Art of the Matter
Once the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, and far removed from the kingdom's centre of power, Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai has become its most creative
Sitting on the muddy banks of the Ping river - which originates up high in remote mountains in Myanmar, before eventually forming the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok - sits Studiok, the home base for local artist Navin Rawanchaikul. An austere, open warehouse-style building of concrete and steel, it is a purposely blank canvas for some of the most colorful and inventive contemporary artwork Thailand has ever known.
The studio may be modernist, but Rawanchaikul has a long history here, having been born and raised in the city, where he became one of the first to attend the Faculty of Fine Arts program at Chiang Mai University, under iconic artist Montien Boonma. “What we were doing at university was totally new for the country. Far away from Bangkok, we didn't have a fixed structure or style, and Montien Boonma showed us a new path. He had just spent time in Paris, and brought back with him ideas about how we could create new Thai art, and use local materials in a new, contemporary way.”
Chiang Mai has a long storied history of traditional craftsmanship, with its artisans famed for their abilities in wood, pottery, paper, and jewelry, but there had been no contemporary art to speak of before the arrival of Boonma. “As a group of ambitious students in the early ‘90s, we launched an experimental project called the Chiang Mai Social Installation where we treated the entire city as an exhibition space,” recalls Rawanchaikul. In its first year, the work was displayed at temples, later shopping malls and even the streets were used. “We saw it as the best way to reach the most people.”
Fast forward two decades, and Chiang Mai is home to a new, shiny contemporary art museum that is persuading people to come to it instead. Attracting attention due to its shimmering mirror facade, MAIIAM is a family-owned venue driven by Eric Bunnag Booth, his stepfather Jean Michel Beurdeley and late mother Patsri Bunnag. “We've been collecting modern art for more than 25 years, but it was mostly just sitting in storage,” says Booth, who is also the director of renowned Thai silk fashion company Jim Thompson. The family had been considering how to best honor his great grand aunt Chao Chom Iam, who had been royal consort to the modernizing King Rama V.
“We explored a few different ideas, such as running a school or hospital, but the idea was foreign to us,” says Booth, “so instead we hit upon opening a museum to showcase our collection, which would be the first in the country.” They considered opening up in Bangkok, but eventually settled on Chiang Mai. “Although it's the most modern city in Thailand, the capital is also a very conservative place - Chiang Mai, with its cheaper land, and home to many great artists, just made much more sense.” When they found a 3,000 square meter warehouse in the Sankamphaeng crafts district, the die was cast. Construction work was quick, though the mirrored exterior came about by chance.
“We just wanted a way to cover up the warehouse entrance, so the architect created this new frontage. Then we wanted to make it more attractive, and hit upon the idea of using mirrored tiles, like you see in Chang Mai's temples,” explains Booth. “However, when we contacted the Fine Arts Department at the Ministry of Culture, they said it'd take years to cover the huge surface.” The solution was to use a new glue commonly used in swimming pools, which saw them finish in mere weeks. In a demonstration of how traditional ways can always learn from contemporary ideas, Booth says that the Fine Arts Department has now adopted the use of the glue in their own renovations.
As for the name, the 'Mai' part comes from Chiang Mai - which literally means new city, while the ‘Iam’ honors his royal ancestor. It’s also a clever play on words as the phrase 'mai iam' translates as 'brand new' in Thai. The upstairs gallery houses the family's permanent collection, while the ground floor shows exhibitions that change twice yearly. “It's important to note that the artwork just represents our point of view, and is not a timeline of contemporary art in Thailand,” says Booth, who is nonetheless proud of the challenging work that they display, such as the exhibition ‘Patani Semasa’, which shone a spotlight on thoughtful pieces from artists hailing from the deep south of the country, a restive majority Muslim, ethnic Malay region that is regularly in the news for acts of violence, but where little is known about the art or cultural scene.
“Chiang Mai is a destination for art,” says MAIIAM curator Kittima Chareeprasit. “Because it was once the capital of an independent kingdom [Lanna], it has a different narrative to other places in Thailand. Then you have the art heritage, with the number of artists that choose to live here because of the slower life and cheaper cost of living, yet within an hour's flight of Bangkok, and a background of contemporary art with the Chiang Mai University, people like Navin and the Chiang Mai Social Installation. Add to that the history of ancient crafts in Sankamphaeng district, which have been here for hundreds of years, and really, it was the most optimal place to open an art museum.
