CREATIVE HUBS: BANGKOK
‘I had never seen any contemporary or Western art in Thailand. It wasn’t accessible, or I didn’t know where to find it,’ Korakrit Arunanondchai explained to Interview magazine in a 2013 story. Born in 1986, the Thai artist didn’t see contemporary art in the flesh until towards the end of his high school years; witnessing Olafur Eliasson’s astounding The Weather Project dominating Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003.
Basking in the glow of the Danish-Icelandic artist’s gargantuan, radiant orb was enough to inspire anybody to do great things and Arunanondchai, who now splits his time between Bangkok and New York, has found himself a rising star on the international art circuit following that late start.
It’s true, growing up in Thailand would have been a contemporary art wasteland for Arunanondchai. Although construction began at the turn of the century, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) only opened its doors in 2008; following funding issues, political wrangling and, of course, claims of corruption. Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) was inaugurated in 2012, with established smaller venues like Whitespace Gallery and H Gallery having only been around since 2006 and ’02 respectively … the only Western arts a young teen in 1990s Thailand would have been exposed to were cinema and music; indeed Korakrit Arunanondchai began his life in creativity as a promising musician.
Sure, there was art in Thailand — a culture rich in traditional artistry and craft — but while Damien Hirst was busy pickling dead sharks, Picasso was still deemed cutting-edge in the city they call The Big Mango (I don’t know either). The rise of the internet, and its metaphorical shrinking of the world, would see contemporary art eventually permeating this ancient culture; and perhaps it was celebrated Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s Cities on the Move exhibition that finally saw a wider acceptance of art that cuts against the grain. The roaming conceptual appraisal of Asian urban life, art, and architecture, had cropped up in many of the cities associated with forward-thinking creativity — New York (PS1); London (Hayward Gallery) — and rolled into Bangkok in 1999; bringing with it big-thinkers like Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron.
Cities on the Move looked closely at the explosive nature of modernisation in Asian cities, its curators clearly foreseeing what was to come. Like mass media and consumerism before it, Asia was ready to embrace the bleeding-edge of creativity. Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, though, Bangkok has long felt stilted by its other pursuits … limbs flailing dangerously out of the back of a speeding tuk tuk; crunching on charred-scorpions on Khao San Road; bearing witness to the extreme juxtapositions of temple/ladyboy, temple/ladyboy … the city’s all-consuming hedonism, its malnourished gap year students, BBC Three exposés on cheap street drugs and knock-off booze.
Yet just as it seems Bangkok would be the last place to arise as an emerging hub of culture and creativity, too it seems the most natural of Asia’s most famous cities. For all the reasons for, see all the reasons against: its madness, its constant teetering on the edge of collapse, its eye-burning, mind-melting juxtapositions.
It can, and often does, feel like a dystopian rendering of everything that happened when consumerism exploded and the great dynasties of Europe fell, a post-Illuminati metropolis for folk whose sole pursuit is enjoyment, fulfilment in being alive. Korakrit Arunanondchai’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink gesamptkunstwerk installations — all splattered paint, jumbled messaging, haphazard sculpture, and abused mannequins — embody the bedlam of Bangkok; it’s a city that cries out to inspire young creatives unrestrained by convention.
Of course, Korakrit Arunanondchai is not the only Thai artist making waves, and there’s a generation of youthful creatives inspired by the city. Bangkok-born Pornwipa Suriyakarn directly references the uneasy contrasts and contradictions between traditional Thai spirituality and contemporary consumerism, through pop culture-inspired mixed-media work that coalesces such iconography as Louis Vuitton and ancient objects of worship.
The culture of consumption and global economy are at the heart of Surasi Kusolwong’s practice too; often working with products bought from Bangkok street markets, his performative installations have made their way to major galleries as far and wide as Switzerland, Japan, Stockholm, and New York. Community-focused art spaces like Speedy Grandma and Soy Sauce Factory are ports of call for the next generation of Thai artists causing a commotion.
