Itt’s hard to miss MAIIAM. Located on Sankamphaeng Road – Chiang Mai’s straggle of shophouses and shacks better known as “handicraft highway” – the museum’s long, sweeping façade clad with thousands of mirrored tiles reflects changing times. The converted industrial unit – which houses the personal collection of art collector Jean Michel Beurdeley and his late wife Patsri Bunnag – is the vision of their son, Eric Bunnag Booth. Since opening in mid-2015, it has already become Thailand’s most important venue for contemporary art.
“Over the past 25 years, Thailand’s contemporary art scene has grown organically without government assistance,” says Eric, who works as the international marketing director for Jim Thompson, an iconic Thai silk company and champion of the arts. “Artists and gallery owners all over the country have joined their northern colleagues and created a vibrant art scene. MAIIAM is proud to join this movement and our hope is to inspire a younger generation of art collectors. This is the only way to support the artists, especially the young ones.”
Mai-iam means “brand new” in Thai, but it’s also a pun on Chiang Mai (“new city”); the “iam” is taken from Chao Chom Iam, the name of Eric’s great-aunt who was a royal consort to King Rama V. The opening of the museum has been greeted with enthusiasm, and has clearly tapped into a hunger for contemporary art in Thailand.
“The response has been much better than expected. In our first six months, we welcomed 18,000 visitors, with more than 70 per cent of our visitors under the age of 35,” says Eric.
Within the lofty space, visitors can experience the work of some of the country’s most influential artists held in the permanent collection, and enjoy rotating exhibitions. These displays so far have included films by Palme d’Or prize-winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and multimedia works by local artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert.
Kamin, who has exhibited at The Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Venice Biennale, was born in Lopburi, a city in north-eastern Thailand, but has lived and worked in Chiang Mai since 1996. A Buddhist, he often works in series across a variety of media, creating art in search of aesthetic beauty and as personal meditation. Formerly a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, he has also been an inspiration for the city’s current generation of artists.
Two other significant Thai artists who also call the city home are Mit Jai Inn and Rirkrit Tirivanija, co-founders of the highly influential Chiang Mai Social Installation (CMSI) projects in the early 1990s. “The contemporary art scene in Chiang Mai grew out of the social situation at the time,” explains Atikom Mukdaprakorn from Chiang Mai Art Conversation (CAC), an artist-run initiative which publishes the annual Chiang Mai Art Map. “There were no galleries in the city, so the CMSI artists decided to exhibit their works near temples, in city squares and outside malls.”
The Art Map – which lists over 50 galleries, art-focused cafés, bars, restaurants, museums, artists’ residencies and multi-purpose spaces in and around the city – demonstrates that this situation has changed in the intervening years, but a social approach is still one of the defining aspects of art in Chiang Mai. “Local artists do not limit themselves to the confines of a traditional gallery. They think about how they can connect with the masses and stimulate conversation,” observes Atikom. “This inspired us to start [dusk-to-midnight art-appreciation event] Galleries Night Chiang Mai.”
Local artists do not limit themselves to the confines of a traditional gallery
The CAC initiative, whose second edition was held this January, is further evidence that artists in Chiang Mai have looked to maintain a dialogue with the public. “It allows art lovers to see special exhibitions, exchange ideas, and enjoy creative conversation. This year, more than 50 artists took part across 24 venues,” says Atikom.
Mild-mannered Torlarp Larpjaroensook, also known as Hern, is an artist belonging to the new generation, but the effects of CMSI still resonate in his work. Born and raised on a houseboat in Ayutthaya province, Hern initially studied art in Bangkok before going on to major in painting at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Wearing a crumpled blue blazer, with his hair pulled back in a short ponytail, he has the air of a modern-day Bohemian. “I had heard about CMSI and how it was being heralded as the birth of contemporary art in Thailand,” says Hern. “This more conceptual approach is why I moved north to continue my studies.” Chiang Mai’s slower pace of life, lower cost of living and rich culture, he says, also make it an attractive place for artists. “Traditional northern culture runs deep and exerts a strong influence on artists. We are not constrained by it, though, and are always looking for new ideas. In Chiang Mai, anything is possible,” enthuses Hern.
In 2008, Hern, who started out as a painter before moving into mixed media, opened Gallery SeeScape on the trendy Nimmanhaemin Road to help ease the financial pressure many Thai artists face. It has a certain thrown-together charm, having been built by Hern on a tight budget, but it serves its purpose as a showcase both for his own work and that of visiting artists. True to the CMSI ethos, his work encourages interaction between people and art.
“I began to add functions to my paintings, such as switches and lights,” Hern explains. This led to the creation of his Bestto Boy and Bestto Girl series of lamps, with their switch faces and lightbulb phallus and breasts. “Today, I make installations that people can touch and play with. This interactivity helps them relate to the art.”
Interactive installations help people relate better to art
Hidden away in a leafy village along the city’s Canal Road is Godung, a private studio shared by two artists who explore their artistic vision in radically different ways. In one corner of the workshop, Arnont Nongyao sits perched on a stool and looks through thick-rimmed spectacles at cassette tape recorders, CDs, and piles of old gadgets that he collects for use in his experimental sound and video art. “I graduated in fine art, but I became increasingly interested in sound and the public’s response to it,” explains Arnont. “I remember sitting and watching people ringing prayer bells at Doi Suthep temple [one of Chiang Mai’s most famous temples]. This was the inspiration for creating works that invite people to collaborate in making a soundscape.”
Arnont uses redundant technology as a way of connecting with people. “I am not rejecting new technology, but I want to see and feel things working,” he says. His current sound explorations use bicycles that are modified by participants at his workshops. “We build an instrument together, using a bicycle as the starting point. The result is not music. It is a confused sound, but one that has been created by everyone.” Although it was not his original intention, he says there is certainly a sociopolitical undercurrent in what he does. “I want to bring people together to work with me, but I don’t want to control them. Sometimes I feel that the sound we make is like a protest.”
Sharing Gudong with Arnont is the painter Paphonsak La-Or, whose work is more overtly political. Like many in the local art scene, Bangkok-born Paphonsak chose to study in Chiang Mai because of CMSI. Sitting in front of a recently completed canvas, the larger-than-life character punctuates his sentences with animated hand gestures. “I moved to the painting department where the lecturers were more open to new ideas,” he recalls. His recent series of artworks features landscapes around Fukushima in Japan, areas abandoned after the 2011 nuclear disaster. Titles such as Huge Elephants in the Room and Silent No More written across his paintings draw a connection between the eerie landscapes and his frustration with the ongoing political unrest in Thailand.
Paphonsak draws on his cigarette before affirming that he will never return to Bangkok. Nevertheless, he questions any assertion that Chiang Mai leads the Thai art scene. “There are more challenging things happening in Bangkok.”
Ironically, it is thanks to the movement in Chiang Mai that Bangkok’s art scene is starting to enjoy its own renaissance. The opening of MAIIAM is further evidence of the northern city’s importance to the new wave of young Thais, who continue to find inspiration in the country’s capital of contemporary art.
Chiang Mai’s Nimmanhaemin Road area is packed with cafés and bars with an artsy vibe.
Living Machine Bar & Break
This laid-back, open-fronted nightspot hosts regular events and exhibitions.
Soi 7, Nimmanhaemin Rd
Grab an iced coffee in their garden full of terracotta images. There’s also an artists’ studio across the road.
6 Prapokkloa Rd
A café, gallery and lifestyle shop serving Thai and Western dishes and unique handicrafts.
80 Charoenrat Rd, woochiangmai.com
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.