Brian Curtin currently programs and curates for H Gallery Bangkok, including H Project Space and H Chiang Mai.
There are different ways to answer this. I studied at a number of Irish and British art schools through the 80s and 90s when the now commonplace professionalization of fine art practices was only burgeoning. The culture of art schools was still a magnet for creative types with no clear sense of a career-path. In fact, I knew many aspiring writers back then and people with a generic interest in what we now call the creative industries, rather than individuals with a dedicated interest in becoming a visual artist. I ended up studying for a PhD because I was part of the historical moment when independent art schools and colleges in the UK began amalgamating with universities and therefore came under research culture and interdisciplinary methodologies. The PhD was becoming the new MFA. My PhD was studio-based but I also wrote a thesis. My research was in queer masculinities and I became somewhat politicized about my own relationship to the world and decided that writing, rather than visual art, was the best way to address these interests.
I could answer the question facetiously with “What do mean by ‘artist’?” And I have been [lightly] accused of curating as a frustrated artist. But any writer or curator who began life as an artist will say the same: they are interrelated practices and it just so happens that one won out over the other, at least professionally.
I moved to Bangkok in 2000 and was still working as an artist. By 2005 I’d worked out that Thailand didn’t need foreign artists (back then) but the city did need foreign art critics. That was another incentive.
H Gallery was founded, as an exhibition space that built on a private dealership, in 2002 by the US-born Ernest H. Lee. The gallery rode the wave of increased international interest in contemporary art from diverse regions and specialized in art from Thailand. H later worked with the curator Connelly La Mar who introduced foreign artists and quirky group shows into the mix. I approached H in 2011 to add to the work that Connelly established in terms of greater dialogue between Thai and foreign, including regional, artists. I also opened H Project Space because Bangkok had no experimental spaces at the time in spite of the precedents of Visual Dharma Gallery, Project 304 and About Café in the 80s and 90s. But H Project Space has a caveat: the artist would be challenged by the period details of the architecture and the fact the room has natural air-conditioning, so can be very hot. We’ve done site-specific shows with Jedsada Tangtrakulwong, whose minimal intervention was based on a cobweb; and Sheelah Murthy turned the space into a traditional massage parlor where the movement of participants’ bodies was linked to projected stock exchange reports. Many other artists have worked outside their established methods.
H Project Space does not mount object-based shows, which the main program of the gallery typically does. However, because the local art scene is evolving with experimental spaces like Speedy Grandma and Soy Sauce Factory I am in the process of reinventing H Project Space. By 2016 I hope the space will function as a network point between the artists’ working space, publishing/education initiatives and spaces abroad which will give life to the work. The current model of experimental-variation-of-an-exhibition space is becoming exhausted.
Distinctions between these activities can blur. My situation in this regard is common because inter-disciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity have been in vogue for as long as I can remember. Further, there have been cultural shifts such as the death of the figure of the singular, dominant art critic who now can no longer be emulated; relationships between academia and the art world have evolved exponentially; and the expansion of the international art market has produced more and new employment opportunities. In the specific case of Southeast Asia, there is a pressured need to take on different roles because, simply, there aren’t enough people involved. My colleagues in Phnom Penh, for example, work constantly on diverse projects as a consequence of increased international interest.
I sometimes think of an anecdote by the US writer Peter Schjedahl who reported that he refused writing commissions from galleries because this would conflict with his status as an art critic. This is unthinkable now. We all make work – artists, curators, writers – to be seen, read and discussed across different contexts and as relationships between these modes become tighter, if not segue, our individual practices run a spectrum of activities. Furthermore, the idea of ‘research’ increasingly underlines art-related practices and education programs in galleries have become very sophisticated so relationships to university culture are inevitable and secure. We can see this, for example, in the sponsorship of Singapore’s Center for Contemporary Art by Nanyang Technological University, and the programs the center has established.
My partner is the Thai artist Be Takerng Pattanopas. The Asian Economic Crisis in 1997, which began in Bangkok, turned the city into a time capsule for a few years: it was literally stalled. I still remember noting new building work beginning around 2002. However, while the art scene was small it was moving. Silom Art Space mounted the brilliant installation Yellow Simple by Sakarin Krue-On, 100 Tonson Gallery was showing Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, and Apinan Poshyananda was then director of the Art Center of Chulalongkorn University where he showed videos by Marina Abramovic. Also, Thailand first took part in the Venice Biennale in 2004. The main difference between then and now is that there are more foreigners involved now and the scene is more variable in types of spaces and projects.
The reference to Buddhism is reasonable because Buddhist art did constitute an avant-garde in the 70s and 80s in Thailand as a reaction against accelerated foreign influences in art. And the Department of Thai Art at Silpakorn University has produced some great artists, including Maitree Siriboon whose early works were influenced by rural temple murals but with an unembarrassed homoerotic element.
