my Ultimate Bangkok Guide with all the information you need for your Bangkok trip. As the BAB locations are in the major tourist and shopping areas, you can plan your journey as if you come to Bangkok on a regular trip.
More details about the Biennale (venues, artists and events) can be found on the BAB website.
3. My Personal Highlights
3.1 Bangkok Art and Culture Centre
A must-visit is the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. It is conveniently located at Siam BTS Station and has a broad range of works. Some are more interactive than others. The exhibit which probably attracts most visitors is a gigantic spider web made of tape which can be accessed.
However, my favourite work was a movie by Thai performance artist Chumpon Apisuk. The artist usually focuses on issues of discrimination, human rights and AIDS asked sex workers about their dreams. This movie touching the taboo area of migrant and sex workers was extremely captivating. The sex industry is usually looked down upon by many of us. By asking the sex workers about their dreams, they are made accessible and it shows that they are people like you and me. Most of them also have dreams like most of us: spend time with their loved ones, be near them and support them. Some dream of another career. My favourite answer was that one of lady wants to become a mafia head to control her area. This was a very unexpected answer among all the wishes for financial freedom and buying houses.
Before and after my visit, I heard a lot of positive reviews about the Muslima project. However, I did not “click” with the works. There was no information provided for the exhibits and in my opinion, they were not self-explanatory.
Annee Olofsson’s photographs were also among my favourite works. An old woman or a child are holding their hands in front of the artist’s face. Unfortunately, there was not much background information. I found more information after my visit in the Wall Street Journal that Olofsson focuses on childhood, ageing and death, our fears of ageing and the desire of constant youth.
Goncalo Mabunda was born shortly before the civil war in Mozambique which lasted 16 years – until the artist turned 18. He uses weapons once used in that civil war and aims to rehabilitate them by turning them into sculptures. This rehabilitation is closely linked to a programme run by the Christian Council of Mozambique where weapons were exchanged for farming tools. At the BAB, his masks – referring to false appearances and things human beings try to conceal – but also thrones are displayed. With these thrones Mabunda criticises some African leaders who stay in power by force.
3.2 BAB Box at One Bangkok
Another highlight for me were the works by Thai artist Natee Utarit who experiments with traditional Thai, Renaissance and Baroque art. His works are displayed at the BAB Box. At first sight, his paintings look like European oil on wood paintings from the Renaissance – they could be mistaken for diptychs/triptychs displayed in catholic churches. At a closer look, however, it becomes clear how Utarit plays with the different cultures: he mixes Christian and Buddhist subjects and the iconography relates to repentance, purgatory, suffering, blind faith and death.
I am usually not a big fan of video installations. However, as I had some time to kill, I decided to watch the video “Inverso Mundus” (The World Upside Down) by AES+F. The Russian art collective has already participated in major art shows. When I watched it, I actually did not know what to think about it. Their world really was upside down: homeless people taking over the jobs of board members, a pig killing a person like a butcher, demonstrators in erotic scenes with the police. I found it really weird at first. However, I am still thinking about this work. It triggered something in me. Even though I cannot explain what. Maybe I have to call it a highlight here because of that reaction.
3.3 East Asiatic Building
The East Asiatic Building definitely was one of my favourite locations – mainly for the sake of the actual building. Located next to the famous Mandarin Oriental Hotel in an abandoned heritage building near the river, it transfers the visitors to the Bangkok of the past.
3.4 Multiple Locations (e.g. Siam Discovery, BAB Box)
I was very intrigued by the works of Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa. I have to admit, that I had not heard about him before. He works with household items, e.g. trays, and colorful water glasses or plastic baskets.
The latter were formed into a giant colourful chandelier inside the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. The artist scouted the Thai markets himself to source the baskets for this work. More of his artworks are exhibited at Nai Lert Park Heritage Home, the BAB Box, or Siam Discovery.
3.5 Hyped Artists and Places and Pleasant Discoveries
Most of the locals were really excited that Yayoi Kusama’s works came to Bangkok for the first time. I recently saw her exhibition in Singapore (read my article here). Hence, they were nothing really new to me. But I do understand what it means from an art marketing perspective that Bangkok now welcomed her works.
