Thailand’s political colour wars made headlines last April and May and they are still going on. The conflicts pit the yellow shirts – royalist, conservative, pro-government, urban middle class – against the red shirts – supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, pro-democracy, ruralist lower middle class and urban forward thinkers and socialists. Nobody knows when the fighting will end, but what’s certain is that Thai society is polarized. There’s a rift that’s growing wider. With no Plan B for the political problems, what will happen to the artists, their artistic processes and concepts?
The older generation of socially oriented artists who took part in political activism in the last century were for the most part against Thaksin. They stayed silent about the red-shirt protests of April-May 2010. Meanwhile, a younger generation of artists showed greater awareness. After the red-shirt protests were ended by military force, the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation was formed to enforce state-of-emergency powers. Under the CRES, censorship of websites and media intensified, prompting the younger generation to turn to social media to circulate information. For the first time in Thai history, people at all levels of society discussed politics among friends, either on the social networks or face to face.
In the wake of the crackdown, the government launched a “national reconciliation” effort, with the Ministry of Culture immediately organizing the “Imagine Peace” exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. But was it too early for the artists to properly reflect on the complicated issues and engage the public? With ad-hoc preparation, more than 50 artists participated. Their reactions were mixed. In October, in the same space, there was “Rupture”, which offered different perspectives. The exhibition by local and foreign photographers and photojournalists focused on the crackdown. But a few days after it opened, some provocative pieces were removed in a show of institutional censorship.
Many artists have since reflected on the social and political problems. Among them are Rirkrit Tiravanija (“who’s afraid of red, green and yellow?”, 100 Tonson Gallery, 2010), Nico Dockx and Rirkrit Tiravanija (“Erasing 22’09”, unfinished, Ver Gallery, 2010) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Primitive” project and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, 2010). They explored political history and social memory. Others address the censorship, propaganda and direct and indirect experiences during and after the May crisis. They include Montri Toembsombat (“Breaking Out of the Cocoon, Growing Out of Rice”, Jim Thompson Art Center, 2010), Sathit Sattarasart (“Absence/ Recurrence”, Ver Gallery, 2010), Sutthirat Supaparinya (“Disc is Dead/Disco is Alive”, WTF Gallery, 2011) and the group exhibition “Within These Walls” by young curator “Bow” Nikan Waseenont (BACC, 2010). Aiming to take things further will be the Siam Inception Art and Culture Club, a collective of young artists, filmmakers and social critics, which will organize “Root Lab“ at the Pridi Banomyong Institute to investigate the social space and memory of May 2010.
Many projects sought to reach wider audiences in Bangkok and the provinces. Young architects launched the CAN: Community Act Network to reinvestigate the urban situation of inner-city Bangkok. In Chiangmai, members of the defunct Social Installation public-art project of the 1990s started their own projects. Navin Rawanchaikul collaborated with the community in the Waroros market with “Mahakad” (2011). Kamin Lertchaiprasert will start his 31st-century museum near his residence in the Umong temple area. In Northeast Thailand, the Jim Thompson Art Center launched an artist-in-residency and public-art program in the Art On Farm project during the Jim Thompson Farm Tour in Nakhon Ratchasima.
There’s a slim chance that the ongoing social and political problems will be resolved in the short term. During this critical time, artistic and cultural practice becomes more significant and integral to reinvestigating and reshaping social directions. So far, more artists and collectives have become more proactive and are taking part in more social engagement. They will be wilder, wider and deeper as long as our socio-political condition is oppressive and standing still in a lurch.
Gridthiya Gaweewong is an independent curator and co-founder of Project 304, a Bangkok-based, non-profit, experimental art space initiated and run by artists and curators. Gaweewong attempts to create platforms of exchange for local and international contemporary practices that address issues of subculture, globalisation, migration, and alienation. Gaweewong has organized numerous local and international exhibitions that have significantly shaped the field of contemporary Southeast Asian art, including Saigon Open City, co-curated with Rirkrit Tiravanija, and the 5th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival. She is currently the artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Centre and regularly contributes to exhibition catalogues, art journals, and local art magazines..
Thailand in Crisis
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s who’s afraid of red, green and yellow?
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Erasing
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Primitive
Sathit Sattarasart’s Absence/Recurrence
Montri Toemsombat’s Breaking Out of the Cocoon, Growing Out of Rice
Within These Walls
31st Century Museum
Art on Farm