Installation view of RIRKRIT TIRAVANIJA’s Untitled, 2020, pavilion, bamboo maze, dimensions variable, at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB), 2020–21. Courtesy BAB.

Bangkok Art Biennale 2020: “Escape Routes”

Multiple Locations

With its sweeping theme of “Escape Routes,” it seemed appropriate that the second Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB)—directed by Apinan Poshyananda and curated by Dow Wasiksiri, Wutigorn Kongka, Ong Puay Khim, Kitti Sangkaew, and Sun Wenjie—took place against a backdrop of pandemic-induced anxiety, mass street protests, and looming economic crisis in Thailand. Although set in pre-pandemic 2019, the theme of “escape”—literally and metaphorically—lent a prescient tone to many of the 240 exhibits.

PEN-EK RATANARUANG, Two Little Soldiers, 2020, still from film: 14 min 48 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Ahead of the October 29 opening, a small group of exhibiting artists had issued a statement condemning police violence against street activists. While protests subsided over the Biennale’s run, works that amplified notions of repression took on deeper significance. Among them, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s short film Two Little Soldiers (2020) portrays two servicemen lazing around while on leave and listening to a crackly radio broadcast about the violent suppression of Bangkok street protests. Elsewhere, Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch’s          DRAGONERPANZER (2018–20)—exquisitely patterned miniature porcelain tanks that immediately recall Thailand’s turbulent history of military juntas—drew on the tale of a Polish king who traded his cavalrymen for 151 Chinese porcelain vases. These two works exemplified the loose thematic definition espoused by the Biennale, symbolizing regimes that “escape” moral responsibility.  

Installation view of WASINBUREE SUPANICHVORAPARCH’s DRAGONERPANZER, 2018–20, porcelain, 23 × 63 × 24 cm each, at BACC, BAB, 2020–21. Courtesy the artist.

Indeed, half the appeal in viewing the Biennale was the challenge of deducing how disparate sub-themes such as loss, suffering, and corruption relate to escape. Acting like compass points of the sprawling exhibition were headline installations that underscored more literal definitions of the title. At the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey (2016), a gigantic black life raft crowded with faceless refugees made of reinforced PVC, sat in a soaring hall papered with intricately drawn pictograms of conflict and exodus (Odyssey, 2016). Along with videos and photographs of the artist’s visits to refugee camps, the display powerfully highlighted themes of displacement and escape from violence. 

Installation view of ANISH KAPOOR’s Push Pull II, 2008–09, steel, wax and oil-based paint, 500 × 895 × 90 cm, at Sermon Hall, Wat Pho, BAB, 2020–21. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London / New York / Shanghai.

Rivalling Ai Weiwei for scale and audacity was Anish Kapoor’s Push Pull II (2009), a semi-circular sculpture of blood-red wax and black steel that towered in the sermon hall of the famous Wat Pho temple. To the artist, the work reflects the “rhythmic push/pull of Vipassana meditative breathing,” evoking the idea of spiritual escape. However, Kapoor’s characterization seemed undercut by the work’s menacing air, underpinned here by its incongruous and somewhat confrontational placement in a sacred temple. 

Across town at the purpose-built venue BAB Box, Bill Viola’s video installation Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (2014) starkly conveyed the message of ultimate escape. Comprising four plasma screens, each depicting a figure at the mercy of a natural element, the work is a paean to suffering and sacrifice.

A purer form of escape—into a child’s eye view of the world—lies in the whimsical work of Narongyot Thongyu, a relatively unknown Thai artist who came to the curators’ attention through BAB’s “Open Call” program. In A Child’s World in the Days of Adults (2014–16), Narongyot conveys concern about destruction of marine ecologies through a small army of misshapen figures, all made from beach debris. These charming characters, which hang from strings or sit on ledges in the ParQ building, belie the work’s serious message, reminding us of the senseless pollution of the seas. Yet the artist also shows that there can be new life for old toothbrushes, lighters, and countless other objects. 

The challenge of battling traffic jams to journey across the various locations gave the biennale a discombobulated sensibility, but its symmetry and logic became more apparent as one navigated the venues and saw how works were clustered according to distinct themes, from political conflict to environmental destruction. While the viewer might question the artistic cohesion of this vast collection of works and their relevance to the central theme of escape, the triumph of the Biennale was holding it at all in a year of crisis.

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Installation view of NARONGYOT THONGYU’s A Child’s World in the Days of Adults, 2014–16, collected materials from the sea, dimensions variable, at The ParQ, BAB, 2020–21. Courtesy BAB.