Yayoi Kusama’s 14 Pumpkins (2017) is an installation of giant inflatable polka-dot pumpkins at Central World, an upmarket shopping mall in the commercial heart of Bangkok. It is one of several works which the biennale is showing in retail complexes, banks and luxury hotels throughout the city. Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale

The biennale has also placed 15 works inside three Buddhist temples along the Chao Phraya river. Obtaining permission to use these sacred sites which are visited by around 6,000 people every day required “delicate and patient” negotiation says Apinan Poshyananda. This fibreglass statue by the Thai artist Komkrit Tepthian Giant Twins (2018) is at Wat Arun Ratchawararam (Temple of Dawn). It shows a Thai temple guardian joined together with a Chinese warrior, a fusion which speaks of Chinese trade with and migration to Thailand and the assimilation there of Chinese culture, the artist says. Photo: Cristina Ruiz

Basket Tower (2018), a soaring sculpture of brightly coloured plastic baskets by the South Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa welcomes visitors to the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC), one of the biennal’s main sites. The work is a comment on the “superficial happiness we live in”, the organisers say in the biennale catalogue. Photo: Cristina Ruiz

The artistic director Apinan Poshyananda has collaborated with four other curators—Patrick Flores, the professor of art studies at the University of the Phillippines; Adele Tan, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Singapore; Luckana Kunavichayanont, the former director of the Bangkok Art and Culture Center; and Sansern Milindasuta, the dean of the School of Fine and Applied Art at Bangkok University—to bring together the work of 75 artists from 33 countries for the inaugural edition of the Bangkok Art Biennale. Around half of the artists whose work is on display are from Thailand. Photo: Bangkok Art Biennale

Eisa Jocson’s Becoming White (2018) is a wry deconstruction of the Snow White fairy tale on display at the O.P. Place shopping mall. It consists of performance, works on paper, videos, sound installation and sculptures that critique the idea that whiteness is seen as a prerequisite for happiness. It was made in reference to Disneyland Hong Kong where “a legion of dancers from the Philippines are employed as professional entertainers to repeat performances of happiness as their daily labour. Excluded from the main roles that are reserved for specific racial profiles, they are assigned anonymous supporting roles such as a zebra in The Lion King…[or] a monkey in Tarzan,” the artist says in a statement in the biennal catalogue. Photo: Cristina Ruiz

The Check Point (2018) by the Myanmar artist Nge Lay is a giant vagina constructed from ceremonial tribal sarongs, which visitors are encouraged to walk through. “All of us come through this gate to get here,” the artist says. “I am a mother, a wife, I have a lot of feelings about being a woman,” she says, adding that it is “very difficult to show art in Mynamar” and that she is grateful to have been included in the Bangkok exhibition. Photo: Cristina Ruiz

Chumpon Apisuk’s I Have Dreams (2018) is a video showing interviews conducted by the artist with more than a dozen Thai and migrant women who are sex workers in the city of Chiang Mai. They tell us that their idea of happiness is having enough money to build a new house for their parents, start their own business or be financially independent. Photo: Bangkok Art Biennale

Lin Htet from Myanmar presents Our Glorious Past Our Present Our Glorious Future (2018) is one of eight performances taking place in the opening weeks of the biennale (until 11 November) as part of the Marina Abramovic Institute’s contribution to the exhibition. For eight hours a day, six days a week, Htet stands behind barbed wire “as an artistic protest against the mass confinement of immigrants from the Global South including the Rohingya…Throughout the duration of the performance, the artist will focus on sending Metta (notion of loving kindness in Buddhist belief) or positive psychic energy to all the immigrants of the Global South who are currently in confinement,” according to a statement. Photo: Cristina Ruiz

Bangkok’s first biennial is a blissed-out affair

Artists from 33 countries explore theme of happiness at event with works shown in galleries, temples, shopping malls and hotels

Choi Jeong Hwa's Tower Baskets (2018). Photo: Cristina Ruiz Choi Jeong Hwa's Tower Baskets (2018). Photo: Cristina Ruiz

Choi Jeong Hwa's Tower Baskets (2018). Photo: Cristina Ruiz Choi Jeong Hwa's Tower Baskets (2018). Photo: Cristina Ruiz

Bangkok has launched its first biennal (until 3 February 2019) with an international schedule of artists showing at diverse venues around the city. “We’ve wanted this for a very long time,” says artistic director Apinan Poshyananda.

Working with four other curators, Poshyananda has placed the work of 75 artists from 33 countries in 20 venues across the city ranging from museums and galleries to heritage sites, Buddhist temples along the Chao Phraya river, as well as shopping malls, hotels and banks.

This is a biennial that explodes into the city, claiming commercial and sacred spaces alike, to explore notions of happiness (the title of the show is Beyond Bliss). “We wanted to ask artists what is their view of happiness and bliss against the backdrop of a world full of chaos and drama,” Poshyananda says.

The artists’ responses range from meditative, inward-looking reflections to examinations of political displacement, gender, race and discrimination. A strong focus on female artists and labour runs through the show and there are also works focusing on present political crises, such as the plight of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladeshi camps. “For many artists, happiness is simply a life without violence,” Poshyananda says.

Poshyananda and his collaborators have managed a rare feat by organising an exhibition that is both exuberant and tightly curated. Too many biennial directors choose topics that are too lofty or vague, then display art that bears no discernible relation to their stated themes. But here, nearly every work seen by The Art Newspaper clearly engages with the exhibition’s central question.

Around half the exhibiting artists are from outside Thailand: there are major works from the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset, the Korean artist Lee Bul, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the Russian collective AES + F and the France-based Chinese artists Huang Yong Ping and Yan Pei-Ming, among others. “We did not just parachute artists’ work here for the show—many came in advance and we had talks and discussions with them,” Poshyananda says. “We’ve tried to learn the lessons of other biennials but to create something entirely distinctive and specific to this context,” he adds.

There are also eight performances taking place in the opening weeks of the biennial (until 11 November) under the aegis of the Marina Abramovic Institute. “[Abramovic] was the first artist I asked to participate and the first who said yes,” Poshyananda says. In the biennial’s first week alone, nearly 20,000 visitors attended these performances at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC), one of the biennial’s main venues. “There is an enormous appetite for contemporary art in Bangkok,” Poshyananda says.

More importantly for the development of the local art scene, the work of around 34 Thai artists and groups is also on display, including pieces by the Muslimah Collective, five young Muslim female artists from the south of Thailand whose work reflects on both the ongoing Islamist violence that blights the region as well as the daily lives of ordinary people. Should the biennal succeed, it is likely to become the flagship event for the country’s contemporary art sector.

Who pays?

This year, biennals in Montreal and Marrakech have been cancelled for lack of money (the organisation that runs the former filed for insolvency in February while the latter event is heavily in debt). To avoid this fate, Poshyananda has worked hard to ensure that there will be at least three editons of the Bangkok Art Biennale and has already secured funding for the next two editions in 2020 and 2022 from corporations including the lead sponsor ThaiBev, one of Southeast Asia’s largest beverage companies.

The inaugural edition was funded with corporate donations of $67m in both cash and kind (numerous hotels such as the Peninsula, the W hotel and the Mandarin Oriental offered free hotel rooms), making this biennal not just a curatorial achievement but also a fundraising one, particularly impressive in a country with little government money for the arts. “We want to make this sustainable and we hope this will evolve into a long-term exhibition,” Poshyananda says.