Text and photos by Katrina Stuart Santiago
If there’s anything that surprised about the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018 (which ran through to 2019), it was its decision to reimagine art venues, bring in art, take out art, and in the process talk about issues that affect art, beyond the expected. There were no grand claims to gathering art that is “representative” of the contemporary or the global, and no entrapment in layers of abstraction to talk about the task of art in the context of a biennale.
What it became, in the end, was an expansion. Of what we know to be important, not so much to art and its making, but more importantly, to its context.
And in the bustling capital that is Bangkok, BAB 2018 successfully captured what development and change can be about, relative to and beyond the river that runs through it. And it doesn’t just successfully tell you the stories that have evolved relative to these changes, but forces upon you the experience itself.
Say, the choice of 20 venues, while not extraordinary off-hand, is rendered so by its diversity and distance. Instead of being dictated by access and proximity, the map of BAB’s venues stretched from the mall and cultural center of Pathum Wan, to the temples that line the Chao Phraya River on one end, to hotels and heritage sites on the opposite end. Away from all these spaces, the BAB Box was built by the façade of One Bangkok — a high-end district being built within the city, while some parks housed large-scale works.
The philosophical and ideological shifts, the breadth and scope were massive, but also, surprisingly necessary. Moving from one set of venues to another, having to sit through long commutes, down the river, on the trains, one is forced to meditate on these divergences existing within the largeness of this map that BAB insisted it draw for us.
The movement this biennale required of spectators was of course exhausting. But it is also what allowed for this biennale’s uniqueness. Here, the experience of the art was also an experience of the city. By insisting on the diversity of venues, and demanding that those interested cross these distances, one is shown the city and its uneven development — how some places (the high-end malls, the BAB Box) could seem to exist anywhere else in the world, while some others (the temples, the heritage building of East Asiatic Co.) could be so heavily rooted in neglect and poverty, need and faith.
Going the extra mile — quite literally — is of course also symptomatic of the kind of fatigue a swiftly shifting city inflicts on its inhabitants. It reminds of how gentrification always exists relative to the neglected, and how to some extent, progress means building spaces that are less and less inclusive, more and more particularized, accessible only to a few.
Much like art, yes? But also much like the cities we inhabit. And if only for having actually held up that parallel to the light, and having shown us all what living is like in this vibrant but heavily iniquitous, localized but transnationally-captured space, the Bangkok Art Biennale was a laudable feat.