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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
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.