What do you get when you cross a vibrant art scene with an ever-changing urban landscape, burgeoning counterculture, and an eagerness to embrace nonconformist international cultures? Street art, that’s what. The folk behind Bukruk Urban Arts Festival have been transforming the city’s walls once a year since 2013, the latest edition just wrapping up at the end of January. It’s a 10-day shindig that incorporates music, exhibitions, printing workshops, talks, animation, and ruddy great murals from some of the world’s leading street artists: Italy’s Sten and Lex; Belgium’s ROA; Nychos from Austria; Spaniard Aryz …
And it’s not just fringe art that Thais are beginning to lap up: as habitual followers of trends, an unorthodox fashion scene is swelling on BK’s streets. A booming denim culture that fuses traditional Thai heritage crafts with an international aesthetic has seen authoritative online fashion portal Highsnobiety name reputed retailer Pronto Denim as one of the world’s leading denim emporiums; and influencer Lauren Yates runs her Ponytail Journal blog out of Bangkok, named by the likes of US Vogue, Nylon Magazine, and GQ, as a fash-force to be reckoned with. Her self-appointed W’menswear smart-casual style is very much a thing.
Bangkok has a habit of sucking you in, spewing you out in a different direction — it is literally impossible to step from gallery to gallery, shop to shop, without stopping for refreshment. Of course, its party scene needs no introduction, but it may need some navigating — away from stereotypical backpacker’s delights there is a long-established punk and garage rock scene that keeps underground bars disorderly till the early hours and beyond; small nightspots like Studio Lam or Dark Bar are just two of many places to head for those who know the difference between EDM and Boiler Room. But, in a city that is on a tipping point of a different type of cultural revolution, let us put hedonism to one side … for there are a growing number of bars, cafés, and restaurants, that are following a blueprint sketched out in creative capitals like New York, or London.
You know what that means, kids? Your fix of eggs Benedict and cold brew coffee. That’s what. For all Bangkok’s explosive escalation of globalisation, ‘tache-twiddling baristas are one byproduct this writer cannot resist.
Rocket Coffeebar is one such spot, and looks like it’s literally been beamed up and transported from a Melbourne laneway; the aforementioned cold brew is bottled, and labelled with something straight from the pages of a Brooklyn-based graphic designer’s portfolio … salads and sandwiches are fresh, and wholesome, and never too far from a poached egg or kale. People bring their French bulldogs here.
Spots like Bridge Art Space and The Jam Factory embrace slashie culture too; fusing happening galleries with a bar/café setting; the latter also acting as an art bookstore, and with both hosting regular workshops, exhibitions, and pop-ups.
Much has been made of places like Bo.Lan taking Bangkok’s famous cuisine to the next level, and the march of creatively-minded gastronomy continues apace; nose-to-tail restaurant Smith (by celebrity chef Ian Kittichai) is making a real name for itself, from a beautifully-designed industrial space behind an unassuming (read: scruffy) façade. Soul Food Mahanakorn does for regional Thai food what places like Brooklyn’s Fette Sau did for the deep south’s BBQ; with a cool little dining space, a kitchen churning out honest Thai cuisine, an impressive cocktail list, and craft beers.
I’m not going to stop you washing down fine food with a dozen bottles of Singha — after all, it’s 30+°C and upwards of 80% humidity out there — but fans of speakeasies before they were just somewhere in the basement of a mediocre restaurant with a whacking great sign pointing towards them may be interested in J. Boroski Mixology.
Joseph Boroski has been putting together groundbreaking cocktails in the city’s top hotels for yonks, and his eponymous speakeasy is at the end of a shady alley in Thong Lor. Where exactly? Not telling; this one is worth the legwork.
Bangkok may still be waiting for its first hotel that embraces the changing tide of creative culture. There are no mixed-use lobbies packed with beardy folk, MacBooks surgically attached to their laps; I don’t think there’s a hotel café that grasps the concept of pour-over, nor penthouses with walls dedicated to revolving street art installations. Sitting just over the Chao Phraya River from iconic Wat Po, though, is Sala Rattanakosin, a 17-room boutique hotel that stands out among the continual procession of new hotels for its original fit-out; a thoughtful conversion of seven ‘shophouses’ that retains an air of grit and authenticity.
Emerging creative hub yes. Homogenised pandering to creative class via the sweep of gentrification? Definitely not. Bangkok may welcome consumerism and Western culture with open arms, but it defines them its very own way. Always on its own terms.