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The Venice Issue

A Thailand Unified at Its Third National Biennial

Assembled by an all-Thai curatorial team, the third Thailand Biennale brilliantly exhibits the rich cultural milieu of the country’s Golden Triangle, near Laos and Myanmar

BY Vipash Purichanont in Exhibition Reviews | 05 MAR 24

Titled ‘The Open World’, the third edition of the Thailand Biennale is held in the northern province of Chiang Rai. Assembled by an all-Thai curatorial team, the government-supported biennial is led by artistic directors Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gridthiya Gaweewong in tandem with co-curators Angkrit Ajchariyasophon and Manuporn Luengaram.

In Thai, the biennial’s title also evokes the act of opening oneself up to the world – an effort by the curators, perhaps, to encourage the government’s support of the Golden Triangle region bordering Laos and Myanmar, in which Chaing Rai is located. The curatorial team approached the historical and ethnographical complexity of the biennial’s location with caution, flirting with grand national narratives, while also highlighting the discursive cultural legacies that have been suppressed by modernization. At the heart of Chiang Rai, for example, Taiwanese artist Michael Lin’s emulsion-on-wood sculpture Weekend (all works 2023) covers the facade of the old, colonial-style city hall with textile patterns that replicate those traditionally used by chao khao (‘hill tribes’). The artwork serves as a vibrant new backdrop to the existing statue of King Rama V, who united smaller Tai-speaking kingdoms with Siam in the 19th century.

Michael Lin, Weekend, 2023
Michael Lin, Weekend, 2023. Courtesy: Thailand Biennale

At the Baan Dam Museum – a complex of more than 40 buildings, several of which were designed by the late Thai modernist Thawan Duchanee – Chiang Rai-based artist Busui Ajaw exhibits ‘Mor Doom’, a series of eight paintings on animal skin, and Ya Be E Long, a site-specific installation consisting of wooden sculptures. Together, the works recount the story of Ya Be E Long, the primordial god of the belief system of the Akha people of northern Thailand, which is now almost obsolete. Ajaw’s work pays homage to the use of traditional craft materials and techniques championed by Thawan, while hinting at the gradual erosion of the Akha way of life. In Ho Ham, a Lanna traditional house at Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park – the former site of an ‘educational camp’ for the region’s indigenous tribes – Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Trinh Thi presents the site-specific work Ri s̄eīyng (Sound-Less). Featuring traditional instruments that sync with sensors from the Mekong River, it gives a voice to Southeast Asia’s great waterway, whose ecosystem is being impacted by hydroelectric development.

'Mor Doom', exhibition view.
‘Mor Doom’ and Ya Be E Long, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Thailand Biennale

A particularly poignant work is Methodology for a Tai Yuan Return: on Transmission and Inheritance, a project by Thai collective Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture, which traces the history of the Tai Yuan people, who were forcibly relocated from Chiang Saen to central Thailand during the 19th century. At an archeological site, the group has installed an inflatable stupa that occasionally pulsates – a poetic reminder of the Tai Yuan’s displacement and return. Taipei artist Hsu Chia-Wei takes over the town’s Community Digital Centre with his interactive video and virtual-reality installation, The Actor from Golden Triangle. Made in collaboration with local rapper Keerati Sivakua, the work narrates the hollow prosperity that has accompanied the rapid growth of the special economic zone along the Mekong River in Laos. A little outside Chiang Saen, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s exhibit, ‘Motion Pictures’, fills one classroom of the disused Ban Mae Ma School with moving fabrics designed by local painters (Blue Encore) and, in another, screens Solarium, a two-channel video inspired by his favourite childhood horror film, phi ta bo (1981).

Tai Yuan Return, 2023, installation view.
Tai Yuan Return, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Thailand Biennale

Uncovering the cultural diversity, economic polarities and environmental challenges of the Golden Triangle, ‘The Open World’ brings a small province at the edge of Thailand to the attention of an international audience. The success of this migrating biennial is most welcome, especially if it foreshadows a similarly thoughtful treatment at the next edition, which will take place on the island of Phuket.

Main image: Nguyễn Trinh Thi, Ri s̄eīyng (Sound-Less), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Thailand Biennale

Vipash Purichanont is a curator based in Bangkok. He teaches in the Art History Department at Silpakorn University. He is a co-founder of the Waiting You Curator Lab.