Opting in

The results of German artist Ole Ukena's year working in Bangkok have gone on show

Of those who visited Ole Ukena last year while he was creating art in Bangkok, some were left wondering "what is this crazy German doing here". Now they are able to see the results, with a solo exhibition titled "Giving Up Is Not An Option" now on at Serindia Gallery.

Ukena spent last year in the newly-established Thaillywood Contemporary Artist Residency in Thailand, and Serindia Gallery is an exhibiting partner of the residency project. In the show, Ukena explores the year's journey and encourages viewers to explore issues around them, from social criticism, personal success and failure, collective psychological imprints, to the absurdities of the world we live in.

Life spoke to Ukena about his works and his views on the contemporary art scene.

What is the inspiration behind "Giving Up Is Not An Option"?

The show is named after one of the main pieces. It's the first one when you enter the exhibition space but the last three letters 'I', 'O' and 'N', are still on the ground together with a hammer and nails, like the artist wasn't able to finish the final hanging of the work. At first sight it's irritating but the work is finished exactly by not being finished. It can be read as a comment about the pressure as an artist to deliver finished works, especially at the end of a residency with expectations from many sides including yourself. At the heart of it lies as well what I find to be true these days: It's too late to be a pessimist. It's the first show in 2013 and we are all still breathing while, well, look around.

Tell us about the "Thaillywood" residency.

Thaillywood is a contemporary artist residency where artists come and stay for a certain amount of time. I stayed a whole year and lived and worked in amazing conditions. Just because of the incredible size of the studio I could do some works I wouldn't be able to easily produce back home and I really enjoyed the variety of material choices that exist in Thailand. Besides the art production, one big part of the residency is the community outreach programme in partnership with CRE8 Foundation. That means we go to local schools and give workshops about collaborative art, it's refreshing.

Many of your works in this collection feature words and quotes, is language a source material for you?

I don't use language primarily as my material but yes, it is one big aspect of it. I am in love with wordplay, poetry and still know that language in itself is [a limited way] to express what we really mean. A good poem/text can point towards the experience of something but of course it's not the experience itself.

In my work I see language as raw material that can help to enhance the story that lies within a piece, the letters and words are the physical expression of a concept that evoke a very personal way in. The choice of materials that the words are made of plays a very important role.

What is your view of the contemporary art scene in Thailand?

My impression is that people mostly associate art with the traditional media and at first expect the art to be pretty. I had many funny situations over the year where people I worked with in the studio just stared at some works and just didn't get what I was doing there all day. Putting matches in a canvas. Sorting out toy soldiers. Writing words on paper. Smoke coming out of my head. What is this crazy German doing here all day and why does he even get paid for this?

There are many young artists that have a more experimental and concept-driven approach but the reality here is that it's almost impossible to make a living with it because many of the collectors are still drawn to the idea of paying primarily for an oil painting they can hang up in their bedroom than a work that is interesting but hard to hang.

I know many of the younger artists have to struggle with this, also because there's not so many institutions helping these positions to have time and space to be developed. But I think in the coming years this can change, there needs to be more networking within the gallery scene.

Ideally, there should be an art fair where new positions can be shown and a new audience can be reached. The BACC is such a great building but it's partly again transformed into a shopping mall. Right now it's still pretty much everyone for themselves but that can change quickly if gallerists and artists realise that everyone will benefit from this. There's so much money in the tourism industry that always tells the same story of the land of smiles, great nature and so on.

I think if some of this money would actually go into the contemporary art scene, a whole new interesting story could be told that is a win-win situation for everyone.

Tell us why you began the CRE8 Foundation.

CRE8 Foundation is a non-profit organisation that realises collaborative art projects together with artists and kids from all over the world. We believe in the power of art being able to cross borders and want to give kids the experience of having a common creative goal with other kids from countries that they might not even have heard of.

We just had an exhibition called "Connected Creativity" in Bangkok at the BACC which was a great success and an opportunity to introduce our work to Thai people.

Together in collaboration with Thaillywood Artist Residency we created a community outreach programme that works closely with the residency programme. We teach local kids about art and push them to trust their own creativity.

As it looks now, we will continue our programme in Thailand for while. And who knows maybe in a couple of years we will have helped a new generation of artists to find their own voice.

About the author

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Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer