Saturday, June 18, 2011

Paisarn Tirapongwit, Thai Flag Flies in Art Exhibition Abroad – the 54th Venice Biennale

Paisarn Tirapongwit, “Thai Flag Flies in Art Exhibition Abroad – the 54th Venice Biennale,” in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News, Yr. 58, Vol.37, 3 – 9 June, 2011.

If the summer or winter sports Olympics were the principle competitions which all young athletes round the world aspire to, if having the opportunity to be chosen to represent ones home country, and to participate, would give such great satisfaction and joy - - then what a historic honor in the life of a young athlete, to be a winner in an Olympic match and to win an Olympic medal!

Taking part in a major competitive event like the ‘International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale’ in Italy must be one of the principle goals among creative artists everywhere. They hope they will have a chance to take their work to show on an international stage with others in the Venice show, which is staged every 2 years. This biennale, first established in 1895, has been going on continuously up to the present day, for 116 years.

And although Thailand has been aware of this large and venerable exhibition since the time of the 5th King, who visited and viewed the 2nd Venice Biennale on His Majesty’s 1897 European tour, we had to wait till 2003 before Thai artists were invited to represent the nation by taking their works to show officially. The Biennale had already been carrying on for 100 years!

The 50th Venice International Biennale of 2003 was the first time that the works of a group of people in Thailand working in the creative arts had a chance to select works to show together in one of the oldest and most venerable art exhibitions in the world. It was a beginning, planting the flag, so to speak; a way of using works of art to announce the person, the very self, of Thai society. Those works would speak to the people of many nations who would be traveling and touring through Venice.

This show in Italy introduces and makes the Thai character famous in other perspectives than the suffering identity by which Thailand is known all over the world (and which Thai people do not like), for example, as a land of sexual pleasures and drugs, a favorite destination for sex tourism, etc.

Thailand can now participate in the Venice Biennale with contemporary works of art which tell about us, our attitudes and ideas, many things which suggest what it is to be ‘Thai’ nowadays. But taking part doesn’t mean simply bringing up the corpse or the ghost of the ancestors in traditional artworks like Thai dance, folk dance, the kohn, Thai boxing, or fighting with sword or staff which are utterly commonplace by now.

Thailand has for 10 years been invited to join the Venice Biennale’s stage for the art of many countries. Many countries have willingly invested tens and hundreds of millions in order to bring artworks from their own country to show and impress the admiring eyes of people of the world who join the event as spectators. They show clearly that they have an identity, a self to be seen from other points of view. They show their progress, their intellect and ideas, their culture and civilization. They show the world and express themselves through their works in large impressive pavilions. Each country boasts of its achievements. This is what is seen on the premises of the Venice Biennale each year.

But the team of individuals who hauled the art works from Thailand to Venice to show them off to international audiences were relatively penniless, operating on a shoestring. They were funded by the government through the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture in the Ministry of Culture. Support was limited - not many millions of baht, not the many millions needed to cover the costs of such a venture. The individual and group presenters have had to struggle, search, and beg for whatever support the private sector was able or willing to provide. By pressing on this way, they have been able to take their artwork from Thailand to show it off along with the other presenters at the event.

It’s quite sad when you think about it, the attitude and mindset of our government officials. They still regard as unacceptable any investment in disseminating the fame, face and identity of Thailand in ways which depart from the typical government model. They are reluctant if contemporary art is involved instead of traditional Thai dance or Thai boxing, which are familiar and popular symbols of Thailand among government officials. But ‘Thai-ness’ moves on continually into the future. It’s altogether meaningless, extraneous and unnecessary to try to promote, support or help [culture] along.

While the governments and communities of our fellow Asians in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have only little islands, and are much smaller [geographically] than Thailand, they are pouring investment in the tens of millions to rent space in buildings for their pavilions and for their artists and workers in art who represent them. They are able to install their artworks with ease and convenience. They don’t experience the squeeze and the crowding difficulties like the group representing Thailand. The Thai contingent had to be thrifty and tight-fisted, counting every penny because some parts of the budget had to be sliced off for the use of state officials as well.