I had high expectations for the exhibits at Alliance Francaise. However, the video installation did not have any sound and there was only little explanation. Nevertheless, I discovered some really cool street art in front of the Alliance Francaise building and a cute French café.
On my hunt for the BAB works at Siam Centre, I discovered the works of Felipe Pantone. I do not think that these exhibits were part of the BAB (there were no logos). I really enjoy how he mixed graffiti, abstraction and design. He works with our view to the future in the digital age and the geometry refers to modern city landscapes.
The Bangkok Art Biennale had big shoes to fill. There are countless Biennales all over the world and our art calendars are more than saturated with events all year round. However, the BAB is an ambitious project to cast a spotlight on local contemporary art, building international bridges and encourage locals to interact with art.
I was actually really surprised to see so many young people at all the BAB locations. Furthermore, probably due to it being the first edition of the Biennale, I had the feeling that the visitors were more heterogenous than at other major art events. Of course, there are the typical “bun-on-their-head-paired-with-excentric-clothing” art people. But I encountered many different types of visitors, ranging from the ordinary Bangkok tourist, to students, to people who are just curious about a new event in the city.
In general, I really like the concept of bringing art to the people. According to the BAB website, the aim of the Biennale is to “revitalize and enrich areas of Bangkok into art walks and art loops for leisure activities and tourist attractions”. In a city like Bangkok, where art is most often confined to remote galleries or limited to museums, I appreciate the mission of the BAB of using popular locations, such as malls or hotels.
However, sometimes I had the feeling that the artworks completely disappeared in the noisy and busy malls. Or, that the sole reason for interacting with the works was for the sake of a selfie. Furthermore, malls tend to be heavily decorated – at Christmas time but also throughout the year. When I looked for Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit at Central Embassy, I really struggled to find it. Amongst all the glittering decorations, the usually eye-catching Kusama-dots actually disappeared.
In general, finding the artworks sometimes feels like a treasure hunt. I used the map on the website – however it was challenging to navigate it. Firstly, some information is missing, such as updates about the locations of the artworks. Secondly, only the main location is given. There are no details about the specific place. In huge malls such as Siam Paragon or Central World, it takes some time to find those works. Especially if the mall staff does not have any information about the works either. Furthermore, from a technical perspective – the website’s mobile version and map are not user friendly and should be improved until the next edition of the Biennale.
In my opinion, the Bangkok Art Biennale would have needed to take a step further and offer more information about the works. Bringing art to the people is important for the democratization of art. However, people who are new to (contemporary) art or who have only little knowledge need more information. I would have loved to read more about the works and artists. Or, in times of digitalization, I think interactive content would definitely contribute to democratize the works. The goal after the Biennale should be that more people engage with contemporary art. If there is no explanation of the works whatsoever, I think contemporary art may appear elitist, incomprehensible or even daunting.
I found that there could have been more information (text or audio guides) relating to the artworks. Very often, the descriptions near the works only listed where the artists exhibited already and only offered one or two sentences about the work. In my opinion, this was not enough. I need more background about contemporary artworks. Moreover, if the mission is to bring more people to the museums, art newbies also need more context.
Compared to the media extravaganza of Documenta or the Venice Biennale, the BAB, of course, still has a long way to go in terms of media attention. Naturally, there was some buzz during the opening. However, the biggest problem I see is grabbing the attention of those who are not part of the typical “art crowd”.
Even though some works displayed at major sights or malls may draw attention to the Biennale, the art event is not very present in the city on a daily basis. Similar to the artworks, it seems to disappear in Bangkok’s bustling daily life. I actually do not think that people who are not interested in art noticed the event at all.
I personally enjoyed that even though there was a mix of local and international artists, the spotlight was cast on artists from Thailand and the neighbouring countries. This prominent part makes South-East-Asian art – a region which is very often underrepresented – much more accessible.
The Bangkok Art Biennale ends on 3 February 2019. Entrance is for free and the Biennale’s location are scattered across the city.
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All information as of the date of publishing/updating and based on the website and information provided at the locations of the Bangkok Art Biennale. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received.