Arts Of The Working Class Logo


On the Thailand Biennale in Chiang Rai, closing this month.

  • Review
  • Apr 05 2024
  • María Inés Plaza Lazo
    is editor-at-large, publisher and founder of Arts of the Working Class.

“This is only for the locals,” says Rirkrit Tiravanija. This remark, though apparently inclusive, carries undertones of exclusivity that verge on paternalism, raising questions about the overall accessibility and inclusivity of a Biennale, especially for non-local participants. As I listen to Tiravanija speak, I try hard to understand his formulation as a polite introduction to the unexplainable boundaries around (and within) the Thailand Biennale, an event that takes place in a different city in the country every time it manifests. Perhaps what Tiravanija means is that a Biennale, as an exhibition, is captured in the rhythms and logics of its host city, in this case, the Thailand Biennale’s third iteration, the city in question is Chiang-Rai. In order to truly understand the place, the visitor must abandon all the usual criteria by which the realization of an exhibition of such scale can be examined.

Tiravanija’s words have remained in my memory since I visited Chiang-Rai. The artist, one of the four curators of the Biennale’s latest iteration, in collaboration with the curators Gridthiya Gaweewong, Manuporn Luengaram, and Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, is known, but not only, for bringing Thai cuisine and social habits as part of his artworks. Isn’t he challenging the very dichotomy of the local and international understanding of art in his work? Didn’t he recently present a solo exhibition at the MoMa in New York praising the openness of shared meals as a means of decolonizing the hierarchies within contemporary art?

Gridthiya Gaweewong, explains a similar impulse with a less literal, rather more associative, warmth suggestion on what the Thailand Biennale is: “Beyond Lumbung!”. With that, she refers to the vocabulary and notions of decentralized labor structures that the collective ruangrupa applied during their controversial curation of documenta fifteen in Kassel. Gaweewong continues, “Everyone here is claiming to be part of the event, sometimes we are not even aware of their planning. It is hard to keep an overview of what is going on.” The biennale, therefore, offers a chaotic but soft and respectful atmosphere in its exhibition rooms. We spoke just days before the opening, when there was a lot of work to finish and urgent questions to answer. 


fig. 1


Everyone, indeed, seems to be interested in being part of a cultural phenomenon that can be understood both as city marketing and a platform for exchange of the kind that usually does not often happen in Chiang Rai. “The moment I explained to the government that the standing Buddha at the historic Wat Pa Sak park in Chiang-Saen was the departing point for the ‘Open’ exhibition, everyone opened their arms and went ‘Yessss!!’, Gaweewong joyfully mimics the reaction of citizens and local practitioners. The posture of the Buddha serves as a fitting focal point for the Biennale which is entitled The Open World, symbolizing the multicultural influence of various Asian cultures in Thailand.

Chiang Saen is about an hour’s drive north from the city of Chiang Rai, at the shores of the mighty Mekong river - along which several sites of the biennale are grouped, addressing the several the meaning and presence of the so-called “Golden Triangle”. It is worth trying to catch the route along the river with the bike, if the reader is able and conditions allow, to enjoy the languid pace of the rural environs around what used to be some of the world’s biggest opium poppy fields. Walking among the ruins of these Wats (temples) and a once-majestic city at sunrise, there appeared the artist Apitchapong Weerasethakul taking one of his early morning walks. As monks passed by the streets of the village delivering blessings to its citizens, the atmosphere reinforced Weerasethakul’s calmness while describing his transgressive ideas about cinema and the specificity of the place of his newest projection. 

A pervasive ghostly aura infused the surroundings. Blue Encore is part of what I understand as a triptych of Weerasethakul’s reflections around light, time, dreams, and personal and social memories. Curtains depicting landscape paintings from local artists cover the boards of the former school for monks that still bear the traces of their time as workshops in which apprentices would learn about the creative core of their religious practice. The installation also reflects Weerasethakul’s appreciation of movement, shadows and light within a curtained room. But this is only one of three rooms that reference the animistic aspects informing practices of Thai spirituality based on the act of bringing life to something inanimate. Solarium is showing in the other two rooms. The work is a projection based on the horror film Phee Ta Boy. It is a work that can be appreciated from two angles. On one side we see the intervention of light, and the other, the image it creates.


fig. 2


Non-linearity is ubiquitous across the sites for visitors to explore in and around Chiang Rai. On December 9, 2023, the Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai (TBC) held its official opening ceremony. It is no coincidence that the region’s Light Festival was being celebrated in the same days. The TBC will continue until April 30, and include the commissions of 60 artists – 38 international and 22 from Thailand – along with collateral events and activities such as traditional music performances, performing arts, film screenings, and educational activities. These will be accompanied by 13 special pavilions and open houses held by several dozen local artists, taking full advantage of the exhibition’s five month span.

At the Baan Dam Museum, visitors encounter the sculptures of Chakaia Booker, whose innovative use of recycled rubber tires prompts reflection on sustainability and modes of environmental consciousness. Her monumental works here are characterized by intricate patterns and imposing forms, and they offer a poignant commentary on humanity's relationship with the natural and spiritual worlds. The tires, surprisingly, fit perfectly in amid a galaxy of barns collected nearby.


fig. 3


Artist Zen Teh is also concerned with connecting with the higher self, or at least something higher than the self. For the Biennale, she has explored systems that can influence the way we perceive. This is especially true in relation to her work in the Mediation Center south from Chiang-Rai. Teh is from Singapore, and currently a fellow at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, and she is a regular visitor in Thailand, where she encountered the syncretism between religion and nature pervasive in Thailand. Even though many of the temples are now more touristic attractions than spiritual sites, the respect paid to the deities they represent performed diligently by visitors.

