Being an “expert” on Thai art
Brian Curtin is an Irish-born art critic, lecturer and curator based in Bangkok since 2000. His recent projects include the group exhibition ‘Time Less Held: Artists Revisiting the Overlooked (2018)’ at Tadu Contemporary Art in Bangkok and he oversaw ‘Uncommon Pursuits: A Temporary School for Emergent Curators in Southeast Asia (2018)’ at Sàn Art, the non-profit arts platform in Vietnam, while he was Director there last year. Brian is currently working on a number of writing projects that explore art criticism through his interest in the practical application of Queer theories.
In a two-part conversation, he speaks to A&M first about recent events and developments in the region, including his views on art criticism, and then about his curatorial work and his upcoming monograph on contemporary art in Thailand.
You managed the experimental venue H Project Space in Bangkok from 2011-2018 which now functions under the mantle Brian Curtin Projects. What is one project that has been the most meaningful for you, and what can we look forward to in its new form?
H Project Space opened in 2011 as a response to a lack of independent and experimental spaces in Bangkok at the time. That was the distant past and Bangkok now has an uncountable amount of independent spaces. We didn’t mount object-based exhibitions. Instead, artists were invited to create installations in response to the period architecture, which dates from the 19th century.
The space closed in early 2018 with a sense of restlessness about how the interests of site-specificity could be expanded or brought elsewhere in the city. One of the final projects, ‘Scenes from the Life of Paris’ by the Australian artist Gary Carsley, capped many of the concerns of the space. He played with a distinction between art/non-art by using a very decorative wallpaper with “oriental”motifs, and bisected the room with a video installation of a Canova bust that “spoke” a Greek myth with an Australian accent. Different cultural references thus collided and confused, and the elegant neocolonial architecture of H Project Space was animated as a site of hybridity, narrative and ideology.
As I am regularly contacted by artists and curators with an interest in H Project Space, I’m using the mantle Brian Curtin Projects to temporarily manage this. We recently hosted the London-based artist Brigid McLeer, who visited Thailand and Vietnam on a funded research trip for her on-going project ‘N-Scale: Living Memorial’. The project emerged from her tracing the history of a toy shipping container she was gifted. Brigid discovered that the object had been produced by Kadar Toy Factory in Thailand which had seen one of the worst industrial accidents in history during the early 1990s. Nearly two hundred people were killed in a fire. Brigid visited the site, now zoned for housing and the appalling event is hidden. She met a survivor and a labour activist to make herself and the project known. ‘N-Scale’ is a gentle tribute to the victims whereby, as part of a performance, members of the public obtain a wearable number that is symbolic of each victim and they promise to discuss the history of the emblem to others. The interests here are layered: the lives of objects, transnationalism, global capitalism, and our role and responsibilities within.
In your role as temporary director at Sàn Art last year, you co-organised ‘Uncommon Pursuits: A Temporary School for Emergent Curators in Southeast Asia’. What were your key takeaways from the event?
‘Uncommon Pursuits’ (UP) was initially developed by the curator Qinyi Lim, who had spoken with many artists and other workers in Ho Chi Minh City about their priorities for curatorial training and drafted an outline for the school. I then finalised the school’s modules while introducing one on research methods. This focus on basic procedural skills balanced the more theoretical aspects concerned with curatorial practice for the Global South. One participant commented that UP seemed like a condensed post-graduate programme. This crossover with university culture was possibly a distinguishing feature of UP if we compare it with other independent workshops. And this is also a point of consideration for future incarnations.
All participants came with a project to hone. The selection was competitive and we chose participants for their diversity, sense of formal ambition, and awareness of challenges or problems that would benefit from the experience of UP. The projects were remarkable, including Rahmat Arham’s proposal to work with artists in addressing pernicious aspects of digital culture such as identity theft and political radicalization across multiple communities. Or Quyen D. Pham’s interest in space and the programming of immaterial practices.
Because of the month-long structure of UP, all our lecturers didn’t meet for the purpose of exchange and networking; and the participants’ projects required a follow-up that was demanding on everyone’s time. These challenges can be addressed for future editions. The success of UP was in opening up curatorial work as a multi-aspect activity and linking ideas of contemporary art to diverse contexts, all driven by the particular interests of the participants.
Essentially, participants were encouraged to think in-depth about process and their aims, and what it means to maintain a practice over time. The contribution by Nigel Power, a Bangkok-based academic and artist, was notable in this respect, discussing research as an on-going activity that can be punctuated by presentation or display while ideas and assumptions remain to be interrogated and further possibilities generated.
UP also potentially contributed to establishing links between curators from the region as the participants were from Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines as well as Vietnam. Grassroots regional dialogue remains regretfully scant.
It was an intensive four weeks, and I think that intensity allowed the participants to think very seriously about their practices.
Please tell us more about ‘Intimate Histories’, the curatorial programme you planned at Sàn Art.
‘Intimate Histories’ was a plan for a successive series of exhibitions we brainstormed for Sàn Art’s new gallery while I was working there last year. Regretfully, the programme couldn’t go ahead because I had to leave Sàn Art due to the pressure of my external projects.
