Midnight on the third floor of a renovated shophouse in the heart of one of Asia’s busiest cities. There’s a deep rumbling sound as flickering black-and-white images are projected onto a screen: 25-year-old curator Abhijan Toto, with septum piercing and clear-rimmed glasses, is talking animatedly to a young group clutching cocktails in a whitewashed room. It’s the opening of a new exhibition, The Ghost War, by artists Sung Tieu, from Vietnam, and Delhi-based Rohini Devasher, and the gallery is humming with life.
WTF, as the gallery is called (it stands for “Wonderful Thai Friendship”, of course), also doubles up as one of the best-loved cocktail bars in Bangkok – the exhibition space takes the top two floors, while drinks flow downstairs. It’s one of many hybrid underground galleries that have sprung up in the Thai capital, founded by local artists to showcase their own work and give a platform to emerging talent. So how does a city without much of an established art scene become a hotbed for grass-roots galleries, rivalling some of the more moneyed creative capitals in the world?
Well, in part, through necessity. “The bar is the patron to support the gallery space,” explains Christopher Wise, co-founder of WTF alongside curator Somrak Sila. We’re sitting in the candlelit cocktail area while trendy young Thais mill up and down the stairs to check out the exhibition. “Thai people are entrepreneurial by nature,” says Wise. “Whether it’s selling noodles by the side of the road or crafts at markets, everyone here has a side hustle. It’s the same with the art scene: artists don’t want to wait for others to help them – they want to do it for themselves. That’s what makes the Bangkok art scene so different to that of other cities.”
The next night, I head to the capital’s creative district in and around the Bang Rak area, where I find more artist-run venues, such as bar-gallery Speedy Grandma, Kathmandu Photo Gallery and community arts space Warehouse 30, as well as the Thailand Creative and Design Center, a huge innovation-promoting institution that adds weight to the district’s creative credentials while offering a contrast to the independent galleries, like graffitied, UV-lit bar-cum-exhibition space Jam. Couple Dhyan Ho and Napanarit Savantrach set up the venue seven years ago. “Jam has become a place where artists have their first exhibition and bands their first gig; there aren’t a lot of spaces in Bangkok for artists who are just starting out,” Ho explains. “The difference between Bangkok and other cities in Asia, like Singapore or Hong Kong, is that rents here are lower, so artists get the chance to open on their own and the freedom to show whatever they want – while selling a few beers to make it work. Plus, extra activities like artist talks and film screenings are a great way to keep people coming through the door – it keeps the space fresh.”
The scene got an extra boost last year with the arrival of a new international festival, the Bangkok Art Biennale. According to artistic director Apinan Poshyananda, it will benefit everyone, particularly small galleries, and not just elite collectors and white cubes. “Having a biennale puts contemporary Thai art on the world stage,” he tells me, “and that filters down to indie galleries, too. It creates a whole creative economy of collectors, galleries, auction houses and critics.”
“Thai people are entrepreneurial by nature. Almost everyone has a side hustle”
In 2018 the festival went well beyond the white cube, installing contemporary artworks in everyday hangouts and centuries-old sacred sites: Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama suspended polka-dot pumpkins in a shopping mall atrium and Bangkok-based Komkrit Tepthian’s fibreglass installation Giant Twins blended into ancient temple Wat Arun. And everything was free to visit.
Of the 75 artists selected for the biennale, around half were from Thailand. Taking such a patriotic approach can backfire, though. Import tariffs and taxes on non-Thai artists showing work are intended to encourage the local art scene, but they can also hold it back. “Non-Thai galleries wanting to open here can struggle due to the taxes,” explains Poshyananda. “Although it’s supposed to benefit local art, it causes collectors on the international circuit to overlook Bangkok. That’s possibly another reason why we don’t have an art scene like Singapore.”
Still, it doesn’t seem to be stopping new, artist-run hybrid spaces opening every year, and Poshyananda puts the success Bangkok does have down to one thing: adaptability. “It’s testament to our culture that contemporary Thai art is thriving despite the odds,” he smiles. “These days, no one has just one interest. If you’re an artist, you’re also a gallerist, a mixologist, a curator. It’s a whole new model for the art gallery.”
