Beyond Bliss at the Bangkok Art Biennale
By Serene Fu
The highly anticipated inaugural edition of the Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) explores the concept of ‘Beyond Bliss’ and features more than 200 artworks. Even in predominantly Buddhist Thailand where a large proportion of the population strives to achieve Nirvana - a state of inner peace and blissfulness - the pursuit of happiness should not be taken for granted. The event, which runs from 19 October 2018 - 3 February 2019, enables artists to interpret happiness in their own ways and pursue their own strategies in today’s turbulent world, one in which happiness is often considered fleeting.
Showcasing the work of 75 artists, half of which are Thai, BAB also intends to raise the profile of Bangkok as a regional contemporary art hub. According to Apinan Poshyananda, CEO and Artistic Director of BAB, Bangkok used to be considered the ‘Venice of the East’ in the 19th century. The inspiration for hosting an international arts festival in Bangkok dates back to that period - when King Rama V (1853-1910) visited the Venice Biennale in both 1897 and 1907 and was suitably impressed.
20 sites display a wide range of works. The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) is one of the main locations and showcases eight long performances by MAI (Marina Abramovic Institute) in the first three weeks of the festival. MAI’s The Method 2018 is a participatory piece - probably inspired by Zen Buddhism – and fosters silence and 'inner consciousness', presenting the Bangkok audience with the healing power of art. Marina Abramovic herself, known for the epic The Artist is Present (2010) MoMA show, attended BAB to give a live lecture, stressing how slow movements and mindfulness are crucial in the appreciation of durational works of performance art.
Other venues include historic city landmarks and Buddhist temples that encapsulate the unique beauty of Bangkok. The site-specific commissions shown here offer viewers the opportunity to appreciate the connection between the contemporary artworks and the sites' rich cultural heritage.
Among them, Nordic artists Elmgreen & Dragset have produced a large-scale ‘zero’ shaped swimming pool which stands vertically on the pier outside the neo-Renaissance style East Asiatic Building where Siamese and Danish trade began. With a diving board placed high above the pool’s curved rim, the hollow artwork wittily questions rapid urbanisation, lamenting the loss of public spaces and the impossibility of ‘happy dives’ for lower-income residents.
Likewise, French artist Aurèle's mammoth gold-plated LostDog sculpture, an on-going project questioning humanity's loss of faith, is placed outside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Chao Phraya. In addition to satirising the notion that 'all that glitters is not gold', Aurèle forces the audience to contemplate the meaning of true bliss through an enormous bull terrier covered in gold leaf, which metaphorically represents a disorientated society obsessed with materialism, consumerism and physical pleasure.
Three Buddhist temples - Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Prayoon mostly showcase works by home-grown artists - from mixed-media installations to sculptures and video. Sanitas Pradittasnee’s site-specific piece, Across the Universe and Beyond, situated at Khao Mor, Wat Arun, is a delightful highlight. A walk in her rock garden, fit with translucent acrylic panels, steel and mirrors, is both thought-provoking and disorientating. The state conveyed is neither of happiness nor sorrow, but an understanding of how small we are in the universe. The piece draws inspiration from Traibhumi, the most significant literary work from the Sukhothai era (1238 - 1583), on the subject of cosmology.
Many established international artists also offer their endorsement to BAB through their signature works. Yayoi Kusama's polka dot pumpkins are installed in a trendy shopping mall and Choi Jeong Hwa's inflatable breathing flowers are placed alongside Yoshitomo Nara's iconic Your Dog on the open ground of One Bangkok, an urban development project due to be completed in 2025.
Even though BAB is significantly smaller than the Venice Biennale, such a city-wide art festival in Bangkok is unprecedented. In a city in which temples and statues of Buddhas are ubiquitous, and where faithful worshippers still find the healing power of contemporary art remote and unfamiliar, this three-month-long festival is nevertheless an exuberant and engaging adventure for locals and international visitors alike.