Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Broken Art

With their rich traditions and an increasingly global outlook, Thailand’s cultural industries have significant promise.

By David Teh for

With their rich traditions and an increasingly global outlook, Thailand’s cultural industries have significant promise. But with the sector thrown into limbo by the 2006 ousting of populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, contemporary culture reflects many of the blindspots, potholes and pitfalls of Thai political life.

Despite an immature local market Thailand boasts a proportionally large presence in international contemporary art, with numerous A-List artists featuring on the global circuit of museums and biennales. Most of these artists emerged in the 1990s and were strong on satire and sociability. Sutee Kunavichayanont, for example, launched sardonic attacks on Thai society’s rampant consumerism and its packaging of exotic cultural heritage. But despite, or perhaps because of, their assiduous engagements with “Thainess”, these stellar exports remain virtually invisible at home.

With two new museums on the horizon, the stage should be set for their triumphant homecoming, and the emergence of the younger generation they have inspired and mentored. Yet no one is optimistic. Both the contemporary wing at the state-run Thailand Cultural Centre, and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s (BMA) long-awaited Art and Culture Centre, will struggle to lure people shopping in the surrounding malls. The two centres are mired in bureaucracy, and their budgets are  tight and anything but secure. The curators are likely to overlook living artists in favour of dead ones whose work complements the official confection of Thailand’s past.

The decrepit, under-funded National Gallery is a less than encouraging precedent; most Bangkokians don’t even know it exists. Things are unlikely to improve under Thaksin’s abrasive proxy, former Bangkok Governor Samak Sundaravej, who was sworn in as PM last December. The controversial Samak is no friend of the arts. As Governor in the late 1990s, he voiced clear opposition to the BMA Centre and nearly succeeded in turning it into another shopping mall.

Another cautionary tale came with the recent demise of the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (TCDC), set up in 2005 under the new economy mantras of the national CEO Thaksin. The TCDC was to make Bangkok a stop on the regional “creative cities” keynote circuit. But just two years on it became a casualty of the post-coup rearrangements, bludgeoned in a “restructure” that has halved its budget, and cost it its salubrious digs in the upmarket Emporium shopping mall. With its slick facilities and advertising, the TCDC catered to the Wallpaper* set. But it could not shake the image of a clubhouse for Bangkok’s metro-sexual trendoids.

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Creative Evolution

Like the failed Bangkok Fashion City project, the TCDC was an expensive pet of Thaksin’s creative industries push, crucial to the branding of the city as a cosmopolitan destination. Low-cost air travel has fuelled intra-regional spending by younger tourists, who are less interested in the heritage theme-parks of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai and more focused on the fashion, design and urban culture of the metropolis.

From the late 1970s, cultural tourism emerged as a lucrative and morally respectable alternative to the seedier attractions for which the country was already known. But the next reinvention of Brand Thailand, beyond the bars, beaches and temples, is probably asking too much of the Culture Ministry, a stagnant bureaucracy established amid the chauvinist fervour of the 1950s under the modernist dictator, Field Marshal Phibun. Its remit hasn’t changed much: to fabricate, from the remnants of Thailand’s heterogenous past, a history that is ethnically and culturally coherent, largely under the banner of “preservation”. The Ministry’s fledgling Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) has made some positive steps abroad, including a Thai pavilion at the Venice Biennale. But with the present constitutional meltdown, the world stage can be something of a minefield.

In July 2006, a multi-artform spectacular called Ramakien: A rak opera — “rak”means love in Thai –  was staged at New York’s Lincoln Center. Based on Thailand’s national myth, the ambitious production brought rock-stars together with classical dancers, musicians and leading visual artists. The critics were unflattering.

Back home, attention focused on reports of on-stage fisticuffs between two of the show’s celebrity principals, one of whom had stepped over a traditional Khon mask, an inexcusable faux-pas. The episode sparked a storm of debate about who owns the country’s cultural signage, and who has the right to represent it abroad. The brouhaha was particularly unbecoming for OCAC, a marginal branch of a ministry that considers itself the guardian of Thailand’s aesthetic tradition.

In matters of symbolic propriety, the buck stops with the military elite – defenders of the old trinity of “Monarchy, Religion, Nation”. They have greater sway than anyone over the national imagination and the media. This was all too clear in the bloodless coup d’état that toppled Thaksin just two months later. Unsurprisingly, the post-coup period saw a spike in official worrying about threats to the social and religious order. Several lèse majesté cases were dramatised to justify illiberal moves against the media; one saw the authorities block video-sharing website Youtube for almost six months. But the tension was nowhere more keenly felt than in the film industry, flaring around the banning of Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century), the latest feature by Thailand’s star art-house director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Home and Away: Film and Insecurity

Despite decades of inundation by foreign product, and little state protection, Thai cinema has prospered. From the late 1970s into the 1990s, the local industry churned out over a hundred features per year. The last decade has seen a cluster of auteurs snaring prizes at Cannes and other prestigious festivals. Meanwhile, in the mainstream market, a conspicuous hike in production values (and budgets) has earned Thai blockbusters international releases.

It is all the more ironic then, that the Cannes-anointed Apichatpong should find himself in the “export-only” folder. The figurehead of a burgeoning indie film scene, Apichatpong has won worldwide acclaim for his lyrical and unconventional films, weaving personal experience and dream with the folk traditions of the country’s impoverished Northeast, where he grew up. Due for local release in April of last year, Syndromes contained four scenes that alarmed the censors, including a monk playing guitar, and doctors drinking whisky and kissing, images as innocuous for most Thais as they are for Westerners. But it was an inopportune time to be playing around, however gently, with conventions of status and respect that are still widely observed.

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Seizing the opportunity to flex its moral muscle, the Censorship Board demanded the offending scenes be cut, invoking arcane provisions of the 1930 Cinema Act. The director refused, instead cancelling the film’s release. The film community voiced its dismay, starting a “Free Thai Cinema” campaign to demand long-overdue updates to the Act. A new bill was rushed through the interim legislative assembly in December, without heeding their concerns.

The cinephiles’ umbrage was real, but their incredulity was disingenuous. For on the merry-go-round of Thai political history, every hiccough is attended by this symbolic cultural policing. Historian Craig Reynolds has traced this dynamic through the annals of Thai nationalism, right back to the establishment of the current Chakri dynasty in the 18th century. Officials have always reached for pictures of cultural continuity to paper over perennial political discontinuities, be they sovereign or constitutional.

It has been claimed that culture is a key plank not just of Thailand’s national pride, but of its national security. With the revered King Bhumibol in his eighty-first year, and the divisive Thaksin set to return to Thailand’s political arena, we are sure to see it tested.

Will his comeback mean a revival of the creative economy? It’s hard to say – he enjoyed more political traction from his purchase of English football club, Manchester City. But one thing is certain: Thailand’s artists won’t be banking on it.