Issue 4/2003 - Post-Empire

Reverie and Trauma

Thai contemporary art and issues of gloabalization

Keiko Sei

Thai artists are no fans of globalisation. Manit Sriwanichpoom, who has made a series of photographs of unfinished and abandoned skeletons of high rise buildings as a result of the 1997 economic crisis, entitled »Dream Interruptus«, regards globalisation as »neo-colonialism«.1 In the same interview for a Czech architecture magazine, he made a brief summary of what the majority of Thai people perceive of 1997: »When the crisis started everyone was looking for someone to blame, no one had admitted their faults; neither government nor private sectors. At the end of solution IMF forced the Thai government to absorb all overseas debts which meant all private debts were turned into public burdens. No matter how poor you are, you have to pay back debts that you never spent or created for yourself. And this is negative side of the Globalisation that locks everyone together no matter whether you like it or not.«2

[b]»they« as external threat[/b]

In the introductory text for an exhibition of 6 Thai artists at Ethan Cohen Gallery in New York, »Thai-Tanic: Thai Art in the Age of Constraint and Coercion«, curator and director-general of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture of the Thai Ministry of Culture, Apinan Poshyananda describes the mood of the Thai society and Thai artists at the beginning of 2003:
»They say that if Americans wage war on Iraq then more American blood will be spilled at home and abroad. (...) They say that in 2003 Thailand will be free of International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt, but they also say that unemployment and poverty will increase. (.....).« Yet, who asks who are »they« and why do »they« influence and dictate our life and fate so much?3

Apinan Poshyananda insinuates that Thai people are still preoccupied with the idea that »they«, a third force, are the cause of adversity; manipulating everyday life and disturbing mind, the qualm that came about around the time of economic boom in the early 1990s when Thailand was listed alongside with other Asian »tigers«. According to Apinan,4 when Thailand is seen by the world as one of the newly industrializing countries (NICs), some Thais coined the abbreviation NICs as »narok (hell) is coming soon,«5 despite the growth of their material wealth. For a society where Theravada Buddhism influences every detail of life, in its belief that your deed and intention are responsible for your fate, called karma, and for a society that has few traumatic memories of being invaded by foreign forces, the sudden intrusion of »they« comes as the entry to the enquiry into perplexed and disconcerted states of minds as well as an impetus for a tactical maneuver in protecting land and people.

Living under the King and the military for decades, these, what can be described as internal and vertical »they«, have become for Thai people the fact of life and instead, the horizontal »they« -- the other world, media, multinational corporations, IMF, global currency speculators, etc. -- have emerged. The horizontal »they« can be virtual, more difficult to grasp yet in this manner feature themselves as equal to people: criticise »them« is no taboo, unlike the vertical »they«.

In 2001 telecommunication billionaire Thaksin Sinawatra and his Thai-rak-Thai (Thai loves Thai) party swept the general election with high hope of people that the new Prime Minister will put the Thai economy back on track. The record of his two years in office -- 6% growth in economy and 70% of approval rate by people -- proves that he has succeeded to fulfil the expectation as far as economic growth is concerned.

Another feature of the two and a half years of his office is his inscription full of criticism towards the horizontal »they«, in this case includes UN, NGOs and NPOs. In May this year, a UN envoy to investigate human rights record of Thailand, Hina Jihani, a Pakistani, was slammed by PM Thaksin when she criticised the current administration for creating a »climate of fear« among human right groups and NGOs in Thailand by intimidation and harassment on them, including the attempt to stop foreign funding of NGOs in the country. Thaksin said »(...) if she thought the human rights in Thailand are not up to standard, she should look at other UN members including Pakistan, her mother country.« Some other statements that came out of Thaksin in connection to this affair -- »UN is not my father«, »UN does not give us rice to eat«, have become legendary.

Prior to this event Thaksin had been frustrated by NGOs when criticised by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch of the government-licensed »shoot-to-kill« method of »war on drugs«. Started this February during 90 days of this operation about 2400 people were killed mostly by police.6

For Thaksin, NGOs clearly define themselves as representing foreign interference in Thai politics when he says »Thai people should not bow to people who have never had a career in their lives but identified themselves as NGOs and staged protests to demand this and that«. »We welcome them as our partners but not NGOs with E-G-O.«7

[b]That thing called »Major Non-NATO Ally«[/b]

During this year’s APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Corporation) summit meeting in Bangkok in October, Thaksin reminded Thai people of George Soros’s »sin« by describing him as a sinner that wears a mask of merit after accusing him of funding demonstrations during APEC summit.8 This attack came after he was criticised by human rights and pro-democracy activists of different methods he used to stop demonstrations during APEC, one of which was to warn any villagers who participates in demonstration that they will be stripped off the right to receive government funds from the new government’s poverty-eradication program.

