Art as our escape

Featuring works by Yoko Ono, Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramovic and a slew of Thai artists, the Bangkok Art Biennale 2020 will brave the uncertainties of a post-Covid Thailand to stage the first major international event next month

Dansoung Sungvoraveshapan's Winged. (Photo Courtesy of Dansoung Sungvoraveshapan)

This year's theme is at once hopeful and ironic: "Escape Routes" suggests a flight from our unusual times of pathological disruption and political cataclysm -- here, there and everywhere -- and yet the theme is an acknowledgment of those in-our-face uncertainties from which we struggle to find an exit.

In this strange moment in history, the Bangkok Art Biennale 2020 (BAB 2020) bucks the trend and decides to go ahead. Scheduled from Oct 29 to Jan 31, Bangkok's biggest art show is set to happen as a physical event despite a slate of challenges on many fronts, chiefly the Covid-19 pandemic, the global intervention that has forced several international art events to cancel in the past months as well as in the near future. But throughout the three months of BAB 2020, 82 artists, working under the banner "Escape Routes", will put up their works at nine venues, featuring paintings to performance sessions, video art to huge installation pieces.

Given the timing, BAB 2020 sets itself up as something more than just a citywide art show. As the first major international event to take place in Thailand in the socially-distanced age, it will be a test whether the country is ready to move across the threshold. And if it succeeds -- if it beats logistic and travel challenges -- art will illuminate the path and become a saviour to us all.

Popi by Khvay Samnang. (Photo Courtesy of Khvay Samnang)

"Precaution measures will be in place to ensure public health standards," says Apinan Poshyananda, chief executive and artistic director of BAB 2020. "Obviously there are challenges. But we want to build confidence and trust, and we have a big team to make it happen. If we pull it off, it can be an example to many other events that Thailand, with necessary measures, is ready to welcome international visitors."

In this edition of Bangkok Art Biennale, 82 artists from 35 countries, including over 30 from Thailand, will exhibit their works at both outdoor venues and art galleries: namely Wat Po, Wat Arun, Wat Prayurawongsawat, BAB Box, The Prelude, The Parq, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Museum Siam and Lhong 1919. It's worth noting that in the previous edition, the three historic temples -- Wat Po, Wat Arun, Wat Prayurawongsawat -- proved unique in the architectural and aesthetic presentation of artworks, as well as the fact that they are tourist attractions, and their return to this year's show is most welcome.

The number of artists has expanded from 75 in the first edition, and the 2020 issue will see a mixture of Thai and foreign artmakers, marquee names and rising stars, visual artists, performance artists, photographers, filmmakers and multi-disciplinarians, whose works span a range of conceptual depths, political commentary and playful spectacle. It is impossible to list them all here; but for instance, Serbian doyenne Marina Abramovic will return after her visit in 2018. Anish Kapoor, the British sculptor known for monumental pieces, for the first time will exhibit in Bangkok. Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei will have their pieces shown (though unlikely they will be here in person). Other notable names include Bill Viola, Ho Rui An, Din Q Le, Khvay Samnang, Miles Greenberg, Elena Knox, Ga Ram Kim, Rachel Maclean, Lu Yang, Baatarzorig Batjargal, Dane Mitchell, Ana Pvracki and many more (see bkkartbiennale.com).

I-na Phuyuthanon's video work The Reflection Of The Stigmatic Victims Of The Insurgencies. (Photo Courtesy of I-na Phuyuthanon)

A battalion of Thai artists will be on hand to contribute to the dialogue. Again, a good mix of veterans and mavericks whose works touch on everything from politics, LGBTI, anthropocene and the environment to the Deep South, the Cold War and regional identities. Artists will include Araya Rasdjarmereansook, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dansoung Sungvoraveshapan, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Michael Shaowanasai, Nipan Oraniwesna, Tawan Wattuya, Yuree Kensaku, Lampu Kansanoh, Lolay, Note Kritsada, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, Tada Hengsapkul, Chantana Tiprachat, I-na Phuyuthanon, P7, as well as Thailand-based non-Thai artists and many more.

An art biennale in the time of a viral scare can be testing and inspirational, says Apinan, who also leads the team of curators for the event.

"We announced the theme 'Escape Routes' last year, and some artists had already begun working," Apinan says. "But once Covid-19 caused such disturbances around the world and exposed the vulnerabilities that once lay hidden, many of them have decided to change direction and come up with new concepts in response to the situation.

"So what we'll see in the show will be something that speaks about the current time we're living in."

Marina Abramovic's still from Rising. (Photo Courtesy of Acute Art)

But it's not just Covid-19 that invites a catalogue of imagination on possible escape routes. Humanity, Apinan says, is beset by so many challenges, from climate change to refugee crisis and political upheavals, from mass migration to unemployment. Identity is undermined, nationalism promoted, intolerance on the rise. Even before the coronavirus, the world, says the curator, was threatened by violence, either obvious on in guises, and even the idea of escape is challenging in itself, because it's not clear to where this escape would lead us.

"In this way, artists can probably guide us through the way they interpret the phrase 'Escape Routes'," Apinan says. "The pandemic has jolted us to realise all the problems, the angst, that we're facing, and not just in Thailand but all over the world.

"At the same time, art can be insufficient. Because what's happening in the world -- what you can see on CNN, like the knee-on-neck incident in the US or other serious troubles elsewhere -- is so real, so intense, that whatever art can tell you is not the whole story. Some people ask about censorship and I say, what's the point of censorship when what you see on a daily basis is so much more violent?"

Emergency Case by Lampu Kansanoh. (Photo Courtesy of Lampu Kansanoh)

In her interview with BAB, Marina Abramovic reiterates the importance of art in the times of unpredictability. "In this situation [of the pandemic], it's the moment when artists have to create their works, to give the message of hope to the society. It's important to confront the fears and to look into the future."

  • The Bangkok Art Biennale will take place from Oct 29 to Jan 31, 2021. The BAB 2020 is supported by Tourism Authority of Thailand, City of Bangkok, Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, and various private sponsors, principally Thai Beverage.
  • Admission is free at all nine venues: Wat Po; Wat Arun; Wat Prayurawongsawat; BAB Box, on the corner of Rama IV and Witthayu roads; The Prelude on Witthayu Road; The Parq near Queen Sirikit National Convention Center; Bangkok Art and Culture Centre; Museum Siam; and Lhong 1919 on the Chao Phraya.
  • Precautionary health measures will be strictly observed, while BAB volunteers, known as Dek Bab, will ensure social distancing rules and guide visitors during their visit at all venues.
  • The BAB 2020 is curated by Apinan Poshyananda, Witugorn Kongka, Wenjie Sun, Ong Puay Khim and Dow Wasiksiri.
  • For a full list of artists and other updates, go to bkkartbiennale.com

Wat Prayurawongsawat will serve as a venue for BAB 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Bangkok Art Biennale)

Bill Viola's Three Women, a 2008 colour high-definition video on flat panel display. (Photo Courtesy of Kira Perov)