Thursday, January 13, 2011

Paisan Tirapongwit, ‘The Future of the Body of the Artworld in Thailand: Do they Really Have Any Future?’

Paisan Tirapongwit, ‘The Future of the Body of the Artworld in Thailand: Do they Really Have Any Future?’ in the Silpa Wattanatham Column of Siamrath Weekly News Magazine, Yr. 58, Vol. 16, 7 – 13 January, 2011.

The year 2010 has passed now from the calendar’s pages and we have already moved one week into the new calendar year of 2011. People in many circles have expressed extravagant hope and expectation that in this new year, there will be no devastating evil happenings in politics. They hope that armed camps will not arise to slash at one another in fights for power and control of government, scooping up and amassing advantage and privilege out of the coins in the national budget via the many mega projects of those professional ‘political gamesmen.’ They are a breed of tigers, lions, wild bulls and rhinos scouring the earth with their fangs and horns. During the past two years Thai society has been badly bruised, but there is a good chance to change things for the better.

But as for art circles in Bangkok and the rest of the country, if you ask me, I’m not at all confident. This year the various parts of the Thai artworld can find a bright future with some good dreams and hopes within their grasp, waiting there before them – if only things would not get worse than they have been in the year just past. That would be a triple bonus in itself. It is the story of art in a country whose administrative government has never taken the slightest interest in furthering the arts, has lacked any vision of the arts, without even the most minimal understanding of the nature of art in the contemporary world.

In 2002, some people from the artworld and from the political sector got together to successfully ram through the project to build a Bangkok municipal contemporary art and culture center. It is one of the departments in the new Ministry of Culture created under Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatr.

The inception of a ministry of culture and a new department - the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture - helped people in the Thai art world to feel hope that the activities of the artworld would receive more systematic and concrete support and promotion. The future looked good, looked hopeful. There would be no more neglect and abandonment by the government – as had been the case in times past – even though it was not really a heavy investment of patronage as in the time of the absolute monarchy when the Chakri kings of the Thai and their governments in turn undertook such patronage.

So you could say that after the institution of the city’s contemporary art and culture center, becoming an organ of the state government, a great many Thai artworld activities received some rather good support from the government, especially in the early years when the director of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture was Dr. Apinan Posyanond.

I mention this because I noticed that after Dr. Apinan finished his term and was followed by 2 or 3 successors, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture has lacked any really formidable vitality. Instead, the office has leaned heavily in the direction of activities which almost exclusively emphasize themes of duty. So much of what was done before has ceased almost entirely, and there has been no expansion to open new areas.

This problem in part results from meager budgets and scarce cash flow, as usual. It is difficult to push for the birth of new, creative and interesting activities. Another aspect is the lack of knowledgeable and understanding personnel or groups who are closely related to art activities. So one understands the problem of scarcity and the dwindling away that has begun in art circles working with the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. It is hard to know how to think about promoting or building more into existing activities.

The Venice Biennale exposition is a big undertaking once every two years, an event in which Thai art society has been invited to participate. The Office of Contemporary Art and Culture provided not so many million baht for the transport of the artworks and personnel needed to set up the show in Venice. And you can’t compare what was done with the pavilions supported by the governments of Hong Kong or Singapore. They generously poured in many tens of millions in order to announce their power and to disseminate works of art from their countries – this despite the fact that these nations are just little islands – so much smaller than the Golden Ax which is Thailand. But those governments have potential and demonstrate a far-seeing vision for art.

They know very well that investing in and promoting art takes a rather long time to fruition. But the harvests that come are enduring and strong, as for example in America, England, Japan, China or South Korea. They all make good use of the branches of their various arts and culture, of their young men and women who are seen everywhere, with skill and efficiency which colors their ideas and points of view. But our Thai government is so stupid and muddled, so blind and short-sighted, consistently clueless, inept and senseless.

Counting from 2011, one isn’t certain that the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture of the Ministry of Culture will support or push forward activities which are creative, energetic and vigorous. Or will they just continue to hand out Silpatorn prizes with purses of 100,000 baht? Will they continue to be preoccupied with their regular yearly duties and accept the necessity of this state of affairs?

