Escape Routes: Interview with Apinan Poshyananda
By HG Masters
What will be the “new normal” for organizers and audiences of large-scale cultural festivals? The Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB) might offer a preview for the rest of the world as it forges ahead with its second edition in October. Much has changed in the two years since the inaugural event, titled “Beyond Bliss,” which attracted more than two million visitors to 20 locations across the Thai capital, including art venues, famous temples, historical buildings, and even shopping malls. ArtAsiaPacific caught up with BAB’s chief executive and artistic director, Apinan Poshyananda, to discuss the unique challenges of organizing an international biennale with 82 artists and collectives in the middle of a pandemic, and contemplate what art can offer people today.
How is the Covid-19 situation in Bangkok?
We’re in Phase 6—all the schools, bars, and restaurants are open. We have to keep monitoring the situation day by day, but it’s been nearly 100 days without any local infections in Thailand.
How did you decide to carry on with the Biennale?
This was a hard and risky decision. In May, we had a big meeting at the BAB Foundation. At that time, there were so many postponements and cancellations—not just in art but also concerts, sports, all kinds of activities. But we realized that since Taipei [Biennial] and Yokohama [Triennale] were carrying on, it depends very much on where the event is taking place. In Bangkok, luckily, we’ve been one of the lowest risk places. Having decided to continue, we also made plans for those outside the Biennale’s organization—what it means for the productions, health security, transportation, logistics, and so on.
This will not end overnight, or in a year or two. And that’s one of the main reasons we decided to go ahead. We asked the artists if they would pursue the Biennale with us, and none of them turned us down. It’s a work in progress; the theme helps us along and challenges us everyday.
Are you able to use all the venues you were planning to?
Last time we had 20 venues, too many for us to organize. We decided to reduce it to nine this time, but the core concept is still to use heritage sites, along the temples, the river, and the city center.
How does this edition’s theme, “Escape Routes,” relate to the previous one, “Beyond Bliss?”
We thought “Beyond Bliss” would be a good opener. The theme we put to artists was their search for happiness. At the time, the world was in chaos, so we wanted to give this openness—something quite romantic, abstract almost—to the way the artists chose to look at the world or the site. Huang Yong Ping, for example, interpreted his own quest through sculptures at [the Buddhist temple complex] Wat Pho. For the many performance artists from the Marina Abramovic Institute, they saw it in different ways, where the body defines the quest for release or for happiness.
For this one we thought we would place more of an emphasis on the conditions of the world, in terms of confronting topics, especially climate change, diaspora, immigration, and political tensions. And then Covid-19 came along and the theme of “Escape Routes” became a wild opening scenario for many artists, many of whom were still making their works. In this way we have another enriching layer about health. Escapism seems to resonate with many artists now in isolation, from expressing their angst to trying to answer, in their own terms, what it means to escape.
How has it been to organize this event with all the complications of the pandemic?
There were many burdens: Can the artist come? Can the work come? We’ve been doing that research for three months now. We know each port, on each continent. We are shipping large-scale works. For instance, right now, we have five tons of wax by Anish Kapoor on the ocean coming to Bangkok. Next we’ll have to go through the process of bringing it to the temple, and figuring out how to get those large crates through the narrow doors. People might be able to use BAB as an example of how to organize a biennale in a crisis—we have plenty of information for them!
Are there thematic connections between the locations and works, as in past editions?
For the heritage site Lhong 1919 we are using, an old warehouse for Chinese immigrants, we asked the artists to think about the history of the place. At the Museum Siam, which has a long history, one artist, Nipan Oranniwesna, is researching about the idea of excavation. We are actually digging at the museum, trying to use the artifacts he found to create a dialogue between the past and the present. Artists have to do a lot of homework in terms of their choice of place and the specificity of it.
Were you happy with how the first edition was received by the public?
Yes, almost unexpectedly BAB went viral. Because of where the artworks were placed, for example inside the East Asiatic building—a place with a very long history of trade and maritime contacts with the Europeans and which has not been open to the public in 27 years—people would just go inside to look at the building, but then they also look at the art. These kids were not just taking photos, but were going to all these different places they would never go to before, like the temples. Now a lot of the locals are aware of what we are doing.
There is a first time for everything. Just imagine, last time we had to explain what the Bangkok Art Biennale is to the abbots, and now they are fluent. They even give sermons about contemporary art!
Do you have particular thoughts about what art can offer the public in this period?
This world has changed in the last six months. You could call it something that has never happened, or hasn’t for nearly a century. In this way, art has different meanings now. People cannot travel as easily as before. But human beings need physicality and reality, the real stuff. We will offer both—like performances and discussions—in person and online. We know a lot of people cannot come, but we will rely on the local viewers. They have been frustrated, they want to see things, they want to go out.
This Biennale will be a special one because it is happening in 2020, not 2021. To carry on this year, with 82 artists, will be something. When we look back and write the history of biennales, this can be a lesson. For the artists too it has been enriching; they get this chance to look at their art and their lives, and for it to be expressed through a biennale.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.
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