Monday of this week we shipped off to Silpakorn University to see a new solo exhibition by Tintin Couper. Clearly I don’t know Tintin’s work well because somehow we ended up at a completely different exhibition, the Silpa Bhirasri Creativity Grants 2006. For those who don’t know, Silpa Bhirasri is the Thai name of Corrado Feroci, the Italian born father of Thai modern art. With respect, I hope he is spinning in his grave about the “crap” on show.
Don’t ask how we ended up in the wrong place! The Tintin invitation looked interesting and I was quite enthusiastic about covering it.
But I guess we were on autopilot when we arrived at Silpakorn. It had already been a long day.
There are five galleries there and somehow we just wandered into the wrong place!
What we saw made me feel depressed and honestly questioning whether there is any point to promoting Thai contemporary art.
Let’s cover a few basics first.
Corrado Feroci was an Italian sculptor, invited to Thailand by Rama VI in 1923 to teach modern sculpture.
He remained in Thailand for the rest of his life, founded Silpakorn University and is regarded as the leading influence on Thai modern and contemporary art.
He died in 1962 but continues to be revered by the Thai art establishment.
The Silpa Bhirasri Creativity Grants were first awarded in 2001. The grants are given to between five and seven artists, “who have superior and different capacities in continuous artwork creation”.
The quote is from the forward to the 2006 grants directory. The forward goes on to say that “the main purpose of this fund is to sincerely encourage all artists having more self-confidence in an art creation….”.
Well great. I love the fact that money is being channelled into creative art. Sorry, what I really mean is that I love the principle of money being channelled into creative art.
The problem is that the grants mostly appear to be given to art that has almost nothing to do with creativity. Yet again we see a huge bias against genuinely innovative contemporary art and towards contemporary renditions of traditional Buddhist and peasant culture.
Let’s deal with a few disclaimers before making any more negative comments.
First, I have ranted on this subject before, notably in Young Artists Awards. Any comments I make are mine and mine alone.
Second, I do accept that many Thai people like and admire traditional Buddhist and peasant art, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Third, as I made clear in Is Censorship Right? my real argument is less with Thai artists, more with the Thai political and cultural elites.
So what is my argument?
Awards and grants are a very important source of funding for working artists. Thailand invests relatively little in cultural arts, so any sponsorship has got to be good.
The problem, as I see it, is that these “competitions” are judged by the established elites. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, except that those elites tend to be very partisan towards traditional media and styles, basically meaning painting, sculpture and Buddhist/peasant themes.
There are thousands of hugely creative and talented contemporary Thai artists doing some wonderful work. Some of that work is Buddhist and/or peasant related. Most of it is not. How depressing it must be for the majority of artists to see almost all funding going to “traditional contemporary art” (that phrase might be a self-contradiction).
I also note that the average age of the 2006 grantees is almost 40 and that they are all male. Are there really no women and no young artists below the age of 30 deserving of funding?
One could argue that it is the responsibility of artists themselves, together with gallery owners, to do more to promote Thai contemporary art, and I would not disagree.
However, it is not easy to promote anything when you have almost no support within the establishment and where the very art schools that should be working to promote innovation remain largely reliant on the skills and philosophy of a man who has been dead for over 40 years.
It’s interesting to make a comparison with contemporary art from the Philippines, much of which is also rooted in religion (mostly Catholic of course) and peasantry. Somehow, Filipino artists manage to create much fresher work than the majority of their Thai contemporaries.
My suspicion is that, were he alive today, Silpa Bharisri would be looking at contemporary art from all over the world and concluding that the Thai arts system remains captured in the 1950s and in urgent need of an overhaul.
I don’t deny that my commentary is harsh, maybe even unfair. There is plenty of very high quality work based on Thai traditional culture.
I happen to find it not especially interesting, that is my bias and many will not agree.
Yet I look at some of the younger talent in this country, struggling to make enough money to eat, and I sometimes despair.
There is a very talented artist that I know who works out of the JJ Market. His work sells for about 10,000 baht a piece. He paints about five new works a week, all based around the same theme.
Two years ago, this theme was interesting. 500 or so paintings later it’s getting a little tired, but as he says himself, he has almost no time to think and to create new ideas. He needs to sell and eat.
The issue is not just one of funding, though a better funded Thai cultural arts program would be welcomed by most.
The issue is mostly about attitude.
With the elites determined to preserve Thai traditional culture almost to the exclusion of contemporary art it is extremely difficult for emerging talent to get the recognition needed to establish reputations and sell work.
Thailand, today, is almost absent from the contemporary art world map. “Who cares?” you might say. I do, for one, and many others too.
In “Losing my way….” on Monday night I was reminded once again how hard a battle we fight to promote what is genuinely a wonderful variety of highly talented Thai contemporary artists.