Chiang Mai has long been known as Thailand’s creative heartland, but the languorous second city never had a crowd-pulling art museum – until, that is, the arrival of MAIIAM in 2016. The 3,000 square-meter gallery, which hosts the extensive collection of the Bunnag-Beurdeley family as well as temporary exhibitions, has made Chiang Mai a must-visit destination for the art crowd in ASEAN and beyond, complementing the smaller, experimental spaces in the university district of Nimmanhaemin. And in the absence of a national collection of contemporary art, MAIIAM (meaning “brand new”) indisputably offers the best overview of what Thai artists are making right now.
Located 20 kilometers out of town, however, and with little public transport to speak of, getting to the museum is something of a pilgrimage. (Transport advice at the end.) Head east towards the neighborhood of San Kamphaeng, whose many workshops sell silver and gems, silk and paper parasols, and wait for a futuristic temple to appear among the artisanal studios: architects all(zone) covered the façade of MAIIAM with thousands of mirrored tiles that glint in the sun, slowing passing motorcyclists and inviting copious selfies. The interior offers a sharp contrast but is no less Instagrammable, with its clean lines, polished concrete floors, and echoes of the building’s industrial past. Light wells were added to the former warehouse, sparing visitors the back-and-forth dance so common in artificially-lit spaces, but the essential structure of the building has been retained and celebrated. In a nation that merrily razes its architectural heritage, this is a marvel even before the lustrous cladding.
Interior, MAIIAM, Chiang Mai. Image courtesy of Dacha Noimaliwan.
The journey through the museum begins with the expected devotional images to the Buddha and the reigning Chakri dynasty, but quickly moves on to an inside-outside space filled with disorienting sculpture; to reveal any more would be to spoil the surprise. Downstairs are the temporary exhibitions, included in the adult ticket price of approximately SGD 6, which until February 2018 are 'Lalan: The Cosmic Dance of the Paintbrush' and 'Patani Semasa'. The former showcases the work of renaissance woman Lalan, who worked until her death in 1995 as a visual artist, dancer, choreographer, composer, writer, and director, and the images on display here are meditations on her bicultural Chinese-French identity – roughed-up guo hua with ink pushing and shoving its way about the canvas. Meanwhile in 'Patani Semasa', 27 artists from Thailand’s southern provinces give their take on the troubled region, where 90% of inhabitants are ethnically Malay. From a gauntlet of guns to faceless Muslim brides, the pieces exhibited suggest the long-running separatist insurgency has engendered a unique creativity in the face of destruction.
"Fade Away" (2016) by Nuriya Waji. Image courtesy of MAIIAM.
MAIIAM’s upper floor is home to the permanent collection, with paintings, sculpture, installations and photographs from the 1980s to the present. Though the artists are predominantly Thai, the wider region is represented by post-minimalist Cambodian sculptor Sopheap Pich, among others. Expect to spend at least 15 minutes in front of Navin Rawanchaikul’s 'Super(M)art Bangkok Survivor', a dizzying triptych created between 2004 and 2015 that picks apart the modernization of Thailand, including the ‘farangification’ of traditional culture (a ‘farang’ is a foreigner). Look out, too, for photographs by Manit Sriwanichpoom, whose infamous Pink Man asks Thais to confront the mindless consumerism “which has been accepted simply and without consideration.” Though owner Eric Bunnag Booth insists that MAIIAM’s collection merely reflects the family’s own preferences, and not the history of contemporary art in Thailand, a walk around the upper galleries is nevertheless an introduction to the leading lights of the avant-garde over 30 or more years.
While the kingdom remains under military rule, the presentation of overtly political art is of course a risky business; MAIIAM hovers over the precipice of acceptability. BACC, Bangkok’s main visual arts venue, has always been disappointingly line-toeing, with an entire floor forever given over to works by or depicting members of the royal family. The popular Khao Yai Art Museum, opened in 2014, treads a careful balance between the customary religious themes and more irreverent work, such as paintings by Lampu Kansanoh that engage with cultural quirks but never institutions. But the location, size, independence, and – let’s be honest – financial clout of MAIIAM give it a perhaps unparalleled freedom in Thailand. The north of the country has a history not only of creative output but of activism, making Chiang Mai a fitting seat for the museum that might, in time, come to challenge the artistic status quo.
MAIIAM is still young, of course. Its big bang opening exhibition focused on the work of household name Apichatpong Weerasethkul, director of the award-winning 'Uncle Boonmee who Can Remember his Past Lives,' and this was followed by a retrospective for Kamin Lertchaiprasert. Though neither artist could be accused of timidity they both explore acceptably Thai themes in a country bogged down in nationalist rhetoric. Without doubt, 'Patani Semasa' is the most controversial exhibition at MAIIAM to date, and is worth seeing simply for this reason; since the government so often seeks to gloss over the struggle for southern autonomy, a genuinely rare narrative is offered up here. It can only be hoped that future shows extend this bravery and diversity, and perhaps in addition give platform to the female voices so rarely heard in Thailand.
"Untitled" (1975-1978) by Lalan. Image courtesy of MAIIAM.
Leaving the venue, the impact of the galleries is not quite matched by an underwhelming café and overpriced gift shop; head back into town for bargain-price local food and trinkets (hipster coffee shops abound in Chiang Mai, while Charoenrat Road offers a number of high-end artsy stores). But MAIIAM was never about toasties or tees – it’s a serious art space with cerebral, impactful work, and deserves every bit of the acclaim it’s received. Finally, it feels like Southeast Asian art outside of Singapore might be finding its place on the global stage.
Getting there: Travelling to the museum from Chiang Mai requires a bit of patience. If you’re confident on a motorbike or scooter, hiring one is the easiest and cheapest way; if not, use the Grab app so your driver has the location in front of them. If you’re strapped for cash, a white songthaew (open-backed van) from Wararot Market in town will take you to MAIIAM for the equivalent of 60 cents; ring the bell when you see the museum.
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.
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