The APEC summit would be the key moment of Thaksin’s grand debut into the world if he succeeded to host the international event that has been gaining its momentous year by year.9 The event would also come as a peak of his marathon race for partnership with United States.

Prior to the APEC summit Thaksin managed to meet Bush during his visit to United States. When two leaders were shaking hands, Hambali, one of the most wanted Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists who was said to be masterminded the Bali bombing, was arrested in the old Thai city of Ayutthaya and transferred immediately to U.S., where he was reported to have confessed his mission in Thailand to attack U.S., Japan, Israel embassy in Bangkok as well as Kaosan road, back-packer heaven of the metropolis, during the APEC summit. The terrorist issue dominated the APEC agenda, and ever tighter corporation among member countries in security against terrorism has been agreed, from dismantling transnational terrorist groups to support implementation of the Advance Passenger Information (API) System pathfinder initiative.
During the summit, it was announced that Thailand was granted a major non-NATO ally status from Bush, one month after the Philippines was granted the same status, just as Japan, Australia, Israel and South Korea.

The APEC summit in Bangkok was also the last international stage for Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysian Prime Minister for 22 years, who has been the voice of Asia that can say No to the United States.10 Defending the fort of Asian values from Western influence while keeping ethnic conflict minimum at home, Mahathir has become a model of a strong statesman in Asia, especially among ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Now that he goes and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is being perceived more and more as a ghost, a new leader that can create a vision of the new millennium is awaited. With an impressive financial record and the “successful” anti-drug campaign11 and anti-terrorist campaign that has granted him the image of a tough and decisive politician, Thaksin has emerged as the strongest candidate for the post-Mahathir leader of ASEAN. If this becomes the case, geopolitics of South East Asia will go towards American-friendly center-right politics of Japan and South Korea while holding a close tie with China.

[b]»Thai-ness« in the era of globalization[/b]

According to Apinan Poshyananda, from 1997 on in Thailand the main stream and official culture has been designed to foster and reflect Thai-ness and sense of national unity to counter the threat of globalisation. And this period was also the time for Thai artists to question what Thai-ness is and what it means in the era of globalisation, and thus we saw the flourishing of activism by these artists. Ukabat (Meteor) group has been presenting their performance on the subject of the affect of globalization. One of Ukabat group, Vasan Sitthiket, is probably considered as the most vocal artist of all the contemporary Thai artists on political and social problems, especially the problem of corrupt officials and exploitation of poor by the big and powerful. His paintings and prints have direct message-titles such as »War against Capitalism«, »Dam Kills Water, Kills Man, Kills Fish« and »Black List -- Thai Politicians«. Last year, one of his works that featured PM Thaksin was taken away from the show at Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai. Earlier this year for the »Thai-Tanic« exhibition in New York, he presented a series of criticisms of George W Bush one of which held the message »Long Live Terrorist, Down Live American« which angered the local audience.

Vasan, together with Penporn Paitoon and about 30 other artists staged a fashion show style anti-war campaign in Bangkok using Sky Train as a stage. Meanwhile Chumpon Apisuk, performance artist who has been engaged in activism on HIV/AIDS and human right issues since 1980s, was busy organising mass demonstration against the war on Iraq in Bangkok.12 Triggered at the Asian economic crisis in 1997, Thai artists concern over the influence of global power politics on the Thai society was thus highlighted during the war on Iraq.

Under the new Thaksin administration a new office of contemporary art and culture was created earlier this year under the ministry of culture. The head of the Art Center Gallery of Chulalongkorn University, Dr. Apinan Poshyananda was appointed as its director-general. The new office delegated the first ever Thai Pavilion for the 50th Venice Biennale with Apinan as a curator. Reverie and Phantasm in the Epoch of Global Trauma, the theme of the Thai pavilion, again reflected the anxiety of Thai artists and the society to face menace coming from outside. Like the »Thai-Tanic« show, the pavilion presented the Thai trauma of today’s mass media and culture, multinational corporations and the Western power on one side (e.g. Vasan Sitthiket’s critical remark on Bush’s war on Iraq in his work) and how Buddhism can overcome the threat and disturbing mind in the high-tech society on the other side (e.g. Montri Toemsombat’s meditation performance).

