Friday, June 4, 2010

Thai arts scene

Eyes right!

So, after 4 years as an arts manager here, what impressions has the Thai arts scene left on me? I'll need to preface this by saying that we're talking contemporary arts here, not the country's long & rich history of religious (essentially Buddhist) art, khon dance, likay (a kind of folk opera), traditional Thai architecture etc. At risk of over-generalising, my experience of the contemporary arts scene here has been one of disappointment. But let's take a look at each artform.

The Music scene is not terribly exciting. There are of course the traditional lukthung and morlam styles which are fun, especially live, but there's nothing really new being done with either, and modern western-style popular music is simply below-par derivative. The biggest pop star is Tata Young, the best-known rock star is Sek Loso and the coolest band are (still?) Modern Dog, although I'm probably a bit behind the times here. The experimental music scene is virtually non-existent; interestingly, the bit that there is centres around Peter 'Throbbing Gristle' Christopherson who's been based in Bangkok since 2005. Not many big-name western bands include Bangkok on their itineraries which is kind of surprising given the huge, captive ex-pat audience. Could be to do with the lack of experienced promoters or sponsors.

Contemporary dance and drama is just about limited to Patravadi Mejudhon and her excellent theatre (though its location isn't ideal), and Pichet Klunchun who pretty much single-handedly keeps contemporary dance alive. The Bangkok Dance & Music Festival is the one big, well-respected event of the year but focuses on international productions, has expensive tickets and correspondingly attracts a well-off audience.

Literature... Thais are not great readers of books, but then nor are many other nationalities: 80% of U.S. families didn't buy or read a book last year. I've not read much contemporary or classical Thai fiction in translation - Siburapha, Win Lyovarin, Tattawut Lapcharoensap - so am not a good judge, but I think it's fairly true to say that Thailand does not have a thriving literary scene. The publishing industry, however, is quite strong.

Things now start getting better...

The film industry is one of Thailand's creative strengths, the domestic market particularly. Historical epics (eg. The Legend of Suriyothai), horror/ghost stories (eg. Nang Nak), gay comedies (inc anything with Michael Shawanasai) and action films are all polished and professional, but haven't exported well, although Francis Ford Coppolla edited a version of Suriyothai for the US market. Interestingly, the films that have done well abroad, at least critically, are art-house: Apichatpong's Syndromes and a Century, Aditya's Wonderful Town, Anocha's Mundane History have all won recent awards... but personally I find most (certainly these) very slow and over-hyped. Bangkok International Film Festival started out glitzy but has been mired in corruption, while the World Film Festival of Bangkok does its best to present interesting East Asian features & shorts. I've worked with both but neither is particularly influential. Good place to shoot films though: The Beach, Soi Cowboy, Nicolas Cage's risible Bangkok Dangerous...

The design scene is strong. There are great graphic, product and fashion designers and I'm proud to say that the British Council helped kickstart Bangkok Design Festival. We've also been very involved with the excellent Thailand Creative & Design Centre, up there with London's Design Museum or V&A, Cooper-Hewitt, Vitra...The advertising industry is also very strong with Thai creatives regularly winning international awards.

And finally (?) there's visual arts. Thai artists are increasingly active on the world stage. Rirkrit Tiravanija was co-curator of the 50th Venice Biennale and divides his time between Bangkok, New York and Berlin; Thai-Indian Navin Rawanchaikul has famously used tuk tuks and taxis as mobile galleries; Manit Sriwanichpoom is well-known for his shopping trolley-pushing Pink Man. I particularly like Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, noted for reading poetry to corpses (a bit like Beuys's explaining art to a dead hare?) and I own a lovely abstract painting by Somboon Hormtientong. There are many small commercial galleries in Bangkok but major exhibition spaces are lacking. Even the long-awaited opening of Bangkok Art & Culture Centre has been a disappointment. Looks great (based around a Guggenheimesque spiral) but its management, funding and curation is a bit of a mess, caught between the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority who own it and a supposedly independent committee who run it. A national contemporary arts centre is planned but don't hold your breath.

I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from all this. Thailand is still a 'developing' country, most people have more pressing priorities, and certainly outside Bangkok the cultural infrastrure is lacking. There's censorship - especially in film. There's little state support for the arts other than traditional, conservative artforms, especially those focussed on heritage. Arts don't benefit from the Thai Lottery, for example. Having said that, Thailand is way ahead of all the other ASEAN countries - with the exception of Singapore - and things are constantly improving.

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