“The people of Chiang Mai appreciate art, and craftsmanship is part of the fabric of life - design is everywhere. Compared to most cities in northern Thailand, and like the city’s name means, it really is a new city, with a mixed culture, and varied culinary influences - like khao soi and sai oua [spicy sausage] that's inspired by the Burmese. Even the language is different, with an influx of immigrants from throughout the region, including hill tribes from China - it all makes people open to new ideas. Now you also have locals going overseas to study, and returning with fresh perspectives.”
However, Chareeprasit - locally raised, she studied painting at Chiang Mai University before taking a master's in curating and collection from University of the Arts London - acknowledges it's still not easy for young and emerging artists to survive at home. “After they graduate, only a few can make it as full time artists, most have to do other work to make ends meet, often ending up in the creative industry, such as working in film or design, where they can employ their skills in a different way.” This adaptable approach to what being an artist means is being reflected at the city’s universities.
“The art program at Chiang Mai Uni used to be so restrictive,” says Chareeprasit. “You had to concentrate only on painting or sculpture, while now you're encouraged to use different mediums, and are exposed to more ideas.” She's also excited about how a new generation are beginning to use traditional arts in a contemporary way. “We're always been a creative city, with different districts devoted to making wood and furniture, silver and jewelry, pottery and paper - these old materials are now being developed, rebranded, and redesigned by young designers, who are opening their own galleries.”
“I was born on a houseboat,” begins Hern Larpjaroensook, the artist-owner behind Gallery Seescape in the Nimman university district. Raised on the waterways of Ayutthaya, the former capital of an ancient Thai kingdom, his parents made a living fishing and harvesting river weeds. They were also carpenters, a skill they passed onto their young son. “It was a fun childhood,” he says, “we didn't have much but I got to play in the river, and learned how to make my own toys - people called me a 'little inventor'.” His interest in art led him to study at the College of Fine Arts in Bangkok. “The college was right next to the river, and I lived in a village by the water next to a local market - I felt right at home.” Drawn by the slower pace of life, after graduation he moved to Chiang Mai where he earned a living making props for movies, intricate dioramas for the city's museums, and small craft works to sell at the tourist market.
In 2008 he opened Gallery Seescape as a bar that showcased his art. “I was thinking of a way to make money, and promote my art, but I had to close it down as all my patrons just got drunk and had no interest in the artwork at all!” laughs Larpjaroensook. A revelatory moment came with the showing of his work 'In Progress' at the Singapore Art Museum. “I wanted to present the hours before an artist finishes a work, when the floor is full of screwdrivers, paint pots, brushes, canvases, hammers and nails. Usually all this is hidden from view, but I believe art is progress and this is what we should showcase.” In the meantime, he continued developing his art, melding oil paintings with functional interactive art pieces that incorporated speakers and light switches.
“I kept looking at the switch and seeing a face, and decided that the head deserved a body,” says Larpjaroensook. The result was his 'Besto Boy', which used Besto brand switches and a lightbulb for his genitalia, and has become Larpjaroensook's most recognizable piece, and even a bestseller at the MAIIAM gift shop. He then further explored the story of Besto Boy, creating a spaceship made of household objects that allowed the character to explore his past. It was shown at Bangkok's fashion-centric Siam Center, where the artist recalls the reaction of one visitor. “There was this old guy walking with his family, who looked at my work for a very long time. I realized he recognized old objects from his youth, and was explaining to his children what they were.” Up-cycling everyday pieces has now become a commonality in his artwork.
“The objects I use are cheap and unfashionable,” says Larpjaroensook, “but the quality is good.” He gestures around Seescape, pointing out the faded floor tiles that cover the tabletops, the Grecian-style columns that hold up the tables, and the old metal fences that serve as seats. “They might not be beautiful to look at now, but they once were. I believe every object can be beautiful, and it doesn't have to be expensive to look rich.”
Nevertheless, over more than a decade’s work, after hosting least 100 exhibitions and events, and adding a shop and restaurant to his gallery, the artist still struggles to make ends meet. “I almost quit being an artist three times. I had no money and asked myself 'Why? For what?'. But now I see more people appreciating art, and a new generation of artists connecting. Think of art in Chiang Mai like a seed: When you plant a tree, you must choose a good location. If you have a proper environment the tree will grow strong and tall. We have all that, but we still need support to grow.”