In addition to hopes for the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture in the new year, I still hope for the future and fate of another agency which is firmly in government hands - the Bangkok Municipal Art and Culture Gallery. A new director is expected to oversee and take full responsibility for managing the work of the gallery this year to replace the ‘acting’ directors who have for so long been standing in the position.

Not only do we hope for a new director of the Gallery who can really do the job in the position; I hope that the BMA – to which it is officially attached – will be willing to spend a bit more on the city’s official art gallery in order to really get it moving. And more activities are needed which bring art to the public in a well planned and systematic fashion, well-funded and well-staffed, rather than in a state of dribbling and trickling, hindered and impeded, pulled and curbed till it is unable to move at all or engage in any activities which are truly vigorous and challenging. In the end, there is a state of paralysis such as happened during the past two years.

Arranging for good art activities or exhibitions which inform and cultivate the public requires money from the municipal budget. The city needs to support and seriously promote the gallery. In addition, the BMA Gallery Foundation must be fully empowered with administrative positions, instead of being forced to wriggle and shift as they have had to do – it’s so annoying. I don’t know why [the BMA] needs to cling on to these [positions and controls] or to what end. What reason could they have for carrying on this way?

In my honest opinion, if an organization like the BMA Art and Culture Gallery remains under the care and administrative control and management of the state [i.e. the municipality], then this art organization is certainly hopeless and without a foreseeable future, as things stand. A precedent clearly exists in the lifeless art institution of the Museum of the National Gallery of Art. It is appropriately labeled a ‘museum,’ truly dead already.

The Office of Contemporary Art in the Ministry of Culture is no exception. If this department-level state agency has no ‘art people’ functioning as staff or line, doing documentation, information, academics, or whatever, in its various units; if the agency simply swallows personnel with knowledge, expertise and experience with art’s various unexpected connections; it will be very difficult to push ahead in a forward, challenging, effective way which encourages the creative arts to produce interesting things in the Thai artworld and for Thai society generally.

There is another factor which I regard as a weak point or gap which impacts the management of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, the Museum of the National Gallery of Art and perhaps, it appears, the BMA Art and Culture Gallery as well. In each case, the director of these agencies holds his or her position for only 2 or 3 years. The chief officer leads for only a short time before being replaced. This doesn’t bode well, because these directors don’t have enough time to carry out any of their projects. There is no continuity. Besides their dependence on funding, creative projects must also be wrestled with, cleaned and polished, edited and improved, in order to function well.

While expecting very little from art agencies controlled and monitored by the Thai government, I hope new magazines about art will be created, published and put out on the stands for sale. They could help quicken the pulse and breath of life of our artworld, making it stronger, more interesting and more intense, and arousing it from listless depression.

Some people reply that we have magazines like FINE ART already. Isn’t that enough, they ask, for a society in which more than half the people in the country are not interested in art? Perhaps it would be enough, if we only read magazines offering news about art exhibitions in Thailand and abroad. But what I wish for is a magazine or some other medium that will help shake up the art world and make it vibrate – make it tremble with life and save it from listless quietude. It would be a magazine which not only gave the latest news in the artworld, but which also stimulated creative ideas, with expressions of opinion and criticism of artworks, or stories backed by clear thinking to stir up new ideas which crack and strike the myriad of events and happenings using reason and principles.

People in our art community might be stimulated and aroused to compete in creating things strange and new. They might not be satisfied to cling to their old successes. They would not linger with their old ideas about what is comfortable and familiar, the fleeting illusions of fame. They would then perhaps not be afraid to go beyond what they had already achieved, seeking new frontiers of imagination. We might help each other search for new ways to approach the capitalists who continue marching in place with art by pouring money into exhibitions in which artworks compete for prizes and purses.

All I have written here only points to my faint hope that the new calendar plans for 2011 might change. As to the results, we will see by December. Happy New Year, everyone! May you find the happiness you desire!

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