[b]Roller coaster towards a capital of art[/b]

This year, the autumn of Bangkok was all about beautification. A month before the APEC summit homeless people and stray dogs disappeared from the street. The preparation for the APEC went to such an extent that anything that looked dirty, poor, and ugly were removed from the center of town. Slums were covered by pretty cloths and billboards. This is a gesture of welcoming the world leaders such as loyal guests Bush, Hu and Putin, Thai people were told. Around the same time, while people are on the mode for street beauty, Thaksin’s next ambitious project was revealed: to make Bangkok an art hub of Asia, turning it into South East Asia’s cultural gateway. The new office of contemporary art and culture of the ministry of culture was apparently created with this agenda and is to carry out the task of researching and realising an impressive art center.13 Freshly back from Venice, the office immediately had to organise a series of public discussions and seminars under the title »Role of the Art Centre: the Development of Contemporary Art and Culture« in different venues and forms, going on during the whole of September. A project to open a Design center, a part of the cultural gateway vision, has gone ahead of the art center and is nearly completed in a busy part of Bangkok. It is to foster young Thai talent and showcase distinguished Thai designs and products, including products created under »One Tambon One Product« project, another successful project coming of Thaksin’s idea.14 During the APEC summit, the Bangkok fashion center event was staged to introduce Bangkok as a culture center to the APEC guests by the ministry of industry.15

In the public discussions various models of an art center of the world were discussed. In the press, three Asian cities – Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai -- were picked up as the current major centers of art in Asia mainly from the fact that these cities cater »art and culture« to citizens in huge »world-class art center« buildings (Singapore’s Esplanade, The Hong Kong Museum of Art and The Shanghai Art museum).16 Manit Sriwanichpoom, replying to a newspaper interview, expressed a representing voice of Thai artists by saying that a new art center in Bangkok must benefit local artists and not to be made into yet another tourist site.

[b]The other center[/b]

The effort of building up contemporary art scene by Thai artists and curators -- small, independent, and creative in a sense of survival and promotion of new art to the community that serve not tourists but locals -- has been seen in different projects in Thailand, the country which didn’t have a concrete government program to support modern and contemporary art for a long time. About Art cafe, Project 304, Concrete House, Umong Center, Chiang Mai Social Installation, Womanifesto, Asiatopia, to name the few. These artists have used every possible niche, in an extremely commercial environment of Thai big cities, to exhibit their works from a shopping mall to a car show room. In the late 1990s Chiang Mai University Art Museum, the country’s first contemporary art museum and the CMU Center for Art and Culture have opened in the Northern capital of Chiang Mai, which indicated a major shift of the scene from Bangkok to Chiang Mai especially after the collapse of the art center project in Bangkok.

While contemporary art was moving up North, the concept of the Mekong region as a newly dizitalizing area of Asia has surfaced, in connection to the development of the computer industry in the region, especially in China and Vietnam. To bring together countries along the Mekong river -- China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma) -- and to develop the region as an IT center was taken up by PM Thaksin as yet another ambitious project. He also saw the potential of the region for tourism and started to encourage the development of tourist infrastructure such as launching new air route among tourists sites in the area such as Angkor Wat and Pagan. In this climate many culture foundations, from Rockerfeller Foundation to the Scottish Art Council, started funding and supporting programs focused on the Mekong region. »The Mekong« has thus emerged as the keyword for artists to be engaged in public art projects. Art scenes in Bangkok and Chiang Mai started to compete.17

[b]We and They[/b]

While popular European writers such as BHL and Houellebecq are reframing the identity of Europe of the expanded European Union through their prediction of booming of terrorism in Asia while articulating their sentiment towards this obscure move of terror (»we say«), South East Asia is becoming a performing field of America and China: the former donates money and assistance in military18 (»we say«) and the latter closes eyes on human right abuses in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam(»we say we don’t say«). Whereas people in S.E.Asia, at least in Thailand, remain apprehensive, whispering »they say...« In this resonance a strong voice of Asia such as Thaksin’s, there’s plenty of reasons to give attention to his policies on culture.