The need for ongoing support is the main reason that Som Supaparinya helped found the Chiang Mai Art Conversation, an artist-led collective that runs an online database on the city's artists, and launched the annual Chiang Mai Art Map, which provided up-to-date details on galleries and artist-friendly spaces. “For young artists it's not easy to make their mark, so we were thinking, 'What can we do to make art more visible in this city? Maybe organize an arts festival?' But then we thought that wouldn't be helpful longterm - it'd just pop up and be gone. That's when we hit upon the setting up a database.” Supaparinya explains that, prior to the launch of their website in 2013, exhibitions in Chiang Mai would mainly just be attended by artists and their friends.
After starting off with a Facebook page, the group followed every artist they could find online, then shared information on their events, grants, residencies and news, as well as competitions, and changes in government policy that related to the arts scene. It rapidly became the city's hub for the artistic community. “Then we suggested setting up an interactive website where artists could share details on their art and work, and everyone was excited and wanted to make it happen - until we asked them for money,” laughs Supaparinya. Finally after much effort they managed to set up the website, and then followed it with the first edition of the printed Chiang Mai Art Map in 2015.
“[Though now stopped] we found that the map really helped. Small venues that previously only a few people knew about become popular, and we’d often see visitors walking from gallery to gallery with our map in their hands.” It made them a logical partner when the Japan Foundation Asia Center, a cultural promotional arm of the Japanese government, was looking to establish a presence in Chiang Mai, and led to the opening of the Asian Culture Station on a small alleyway off Nimmanhaemin Road, a now closed space that served as design library, and center for artist resources.
“In the last few years, we've seen an increase in the number of artists working and living in Chiang Mai, as well as the attention their work is getting both nationally and regionally,” says Supaparinya. “The arrival of MAIIAM really helped with this, as did the private DC Collection, but the biggest problem remains that the university doesn't prepare students to be full time artists. I’m not talking about the art, but the business side, how to negotiate the price of work, deal with galleries, and promote yourself - too many end up painting images of the temples just to make money!” She jokes that the public impression of artists is often as bohemian folk who sleep all day and drink all night - to be honest, sometimes true, as Seescape’s Larpjaroensook had related to me - but organizers like the Chiang Mai Art Conversation are helping to change this view.
Marisa Marchitelli, a photographer and video producer who can trace her family's lineage in Thailand all the way back to her great-great-grandfather Henry Alabaster, a British diplomat who became an advisor to King Rama V and was subsequently bestowed the Thai name Savetsila, has been a familiar face on the Chiang Mai art scene ever since she returned to the city in 2010 from a stint living in New York.
“In the time since I've been back here the contemporary art scene has really changed tremendously, though of course just as many galleries have closed as have opened.” We're sitting in Rustic & Blue, enjoying the artisanal menu of hand grown cuisine, just one of a slew of chic eateries and cafes - Ristr8to possibly being the most famous - to have opened to great acclaim in the Nimman area, which draws students from Chiang Mai University. “When I first came to this part of town, half of this area was still paddy fields!” laughs Marchitelli. That bucolic countryside imagery maybe why many of Thailand's top artists, including Navin Rawanchaikul, choose to live in the city.
“The irony is that many of them don't show their work here, only in Bangkok,” she says, adding that perhaps the arrival of MAIIAM, the DC Collection and others will be able to change that. “In Bangkok it's hard to meet people - with the traffic it can take hours to get anywhere, and everything has to be planned - but in Chiang Mai people are much more spontaneous with their schedules.” She remarks that the local branch of the TCDC (Thailand Creative & Design Center) is increasingly helping to pair artists with businesses, and events like the annual Nimmanhaemin Art and Design Promenade fair, which showcases inventive fashion and crafts, are doing much to further the arts scene. “With Chiang Mai University just up the road, you could see this as a college town, with the large student population conducive to creativity.”
Remembering Rawanchaikul's riverside studio, I recall a story he told me about a tree on his property. Planted just a few years ago, it grew to three floors tall, reaching for the blue sky beyond his shady studio courtyard. As Larpjaroensook had pointed out, if you have a proper environment the tree will grow strong and tall and thrive. It feels very much that Chiang Mai's art scene has reached this point, all the ingredients are there - the seed, the nourishment, the support - now it has only one way to go, up.