Bangkok Takes Its Place on the Venice Stage


Bangkok, called the Venice of the East by European missionaries and sailors who fell under the city’s spell centuries ago, will celebrate its fourth biennale this fall, but not before using the 60th Venice Biennale to showcase itself as that other city of canals, culture and art.

“The Spirits of Maritime Crossing,” an exhibition sponsored by the Bangkok Art Biennale Foundation, will run from Saturday to Nov. 24 and will be housed in the newly restored 17th-century Palazzo Smith Mangilli Valmarana on the Grand Canal, which seems fitting.

Much as Venice has long been a showcase, indoors and outdoors, for displaying art during its biennale, the Bangkok Biennale uses spaces including in warehouses, art galleries and its Buddhist and Hindu temples that dot the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through the city like its own canal.

“In 2017 when we started this idea of a biennale, we looked at Venice as a model and even announced the Bangkok Biennale Foundation in Venice that year,” Apinan Poshyananda, chief executive and artistic director of Bangkok Art Biennale and curator of “The Spirits of Maritime Crossing” exhibition, said in a recent phone interview. “This idea of water connects both cities, and we want to make artists aware of our biennale and move outside of Bangkok with our brand.”

The Bangkok Biennale attracted more than 3.5 million visitors in its first three incarnations (2018, 2020 and 2022) and included over 300 artists, with an emphasis on creating visibility for artists from the Global South. It returns Oct. 24 and runs through Feb. 25.

The theme of water — how it connects and separates us — courses through “The Spirits of Maritime Crossing” and its 40 artworks (paintings, mixed media, sculptures and video installations) by 15 artists.

It will have as its centerpiece a 34-minute video installation of the same name, played on an continuous loop throughout the biennale, with the Serbian artist and performer Marina Abramovic and the Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun depicting a wandering spirit traveling to new lands as a way to connect East and West, Bangkok and Venice.

And the idea of connections and crossings take on various meanings in the exhibition. The movement of people plays a huge role in the embroidered artwork of the Thai artist Jakkai Siributr, 54. A scaled-down version of his large installation “There’s No Place,” (2020) will be housed in one of the rooms. It is a series of embroidered panels depicting the displacement of people.

“I had an opportunity to travel to the Thailand-Myanmar border to a village where about 20 years ago there had been an influx of the Shan ethnic minority from Myanmar,” Siributr said in a video interview from Chiang Mai, Thailand. “I conducted a storytelling workshop, but we told their stories through embroidery rather than orally.”

But he took it a step further by asking the Thai people about how the influx of immigrants affected them.

“I invited the public to participate and work on the same artwork, which was a way to create a dialogue,” Siributr said. “The Shan community depicted their hopes and dreams and their history through colored yarn. For example, there’s one panel of a dream home of a Shan youth, and someone local added a background of trees.”

Migration — and its impact — is also at the center of a video installation by the artist Priyadeetha Dia, whose ancestors migrated from India to Malaysia in the early 20th century. “The Sea is a Blue Memory,” commissioned by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India, in 2022, takes viewers on a journey that feels immediate in this era of mass migration. It’s also a virtually undocumented bit of history for the artist.

“In my research into rubber plantations, looking mostly at images that depict the laborers’ day to day life, what I found that was missing was the journey to Malay,” said Pria, 31, who lives in Singapore. “There are no images or documentation of the journeys on boats. I felt that was something to build a narrative on.”

What came out of that was a video installation, with sound design by Tini Aliman, also Singaporean, which runs just over 10 minutes and will be on a continual loop for the run of the Venice Biennale.

“The work was produced using C.G.I. [computer-generated imagery], and I thought of the journey through different notions of space and time,” she explained. “You have a sense of floating around in space. We also wanted to think about sound through sonic waves. It captures the sounds of water, ripples and echoes under the sea.”

The other artists represented in “The Spirits of Maritime Crossing” come from Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar. For Poshyananda, it’s the perfect fit for the 60th Venice Biennale and its theme of “Stranieri Ovunque,” or “Foreigners Everywhere.”

“When the Europeans came to Siam, they were fascinated by the houses on stilts on the canals and the water,” he said. “And now we’re showing Southeast Asian artists in a neoclassical palazzo with murals and décor that depict images from as far away as Africa and Asia, and even Greek mythology. We’re among many spirits on this grand body of water.”





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