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Oct 21 2020

Bangkok Art Biennale Artists Show Solidarity with Democracy Protesters

by Pamela Wong

Exterior view of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, near the Pathumwan intersection. Courtesy Bangkok Art Biennale.

On October 21, 25 artists participating in the Bangkok Art Biennale, including Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor, released a public statement expressing their support for the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Thailand and calling for dialogue, not a crackdown. In their open letter, the artists cited concerns about police use of violent means to disperse peaceful protesters as well as the arrests of political activists, which, they wrote, has “weighed heavily upon us” in their preparation for a full opening of the Biennale on October 29. 

The artists noted that many of the recent demonstrations have taken place around the Pathumwan intersection where the Biennale’s main venue, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, is located. Noting that the Biennale’s theme is “Escape Routes,” the artists believe that they must “begin by confronting our present realities . . . as artists we must not only maintain art as a space for reflection and debate on the issues of the day but also be able to speak directly to the situations that have literally arrived at our doorstep.” 

At the time of writing, a total of 25 artists have signed the statement. Along with Thai artists such as painter Bussaraporn Thongchai, video artist I-na Phuyuthanon, and multimedia artist Prateep Suthatongthai, international artists on the list include Khvay Samnang (Cambodia), Dane Mitchell (New Zealand), Ho Rui An (Singapore), and Yuken Teruya (Japan), among others. 

The student-led pro-democratic movement began in late 2019, after King Maha Vajiralongkorn endorsed the previous leader of Thailand’s military junta, Prayuth Chan-ocha as the prime minister earlier in the year. Following the Covid-19 lockdowns, demonstrations restarted in July this year. The assembly led by the student collective Free Youth has issued three demands: the dissolution of parliament; the end of restrictions on the freedom of speech; and the drafting of a new constitution. Tens of thousands people have joined demonstrations and protests in Bangkok. 

In August, members of the art and cultural community in Thailand, under the name Arts and Culture Network for Democracy, circulated a statement in solidarity with the protests that collected more than 1,000 signatures.

The anti-government movement escalated recently after more than 20 protestors were arrested on October 13 during an overnight protest at Prayuth’s office and the government house. On October 16, thousands of protestors gathered in downtown Bangkok in defiance of the Thai government’s state of emergency, during which the police deployed a water cannon and teargas against the protestors. 

In spite of the global pandemic, Bangkok Art Biennale, led by a curatorial team selected by artistic director Apinan Poshyananda, has carried on in 2020 with more than 80 participating artists from 35 countries. With Thailand’s number of Covid-19 cases relatively low in recent months, the Biennale opened three venues on October 12 and six more locations on October 29. The Biennale is primarily funded by the ThaiBev corporation, with the cooperation of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and Thai government.  

The full statement is reproduced below.

Statement by Participating Artists of the Bangkok Art Biennale 2020

As participating artists of the Bangkok Art Biennale 2020, we are deeply concerned about the events that have unravelled in Bangkok over the past days in response to the ongoing protests calling for democratic change. Scenes of overt police force, including the use of water cannons, being deployed against peaceful protesters have weighed heavily upon us as we prepare for the full opening of the biennale later this month. The arrests of key protest leaders and several activists are also a cause for concern. That many of these events have taken place in the Pathumwan intersection where the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), a key venue of the Biennale, is located makes this response all the more urgent and necessary.

The theme of this year’s Biennale is “Escape Routes,” which according to the Biennale, explores how art can help us understand and search for ways out of the many predicaments that we are living through in the world today. We believe that any attempt at imagining the possible futures that lie ahead of us must begin by confronting our present realities. This means that as artists we must not only maintain art as a space for reflection and debate on the issues of the day but also be able to speak directly to the situations that have literally arrived at our doorstep.

We therefore unequivocally condemn and call for the immediate stop to the use of violence against the protesters and express our support for their struggle for democracy. We also affirm the space of art as an essential constituent of the democratic public sphere which, in times of social upheaval, must also seek to provide refuge for those escaping violence. We further urge the Biennale and the BACC to join us in taking a stand against such violence and affirming the right to peaceful protest.

As artists, we thrive in a society that supports our ability to speak out and speak to the times in which we live. Such a society is one that meets calls for progressive change not with a crackdown but a commitment to building understanding, dialogue and collectivity.

October 21, 2020

Ai Weiwei
Anish Kapoor
Bussaraporn Thongchai
Chantana Tiprachart
Choy Ka Fai
Dane Mitchell
Dinh Q. Le
Haevan Lee
Ho Rui An
I-na Phuyuthanon
Irwan Ahmett
John Akomfrah
Julia Fullerton-Batten
Khvay Samnang
Linda Havenstein
Nipan Oranniwesna
Prateep Suthatongthai
Reena Saini Kallat
Ruangsak Anuwatwimon
Rungruang Sittirerk
Sarah Naqvi
Thanet Awsinsiri
Tita Salina
Yuken Teruya
Zhou Xiaohu

(As of October 21, 2020)

Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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