1 Forum Architecture 5, Sep-Oct. 2003, Prague
2 ibid..
3 Apinan Poshyananda, catalogue »Thai-Tanic: Thai Art in the Age of Constraint and Coercion« Ethan Cohen Gallery, New York, 2003
4 It is common in articles that mention Thai names to use the first name instead of the family name.
5 Apinan Poshyananda, catalogue »Thai-Tanic: Thai Art in the Age of Constraint and Coercion« Ethan Cohen Gallery, New York, 2003
6 This has been denied by the government that claims that most of the »criminals« killed each other.
7 Another statements to press reporters during the Jihani affair.
8 »Some people are sinners and they want to make merit, thinking this will make them look cool. But in reality they are still sinners.« This attack came after he was criticised by human right and pro-democracy activists of different methods he used to stop demonstrations during APEC, one of which was to warn any villagers who participates in demonstration that they will be stripped off the right to receive government funds from the new government’s ambitious poverty-eradication program.
9 Started at the end of cold war, APEC was originally designed as a forum to promote more free trade and investment and economic co-operation in the Asia-Pacific region, first sponsored by Australia that sought a body to influence economic-tie within the region and excluding USA and Canada. Two countries were invited later after their protest, fearing the exclusion of them would divide the region into two. The break-through came in 1993 when President Clinton invited the leaders of all the participant countries for the first time with a vision to strengthen the relationship of the Pacific-rim community, which is now the most dynamic area in economic development in the world. Since then it has enjoyed the statues of the only occasion that leaders of the Pacific-rim regions gather. It is also a unique body as it is only significant international organisation that includes both China and Taiwan. Primarily an economic forum, more and more security issues are discussed.
10 The English title of the book that Mahathir jointly wrote with the right-wing LDP member and the current Tokyo major Shintaro Ishihara is »The Voice of Asia« and its Japanese title is »Asia that can say NO«, taken from Ishihara’s previous book »Japan that can say NO«. The Voice of Asia was translated by Frank Baldwin and published by Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1995.
11 President of the Philippine Gloria Arroyo was so impressed of Thaksin’s anti-drug campaign that she launched the similar campaign in her country, saying »Do Thaksin«, and ordered the law enforcement agency to crack down the drug ring within three months in June this year.
12 Chumpon Apisuk also organizes an annual international performance festival in Thailand called Asiatopia. In this year’s Asiatopia, the general message of the event was »Free Trade Agony« which was printed on T-shirts worn by artists and organizers.
13 To build a contemporary art center is hardly an original idea of Thaksin. The former governor of Bangkok, Bhichit Rattakul visioned and allocated 300millions Thai Bahts in 1999 to open an eight-story building complex of an exhibition space, a theater, a library, conference rooms and private galleries, art related shops and restaurants. A newly elected governor, Samak Sundaravej, instead wanted to turn the building into a yet another car park and a shopping center, the Bangkok icons that already overrun the capital. The art center project has been out of agenda since then and the whole thing seems to have been forgotten. Responding to the disgust and disbelief of local artists and the debate around this affair, Bangkok-based Indian artist, Varsha Nair, collaborated with Thai architect Savinee Buranasilapin, turned a gallery into a car park for her one-woman show (titled »free parking« at the Chulalongkorn University gallery in 2002).
14 »One Tambon One Product« was launched as a part of the poverty alleviation plan of the Thaksin government. It is aimed to allow people living in communities to use their skills in manufacturing products and to promote local products of each subdistrict (tambon) while the government and the private sector would render assistance on developing the products and exploring the markets in order to create jobs and income to the communities. The government-run committee gives support in providing knowledge, information, know-how and technical advice to villagers who are interested in promoting their local products. Three basic principles in its philosophy are: Local Yet Global, Self-Reliance and Creativity, and Human Resource Development. And this philosophy is expected to be applied to the art center project one way or another.
15 There is an indication that Thaksin’s concept of contemporary art is only a minor limb of a large tree of »culture«. To the press he disclosed his idea that an art museum is not enough to make Bangkok a culture gateway and wants to build a large complex of museum zone, including science and technology museums, »like the Smithsonian Institute«.
16 »Where’s our art center?« The Nation, September 21, 2003. The fact that both Singapore and China severely restrict freedom of expression while trying to emerge themselves as the center of art raises questions: Is a big box enough to offer people an illusion that they are indulged in art in Asia? Will the center in Thailand follow this model?
17 Next year alone, two rival new media art festivals are planned, one in Bangkok and the other in Chiang Mai.
18 According to the report of The Straits Times on Aug 7, 2003 entitled
US refocuses on S-E Asia, hopefully for right reasons by Chua Lee Hoong, the US Senate has decided to ease restrictions on military assistance to Indonesia in the next fiscal year and the path towards more normal military ties with Indonesia is expected. Besides granting the major non-NATO ally status, Washington has also pledged to grant Manila US$100 million (S$174 million) this year in development aid and another US$55 million to counter terrorism.