But, in terms of ‘contemporary art’, the question of ‘Thai’ is vexed – like ‘Southeast Asia’ or ‘Asia’. While few would seriously take these terms as self-evident in their meaning, they are nevertheless often blithely used in curatorial and writing projects. There have been some appalling survey exhibitions that seek to integrate disparate practices to a nationalistic agenda; or market-minded exhibitions that merely throw a spotlight on the region; or curators who mount nation-based ‘showcases’ of artists at art fairs. Within Southeast Asia’s art contexts, it seems that there is much more work to be done on the discursive connections between history, culture, trans-nationalism and geo-politics; and, of course, the critical issue of what can be meant by ‘contemporary’.
In recent years I’ve detected a new flavor of criticality in younger Thai artists, what we could term post-national. That is, there has been a shift ways from overarching national interests (such as Buddhism, and the problems of economic development) to a preoccupation with individual identities and the very fragmentation of identity itself. We can see this in the photographs of Tada Hengsapkul, the installations of Pisitakun Kuntalaeng and the remarkable fabric works of Jakkai Siributr, amongst others. But art in Thailand from recent decades is marked by a diversity of forms and potentially multiple interests. Siributr’s practice, for example, can be linked to Thai animist beliefs but he is also relevant to histories of the relationships between craft, decoration and canonical visual art. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook is comparably situated between divergent interests, between local ritual and universal considerations of meaning and interpretation. I believe this diversity has contributed to the relative invisibility of ‘Thai art’ on international circuits; it is less availability to fixity than, say, the postcolonial contexts of art from the Philippines or the political contexts of artists emerging from Cambodia.
These are book projects with Reaktion Books in the UK. While they are officially very different both overlap for me because I am interested in the social and political conditions in which art and its meanings can emerge. The book on contemporary art in Thailand traces what I hope will be a straightforward narrative from national to post-national interests on behalf of local artists since the late 80s: the difference between, say, Manit Sriwanichpoom’s early works (such as his famed Pink Man series) and the works of younger artists such as Tada and Pisitakun. I am thinking speculatively about the cyclical nature of Thai politics as the country recently experienced its 13th military coup d’etat since 1930s, the absurd and violent policies to instill a coherent sense of national identity, and the suggestion that the protests by the rural poor in recent years have torn the national imaginary to a degree that can’t be healed. Perhaps this is the backdrop to younger artists stepping back from contributing to the ‘imagined community’ of Thailand.
There are many great writers in Thai Studies and Southeast Studies, such as Scott Barme and Ara Wilson and emergent scholarship includes Clare Veal’s research on photography in Thailand, Simon Soon’s work on 70s leftwing artist groups in the region and Koompong Noobanjong’s studies in politics and architectural identity in the country. These are very important sources for a contemporary book on the city of Bangkok as they can help us move away from more typically elite narratives or what Rosalind C. Morris termed the ‘saccharine tropes’ through which Thailand is usually interpreted.
I am currently editing an edition of the journal Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific on the theme of ‘Queer Theory and Visual Cultures in Southeast Asia’. The essayists grapple with ideas of queer as they have been formed in academic contexts and provide rich, complex accounts of how visual imagery can be interpreted, and how it ‘acts’ on us in surprising ways. This is due to be published early next year. Also, in December, H Gallery will mount Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared: Contemporary Art in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, which is the culmination of a co-curated project with the great Roger Nelson, an academic and curator based in Phnom Penh. This was a 6-month project of residencies and symposia that was funded by the Australia Council of the Arts. The exhibition will travel to SA SA BASACC in Cambodia in January and includes Pinaree Sanpitak, Orawan Arunrak and Tith Kanitha.
Brian Curtin is an Irish-born lecturer, art critic and curator of contemporary art. He holds a Ph.D. in studio art from the University of Bristol - further to studying at the Crawford College of Art and Design, Cork, and the University of Ulster at Belfast - and has been based in Bangkok since 2000. Brian is currently a full-time lecturer at Bangkok University and previous teaching posts include the Faculty of Architecture of Chulalongkorn University and the School of Architecture and Design at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. His teaching areas are in art history and contextual studies and his research areas include queer aesthetics, contemporary art in Southeast Asia and critical theories of photography. Brian is external examiner for the MFA in Communication Design at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi and has been a tutor for the MFA program at the Art Institute of Boston.
As a curator Brian works with a variety of spaces and has mounted exhibitions in New York, China, Korea and the UK as well as regionally. Exhibition titles include The Ethics of Encounter: Contemporary Art from India and Thailand (2008); On the Threshold of the Senses: New Art from Southeast Asia (2012); Intimately: An Exhibition of Photography(2012); Economies of Touch: Sheelah Murthy (2013); Radiation: Art and Queer Ideas from Bangkok and Manila (2014); and Rates of Exchange, Un-Compared: Contemporary Art in Bangkok and Phnom Penh (2014). His curatorial work has been funded by Arts Council England and Australia Council for the Arts. Since 2011 Brian has managed H Project Space as part of H Gallery Bangkok.
Brian has been a contributor/contributing editor to the magazines Art iT, Contemporary, Circa, Frieze, Flash Art, Artforum.com and Art Asia Pacific, as well as writing for a range of other contexts. His published profiles of artists include Alice Maher, Sopheap Pich, Collier Schorr, Paul Pfeiffer, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.