Ing Kanjanavanit and Manit Sriwanichpoom
The cinematic heroes bucking the mainstream
What When husband-and-wife filmmakers Manit and Ing couldn’t get their independent films shown in Thailand, they built their own non-profit cinema from the ground up – literally. Cinema Oasis, a hyper-minimalist, 48-seat cinema and gallery, just steps from Phrom Phong BTS station, opened last year to show lesser-known films from around the world.
They say “How to compete with streaming services? We came up with an interesting programme that includes director and curator talks, niche programming like Thai musicals from the ’60s and exhibitions in the upstairs gallery – so, not just screenings. It’s another medium to get our views across.”
Check out November sees a programme of indie horror films as well as an exhibition marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Oh, and don’t miss the couple’s other venture, Kathmandu Photo Gallery – it’s the only dedicated photo gallery in the city.
The starchitect shaping Bangkok’s new creative district
What Arguably Thailand’s most famous architect, Bunnag is responsible for two of the city’s coolest mixed-use galleries. One of them, The Jam Factory, is a multipurpose creative complex that draws a cool, arty crowd to what was formerly the unfashionable side of Chao Phraya River. The refurbished warehouse’s fine-dining Thai restaurant The Never Ending Summer sits at number 28 on Monocle’s 50 best restaurants list for 2019. Bunnag is also the brains behind Warehouse 30, a former WWII-era hangar converted into a cinema, art gallery, independent design shops and a workspace-cum-coffee shop.
They say “The idea was very simple: my architecture firm needed office space and I saw a possibility to add a restaurant, café and bookshop. Most galleries are geared towards commercial art, but The Jam Factory financially survives due to the restaurant and café, meaning that the gallery is left to be the most honest expression of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Check out A new exhibition by Thai typography artist Manita Songserm (15 November 2019 – 5 January 2020). Plus, The Jam Factory lays on outdoor film screenings and gigs during the dry season (November – February).
The cocktail-pushing gallerist with a social conscience
What WTF bar and gallery, tucked down Sukhumvit 51 Alley, was started by photographer Christopher Wise, his wife and two friends – in part, when the 2008 global financial crisis saw funding or freelance work from other sources dwindle. Socially conscious, avant-garde exhibitions fill the two-storey gallery upstairs, while down in the bar, Thai-inspired cocktails draw a young, fashion-conscious crowd.
They say “We just wanted a good place to drink; some nice music and some art upstairs. The bar financially supports the gallery space, though that’s changing as the market becomes more competitive. It was always our aim to push boundaries – we only show art by Thai or Southeast Asian artists.”
Check out New exhibition Never Again (1–12 November) reflects the first-hand experiences of locals during the 2014 protests. Expect an honest, emotive show accompanied by live music and talks.
The rebel artist curating a creative enclave
What Seven galleries and artist workshops sprawled over two cavernous warehouses. The best of the bunch? Contemporary white cube Gallery Ver, run by Jirat Ratthawongjirakul, who describes N22 as an all-round hub for the city’s artistic community. And for visitors who want to get hands-on, the on-site studio Tentacles runs classes in everything from watercolour painting to baking and perfume making.
They say “I’m doing this for the artists who come after me. It’s hard to get your voice heard if you’re just one gallery, but if you have 10, people sit up and start taking notice. The government has started to realise that this art space is one of the most important in Thailand – international collectors are finally putting it on their itineraries.”
Check out N22’s newest resident, VS Gallery, which hosts group show Museum of Light (until 22 December), playing with perceptions of light and shadow.
The Japanese promoter fusing art and music
What Kotaro Okamoto set up bar-gallery Goja with four friends, among them his Japanese compatriot Toru Yoshizawa, as well as fellow DJ and Thai national Nongnud “Pla” Praphai. The gallery, in Phrakanong, puts Thai and Japanese artists centre stage. This year, they launched their own label, Goja Records. Swing by for an album-release party, when international DJs and street artists perform way into the early hours.
They say “In Hong Kong there are always collectors, but for a city of 10 million people, the art scene in Bangkok is very intimate. It’s still underground and everybody knows everybody. Here, if someone has an exhibition, we all go and support it. The plan is to create a mini empire… hopefully!”
Check out Two upcoming releases on Goja Records from local Thai artist Ramin and Kotaro himself.