Many people who are not interested and don’t see the value or importance of works of art may look at art in the same light as the state. They think that spending millions to display works of art in a single show is extravagant, meaningless, and unnecessary. Looking at the matter on a very superficial level, one might possibly accept such a view as reasonable.

But if you look at it from the point of view of superpowers like the US, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, or China, the governments of these countries pour many hundreds of millions into these exhibitions in order to open their pavilions and show the work of the artists of their countries. They regularly join in mounting the Venice Biennale.

These countries don’t consider participation in this art exhibition simply as an ordinary art show and tourist attraction. The governments which finance these pavilions hope that the artworks will be instruments which announce the distinctive identity of their nation. Whether a country is great or small, having a pavilion at the Biennale puts their art where people can see it as they circulate through the vast exhibition. These displays announce clearly at a certain level the potential and freedom of ideas and expression of their society for the people of the world to see.

Take Taiwan for example. The Taiwanese use their art pavilion in this biennale to show off the dignity of their ‘nation’s’ art just like other countries. They are not just an appendage or some compromised portion of China, which is always trying to block them and force them to return to the fold. At the same time, Hong Kong, which has already returned to its mother country, stills maintains its status under the ‘one nation, two systems’ policy. Hong Kong is ‘different,’ and it tries to preserve and pass on its identity. They do not surrender; they resist being swallowed down.

For which reason, Hong Kong has its own pavilion which operates independently in its own distinct place, apart from the pavilion of the People’s Republic of China. This is a political matter which reflects distinctive cultures and identities. The exhibition in the pavilion of each country must be counted as an instrument which disseminates the distinctive contemporary character of each country in itself.

Most especially, the city of Venice is famous, a place widely known by people from many countries round the world. In the period of the year in which the biennale is held, there will, without doubt, be many tourists coming in ranks to see the event. This great exhibition is on the tour schedule of tourist groups who plan ahead to make it part of their travel program.

So the various countries rent buildings to use for their pavilions in which to install and show their artworks all together, each in their own space. The area set aside for the Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition covers a very large area indeed. The pavilions which are seen and known will automatically get the serious attention of tourists who look forward to seeing them, especially if that country’s pavilion features artworks which are striking and outstanding. Depending on how works are presented, they attract visitors and tourists who have come to admire and enjoy them.

As for the works at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture in the Ministry of Culture still supports the selection of persons working in art from Thailand to enable them to bring their work to join the show, like the four previous times. This year there is a conceptual work, PARADISO DI NAVIN & A MISSION TO ESTABLISH NAVINLAND, by Navin Lawalchaiyakul, a Thai artist of Indian descent. He is well known and well accepted on the international art scene. He has been selected by two curators, i.e. Bandit Jantarojanakit and Steven Pettifore.

I have not yet seen the original works installed at the Thai pavilion this time. Nor will I be up to the challenge of the making the journey to the distant city of Venice to actually experience and enjoy the originals. But the information I received in handouts from the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture helps expand a basic understanding about Navin’s two works which have been taken to show.

“The artist will reflect and show the political atmosphere of the world in the context of Thai society. He challenges our understanding of identity, the essential character of the country, and the borders of unbounded countries and communities.

“The artist also connects with his earlier works. He established the political party, Navin 0, bringing together, as one, people named Navin from every corner of the world. In the creation of Navinland we see an attempt to build an identity, a new self, which is not thinking in terms only of nationality, language, or the old parameters of nation-building in the contemporary world.”

Putting it simply, I still can’ figure out how much those two works of art can effectively tell any story or create a clear and complete understanding for audiences according to the artist’s (i.e. Navin’s) objectives for the works because I haven’t seen the originals with my own eyes. So I have to leave it to those who have a chance to travel to the Biennale to see what they have to say about it. Eventually, the works will find their way back to be exhibited for audiences in Thailand. Then we will know how well they answer the artist’s objectives.

If any readers are interested in going to see the work of Navin Lawanchaikul in the Thai pavilion in Venice, you can see them from 4 June to 24 November in the area of the Paradiso Art Place near the seaside area of the Giardini park.

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