The programme was firstly a response to the perennial curatorial challenge of how to make exhibitions and ideas live through time. Therefore our plan was that each exhibition over a certain period of time would be loosely interlinked according to a comprehensive view of modern and contemporary art in Vietnam. However, the contexts and narratives we would establish were lateral to the histories of, say, the influence of École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine in the first half of the 20th century or artistic struggles with postcolonial identity. This is not to be disingenuous about such, but to move quickly past more familiar ideas of “western-influence” and tropes of national identity. Also, this programme drew more readily on the resources we had on hand through innovative practices. We wanted idiosyncratic views to skirt a conventional view of history and assert a dynamism between past eras and the present. One idea, for example, was to work with families of artists and elaborate theories of kinship as a curatorial method. Another was to look at different generational waves of influence in the country.
The title ‘Intimate Histories’ also pointed to my interest in close readings and the experiential aspects of engaging an artwork. This would have linked the programme to recent critical writings on art histories emerging from universities in the region and elsewhere. That dialogue across contemporary disciplines is very important to me.
In your upcoming monograph on contemporary art in Thailand, what is your research focused on?
I’ve traced a generational shift from nationalist to post-nationalist interests between artists who emerged in the 1990s and more recently. The context for this is the interrelated interests of the repetitive cycles of Thai politics, which have exhausted traditional tropes of national identity; and the contemporary significance of the recent political meltdown that has established a deep split in the national imaginary.
My main concern is with shaping a critically productive relationship between contemporary Thai artists, their peers and the legacies of history. The younger artists I focus on play with the ideologies that attend constructions of national identity and trace how, for Thailand, visual culture is central to that process. And artists such as Prapat Jiwarangsan retrieve hidden histories. His project ‘Dust Under Feet’ (2012), for example, is a spill of three thousand thumbnail photos of victims of political crackdowns and anonymous soldiers and parliamentarians from over the last one hundred years or so, accompanied by a magnifying glass.
There is a fairly consistent tendency for Thai artists to follow more elite views of nationhood. Arin Rungjang’s references to royalty and major political moments in Thai history spring to mind. But I am interested in those who explore the margins, like Prapat or Tada Hengsapkul’s photographs of his youthful milieu in the northeast region of the country.
I’m currently completing what will hopefully be the last major draft.
As an independent curator, what has been key to keeping the momentum going and realising projects? What are the major challenges that you face?
I’m reluctant to generalize my own experience in terms of establishing any sort of method or as the basis for advice because contemporary curatorial work remains generally ill-defined, or few come to it in the same way. For me, curating originally followed from my professional work as an art writer. It was, or is, another type of outcome and another means of reflection as the basis for future work. Specific to Bangkok, I had the luxury of working without a peer group which allowed a strong sense that I could experiment and take risks. (No curator should be timid but this is simply a statement of fact!). Also, I was familiar with the work of many Thai artists and local spaces by the time I began curating so I had a clear idea about what I wanted to do, or what could be done.
Curating is essentially collaborative and your practice is maintained over years according to your shifting or changing network. Curiously, new perspectives can be brought to bear on your more consistent preoccupations. But elaborating a theme is possibly one of the smallest aspects of the process. Most spaces I’ve worked with ask why one’s work should be considered important. I’ve been reading interviews with Patrick Flores’ about his current work as Artistic Director of the Singapore Biennale and he discusses establishing a research framework before anchoring themes. That framework can function as a backbone and resource, elaborating contexts for individual exhibitions and allowing you to move forward but in different directions.
Funding remains a central challenge; and the question of discursive programming. Who is your public and what needs to prioritised in terms of mediation? This is always case-by-case.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Self-censorship and its pervasiveness in Thailand has become an object of discussion further to increased autocracy in the country in recent years. I am interested in this shift and looking at the changes in laws, and other practices, that support it. Histories of censorship shape certain ideas about images and representation, ideas that reflect broader contexts. I am wondering about what can be discerned in this respect, and what is changing now.
This somewhat reflects my on-going writing on Jakkai Siributr’s artworks, which are textile-based and explore vernacular aesthetics. His tapestries and other works have a talismanic quality. Or a sense of the animistic that is strange and compelling. And while Jakkai can make a virtue of ambivalence, some of his works are didactically moral. The critics Joan Kee and Jennifer Doyle have written about invisible boundaries around the typical forms of “contemporary art” and the limited tools of analysis employed by academia and criticism. I think Jakkai pushes at this, demanding a broad vocabulary and set of references.
What do you hope to achieve as a curator and writer on Thai art?
I am occasionally approached with ideas for projects on the proviso that I am an expert on Thai art. The appellation of “expert” is inaccurate. The examples I use are from Thailand but my interests and influences come from many sources. Anyway, my curiosity wanders too much to be disciplined as research proper or in terms of an exclusive focus.
However, to be perceived as part of a historical moment is inevitably to be pressured to decide a relationship to that moment. I’m interested in dialogues between media and ideas, with surprising consequences, and highlighting the edges of what we think we already know.
Is there a dream exhibition you hope to curate?
Bringing Brigid’s project to Bangkok would be something of a dream. It’s a layered engagement with a difficult aspect of recent history, and looks outward from Thailand rather than pinning down the country as an example of the horrors of global capitalism. The project is a gentle probing of a new form of commemoration and is dialogical, involving a potentially infinite variety of actors. This quality and degree of communication between people is important because it lives extensively in time and across communities, and is not “about” mere consumption; and the artwork also lives in time, pointing to continuing or interrelated histories of urbanism and development.
Read Part 1 of A&M’s interview with Brian Curtin here.