CHATCHAI PUIPIA, Siamese Smile, 1995, oil on canvas, 240 × 220 cm. Private Collection. Courtesy Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Bangkok.

Traces of Siamese Smile

Bangkok Art and Culture Centre

The Thai language has distinct expressions for at least 14 different forms of smiling. Foreign visitors have long commented on the pervasiveness of happy faces; a British resident titled his 1935 memoir Land of Smiles, a slogan that Thailand today uses for national branding and tourism promotion. Smiles and their meanings served as a resonant, audience-friendly theme at last year’s inaugural exhibition of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), which opened after ten years of planning and construction.

Featuring some 300 works by more than 100 Thai and international artists, “Traces of Siamese Smile: Art + Faith + Politics + Love” was curated by Apinan Poshyananda, director-general of the Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, together with a committee of six other Thai curators. No previous art exhibition in Thailand had ever gathered so many significant works from different genres and eras. The most recent large show was the 1997 Golden Jubilee Art Exhibition at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center in Bangkok; its more than 1,000 paintings and sculptures included very few examples of contemporary art, then an emerging movement. So “Traces of Siamese Smile” afforded a rare chance to view recent art alongside the academic, modernist and neo-traditionalist work created from the 1920s through the 1980s in Thailand.

In addition to the mini-panorama of Thai art, there were works by 20 international artists, a few of them commissioned for the BACC opening. Several of these artists were chosen because they’d previously created work
in Thailand, including performance artist Marina Abramović, surrealist sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Italian sculptor Paolo Canevari and photographer Yasumasa Morimura. Other foreigners were selected because their works play on smiles, humor or iconic portraiture, notably Ravinder Reddy, an Indian sculptor famed for his large heads, and Yue Minjun, whose paintings are populated by pink-faced figures with a grinning caricature of his own visage. These inclusions helped contextualize the Thai work by showing how contemporaries around the world have treated smiles and comic material.

Displaying 90 years of Thai art required all three gallery-
levels of the new 11-story facility, as well as parts of its spiraling Guggenheim-esque gallery surrounding the central atrium. Works were grouped more by the spatial requirements of gallery layouts than by theme or chronology. This sometimes resulted in rewarding juxtapositions that framed works from different eras in a new light.

In contrast to the irony rampant in contemporary art, 
the earlier work is marked by its sincerity, reverence 
and idealism, often depicting rural scenes and Hindu or Buddhist themes. In Indra on Erawan (1923), for example, the polymath Prince Narisara Nuvativongse, known as the father of Thai art, depicts the god Indra riding on the mythological elephant Erawan. The watercolor is done 
in an elegant Euro-Siamese style influenced by Art Nouveau. Walking Buddha (1956), by Corrado Feroci-—the Florentine academic sculptor, known as Silpa Bhirasri, who taught generations of artists in Bangkok during the middle of the 20th century-—is a striding figure recalling the posture and serene expression of centuries of Thai statuary. Thana Lauhakaikul’s Smile and Time (1969) is a bronze sculpture that abstracts a Buddha image to its essence, a smiling face.

Smiles have been subjected to far more critical, even subversive treatment, in contemporary Thai art, which emerged in the early 1990s amid a more open political system and increasing globalization. This upending was announced by works like Chatchai Puipia’s now iconic self-portrait Siamese Smile (1995). Painted in red-hot colors, a canvas-filling face grimaces maniacally, offering an emblem of the pressures of Southeast Asia’s era of breakneck growth. Sardonic smiles figured trenchantly in works by kindred spirits such as Manit Sriwanichpoom, whose “Pink Man” series of photographs stars performance artist Sompong Thawee as the title character. A critique of resurgent Thai nationalism, Pink, White & Blue #5 (Repeat after me) (2005) depicts the pink-suited Sompong presiding over a classroom full of boys clad in scout uniforms waving Thai flags.

Humor, parody and social critique infested work by
other prominent contemporaries, including video-makers and installationists Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Kamol Phaosavasdi, painter Natee Utarit, sculptor Noppachai Ungkavatanapong, installation artist Navin Rawanchaikul and painter-performance artist Vasan Sitthiket. Among 
the most notable younger artists were Chusak Srikwan, who hung his mobile, Shadow (2007), phantasmagoric nang talung shadow-puppet figures that emblematized recent local politics, and ceramacist Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch, who populated the galleries with his Disney-esque sculptures of dogs, castles and children.

One remarkable pairing illustrated how contemporary practice has transformed local art. Opening-night crowds gathered around recent Silpakorn University graduate Vasan Ruewklang’s single-channel video installation Seated Man (2007), a digital rendition of a renowned painting that hung nearby, Seated Man (1974), by the National Artist Chakrabhand Posayakrit, depicting a bare-chested young man sitting in a rice field at dusk. Vasan brings the brooding, mysterious canvas “to life” in a winningly ambiguous self-portrait that is equal parts reverent and cheeky. While the young artist pays homage to Chakrabhand by imitating 
his painting so faithfully, the video model—Vasan himself—sports his trademark frizzy hairdo and sneaks drags 
from a cigarette, emphasizing the elements of time and motion rendered in video but not in painting. Vasan’s gesture, directed at a paragon of the local art establishment hints mischievously that young artists have potent new powers at their disposal, both formal and technological. As “Traces of Siamese Smile” revealed, contemporary formats like video, installation, photography and performance, with their capacity for appropriation and intervention, are inherently friendly to satire and irony.

The show’s strengths were the breadth, variety and colorfulness of the works on view, helping it appeal 
to the general public, government officials and differing constituencies within the Thai art world—all despite reportedly daunting first-time constraints of time, personnel, facilities and bureaucratic snafus. The show scored with Bangkok audiences, judging from the opening-day stampede of visitors; attendance during the following two months exceeded 46,000. For devotees of contemporary art, the show offered a pleasant surprise in proving that 20th-century Thai art can be exhibited fruitfully alongside very recent productions. One revelation, for example, is that 
far from becoming less “Thai” during the past ten years 
of globalization, local art has become even more enmeshed in Thai identity. Now fluent in the language of contemporary art, practitioners borrow from, and comment on, Thai popular culture, reflecting powerfully on local social and political realities. In turn, this encounter with daily life in Thailand makes contemporary Thai art all the more relevant to international audiences.