Jul 12 2013

Pattaya Courts Thailand’s First Art Biennial

by Brian Mertens

A poster for the coming Pattaya Biennale created by artist/filmmaker APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL

Since neighboring Singapore and Indonesia already host art biennales, it comes as little surprise that Thailand now plans one too. Less expected, however, is news that the late-2014 event is being proposed not for the nation’s capital in Bangkok but in Pattaya.

Famous for its beaches, infamous for nightlife, the city of Pattaya has rarely before been mentioned in the same breath as culture. Yet this contrarian choice for an international art expo turns out to offer multiple advantages, says Thasnai Sethaseree, the artist and Chiang Mai University faculty member who is one of three creative practitioners working on plans for the event. 

Pattaya is a world tourist destination with a huge stock of hotel rooms and supportive business community, Thasanai observes.  The city is well accustomed to foreign visitors and residents, already hosting big events like music festivals and hot air balloon rallies. With beaches, islands, markets, disused factories and warehouses, Pattaya has a diversity of indoor and outdoor sites that can help turn the city into a vast art arena. Also advantageous is the city’s political autonomy; it is administered independent of the surrounding province of Chonburi.

But the biggest advantage, says Thasnai, is Pattaya’s sheer lack of  ‘culture’ per se. “It’s empty in a sense. Things happen there, but nothing in the creative field. That means we can make something out of this emptiness. There are no constraints.” Bangkok, in contrast, is already the center of the Thai art world, with many galleries, art schools, museums and practicing artists, all of which would inevitably influence the shape of a big exhibition in the capital.

Strong interest on the part of local officials helped Pattaya’s candidacy. Sonthaya Khunpluem, a member of parliament whose family is prominent in Pattaya politics and business, is head of Thailand’s Ministry of Culture. His brother Ittipol is Pattaya’s mayor and brother Witthaya was elected chair of the provincial administrative organization of Chonburi.

The biennale theme, yet to be announced, is being researched by two other planners, curators Gridthiya Gaweewong and Pier Luigi Tazzi, who wish to differentiate it from other art expos in Asia. “2015 is the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community. Artists can open the door as Thailand enters the AEC,” says Gridthiya, artistic director of The Jim Thompson Art Center. Tazzi is an independent curator based in Bangkok and Florence.

With three main sponsors for the event—Pattaya City, the private sector and the national government under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture—the biennale steering committee is trying to balance “ownership” equally and build in checks and balances, Gridthiya says.  “We propose starting a Pattaya biennale foundation, an organizational body to run the event, so that it is more autonomous and sustainable.” 

The biennale news, so far little publicized, was announced at a special event during the opening of the Venice Biennale in late May, where photographer Kornkrit Jianpinidnan presented slides and some 50 guests included artists Tobias Rehberger and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Artist/filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul created a poster for the coming expo.

Representing the national government among the planners is Dr. Olarn Chaipravat, an economist, business executive, policy advisor and former deputy prime minister.

Pattaya, situated 130 kilometers southeast of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand, was a fishing village and relatively quiet beach resort before its transformation during the Vietnam War, when it played host to masses of American soldiers on leave. Since the 1980s, tourists and retirees have streamed into the city from Europe, East Asia, South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Covering 22 square kilometers, the city’s population is estimated at about 300,000, including 100,000 registered residents, with 4 million annual visitors.