Currents of change
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Currents of change

Southeast Asian artists to shine the spotlight on displacement and diaspora at the 60th Venice Biennale

Currents of change
The Man Without A Past by Natee Utarit. (Photo: Natee Utarit and Richard Koh Fine Art)

The Venice Biennale is a prestigious international cultural exhibition. This year, 15 Southeast Asian artists are set to contribute to its 60th edition and showcase their talent at the exhibition "The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing". The exhibition will be held at Palazzo Smith Mangilli Valmarana which will open to the public after being closed for 12 years for this momentous event.

Organised by the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation, "The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing" will open for viewing from April 20 to Nov 24. The exhibition, which showcases a constellation of artworks from Southeast Asia, reflects upon cultural flows and moving water as metaphors of unexplored ocean and territories. The 40 featured artworks range from paintings and sculptures to mixed media works and video installations. Curated by Prof Apinan Poshyananda, "The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing" highlights themes of displacement, diaspora, colonialism, and hybrids of diverse cultures across Southeast Asia with a particular emphasis on symbolism of water and maritime crossings.

At the press conference for "The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing" at Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, Thapana Sirivadhanabhakdi, chairman of the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation, said that Prof Apinan, the curator, has demonstrated exceptionally assertive artistic capabilities on the international stage.

" 'The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing' highlights the rich cultural heritage and artistic values of Southeast Asia and provides a platform for Thai and other artists to gain global recognition. The exhibition aims to contribute to the development of an integrated economy in Thailand and its neighbours. In addition, the film,The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing starring Marina Abramović and Pichet Klunchun, will premiere at the Generali Procuratie Vecchie Foundation in San Marco Square," said Thapana.

Additionally, Thapana talked about the relationship that has existed between Thailand and Italy since the reign of King Chulalongkorn.

"Historical records stated that King Chulalongkorn visited the Venice Biennale in 1897 to view the beauty of art in Italy. After his visit, he commissioned Italian artists and architects, including Galileo Chini, Mario Tamagno and Corrado Feroci, to design and construct various significant landmarks in Thailand," Thapana said.

Curator Prof Apinan Poshyananda. (Photo: Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) Foundation)

As the curator, Prof Apinan talked about the historical Palazzo Smith Mangilli Valmarana. The palazzo was once the home of the British consul Joseph Smith, who was a passionate art collector.

"Smith, an agent of Canaletto and patron of Venetian painters, along with his wife, soprano singer Catherine Tofts, turned the palazzo into a bustling social and artistic hub for art collectors, patrons, scholars, aficionados, artists, actors, musicians, philosophers, diplomats and dignitaries. Count Giuseppe Mangilli, who later became owner of the palazzo, commissioned Giannantonio Selva to design the interior decoration in neoclassical style."

The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing which premiered at Switzerland's St Moritz Art Film Festival in 2023 is one of the exhibition highlights. The film features dancer Pichet Klunchun and Marina Abramović, a symbol of the diaspora who travels from Venice to Bangkok and encounters the Monkey King, holy men, spirits and puppeteers. The work tells the story of a wandering spirit travelling in foreign lands between Venice and Bangkok, which is also known as the Venice of the East and closely linked with the Italian diaspora.

Seven artists -- Bounpaul Phothyzan (Laos), Chitti Kasemkitvatana (Thailand), Nakrob Moonmanas (Thailand), Priyageetha Dia (Singapore), Khvay Samnang (Cambodia), Kawita Vatanajyankur (Thailand) and Natee Utarit (Thailand) -- appeared at the press conference and shared what they would bring to exhibit at the Venice Biennale.

Palazzo Smith Mangilli Valmarana. (Photo: Palazzo Smith Mangilli Valmarana)

Priyageetha said she was thrilled about participating in the exhibition. She revealed that she put a lot of thought into how to connect the ideas around the spiritual, historical and geographical and how to relate them back to contemporary issues. She considered issues of movement and identity. Her video of the deep sea examines ancestral migratory movements from India to the Malay Peninsula. Drawing from her family experience, the artist explores how migrants across the Indian Ocean are perceived as foreigners and marginalised.

Mythological dancer Khvay Samnang, inspired by the Ramayana, portrays themes related to hegemony and deforestation. Khvay was also excited about the project and expressed that a collaboration with other artists is a great thing.

Two Thai artists, Chitti and Nakrob, who share an interest in history, collaborated on a video installation based on historical images and stories they discovered through research. Chitti explained that a room in the palazzo featuring two old mirrors inspired them to explore history through their lens.

The Sea Is Blue Memory by Priyageetha Dia. (Photo: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

"Our video installation will feature moving images, still photos and footage from the Thai Film Archive. Our work will present people, who unlike royal figures and nobility, are not usually given much importance. One of our figures is Eugene Cinda Grassi, whose father was an Italian architect, but there is no record of his mother's nationality. Grassi moved to France as a teenager and later composed many songs related to Thailand. Another person during the reign of King Chulalongkorn is Thongkham, who as an 11-year-old boy dreamed of travelling abroad and stowed away on a ship and travelled to Europe and America," Chitti explained.

Kawita created several videos to showcase at the palazzo. She revealed that one of them is A Symphony Dyed Blue, which represents polluted water from the textile industry.

"Polluted water comes from human actions. It is a result of what people have done to the environment. My new videos are related to moving water, but I don't want to reveal them yet since no one has seen them. Viewers who visit the palazzo will encounter my videos throughout the space, even in the restroom," explained Kawita.

Calling For Rain by Khvay Samnang. (Photo: Khvay Samnang)

Bounpaul created sculptures made from remnants of bombs left behind by the US Army during the Vietnam War. The Lao artist explained that a bomb that crippled someone he knew and killed or disabled others gave him the idea. He interviewed many victims of bombings and created one sculpture for each victim.

"Laos was one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. After I met a disabled woman, I decided to create a sculpture for her as well as other victims from remnants of bombs. Each sculpture has a metal engraving of the victim's story. I want to tell the world that war continues to haunt people for a long time. The negative impacts of the Vietnam War persist, even though the war itself ended in 1975," said Bounpaul.

Natee revealed that his work stems from the imagination of what would happen if the origins of all world civilisations stemmed from Buddhism.

"If the origins of world civilisation stemmed from Buddhism, Eastern civilisation would be the main force of the current world movement. For this exhibition, everything is viewed as a regional matter, not as individual countries, and the entire Southeast Asian region has been affected by colonialism. This exhibition should provide a clear picture of the historical movement from the past to the present."

"The Spirits Of Maritime Crossing" will be on view as part of the 60th Venice Biennale at Palazzo Smith Mangilli Valmarana in Venice, Italy, from April 20 to Nov 24.

Thapana Sirivadhanabhakdi, chairman of the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation. (Photo: Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation)

Our Place In Their World by Chitti Kasemkitvatana and Nakrob Moonmanas. (Photo: Chitti Kasemkitvatana and Nakrob Moonmanas)

Story From Plateau by Bounpaul Phothyzan. (Photo: Bounpaul Phothyzan)

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