The Blue Temple, for example, the newest building created in Chiang Rai, is always filled with people, akin to a Buddhism Disneyland, with hardly any space to calmly meditate. But in Thailand, you can be with yourself. Zen Teh examines the context in which attention spans are being pushed and pulled and the need for practices of mental decompression. Meditation is also a research method for Zen Teh, contrasting with the spiritualist tourism that dominates much of today’s ‘wellness’ discourse. Teh’s works facilitate introspection, but understand inner spaces as informed by the cosmic. Hence the astronomical calculations used to define the space of her installation at the temple of the Meditation Center. They are not only the most precise manifestation of life beyond human understanding, but they also touch on our most fundamental essence as humans and as matter in space.

Meanwhile, at the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park, the thought-provoking artworks of Citra Sasmita captivate audiences with their vibrant colors and whimsical allegories involving female and serpent figures. Sasmita, a contemporary artist from Bali, explores themes of identity and empowerment through her ongoing “Timur Merah Project” series, which reimagines Balinese mythology for modern audiences.

As visitors navigate the Biennale's venues - from the serene banks of the Mekong River to the bustling streets of Chiang Rai - they encounter a diverse array of artworks that challenge preconceptions and spark meaningful dialogue between tradition and transgression of cultural standards. From Tarek Atoui’s and Nguyễn Trinh Thi's immersive, sculptural sound installations to Korakrit Arunanondchai's interdisciplinary and rough explorations, to Michael Lin's iconic installations to Zen Teh's transcendental meditative sculptures, each work offers its own unique perspective on the intersection of art, nature, and culture. 


fig. 4


Introspection and immersion become leitmotifs the more one sees at the Biennale, whether Weerasethakul's contemplative films, Zeh's sculptures, or Atta Kwami's nostalgic abstract paintings, each artwork invites viewers to reflect on their own roots and cultural identities. Against the backdrop of Thailand's rich religious heritage, the Biennale serves as a catalyst for self-discovery, fostering meaningful connections between artists, visitors, and the local community.

Brazilian artist, Maria Thereza Alves, presents her research-based project, Curing Dismembered Knowledges, at the Tobacco Warehouse. Intrigued by the Kok River's historical transformation from a fertile riverside to concrete roads and a dam, Alves embarked on a journey to discover what was lost. She collaborated with Suthi Malithong, a biologist at Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, who has researched various plants on the riverside of the Kok River. 

Alves discovered the names of 60 plants which used to be found on Kok's riverside using archives in London and Paris that were recorded by naturalists who came to Chiang Rai when the UK colonized Burma and when France colonized Laos and Vietnam. After obtaining the name of the 60 plants, Alves tried to identify which plants are available and bring back these plants as soon as possible, encouraging viewers to question themselves about their own roots and what civilization is and what will happen next. Crossing borders, looking already at Thailand with a different sense than the one locals have. Cognitively and intellectually, there is something universal that can be addressed with the Open World: there is an experiential understanding of art that might not really be categorized so easily. 

The TBC, lastly, offers an example for what Adriano Pedrosa once called “the centrality of the peripheral Biennial”. Preparing for a trip to the mother of all biennials in Venice, read in a 12-year-old issue of “The Exhibitionist”, his still refreshing and critical thoughts on this typological conundrum: “The truly relevant biennial today is a phenomenon of the global south, relying on independence, creativity, and ingenuity from its organizers, and drawing crucial connections between different locales and productions”.

It is bittersweet to recognize that the times have truly changed, and that skepticism has also grown around biennials in the Global South. The Thailand Biennale proves to be one of the few examples of exhibitions that follow the logics of the people, and not of international itineraries or discourses. It is, as Tiravanjia posited, a Biennale ‘for the locals’. The Open World referred to in the title of the Biennale is the one outside of the art institution itself, responding to the continuities and changes that Thailand’s citizens define. It is no coincidence that the Biennale started close to the Lights Festival and ended with the Festival of Water next week.

Perhaps the spirit of the Biennale was conveyed most succinctly in the The Flying People project created by Japanese artist Shimabuku, who, with an incomparable sense of humor and freedom, offers surreal visions of our relationship with the world’s openness. Shimabuku started the project by creating a life-sized kite in his own image. While he was flying the kite, he felt exhilarated. He sought to share this special feeling by inviting Chiang-Rai residents to create their own life-sized kites and fly them together. 120 Chiang Rai residents participated in the project, including myself, who for the first time flew a kite freely over a park. Through a combination of diligent concentration and joyful abandon, we can make a place for ourselves, in the sky, and perhaps create connections that endure. We were all tethered to the earth but we were also blown about by forces beyond our control.

fig. 5






    1-2 Shimabuku, Flying People, Singha Park Chiang-Rai, 2023. Photo: AWC.

    3 Apitchapong Weerasethakul showing us the boards from the former school for monks near Chiang Saen. Photo: AWC

    4 Chakaia Booker, What's Not, 2009. Installation view at the Baan Dam Museum. Courtesy Thailand Biennale. Photo: Wanchai Phutthawarin.

    Fig. 1: Ernesto Neto, Chantdance, 2023. Installation view at the Mae Fah Luan Art & Cultural Park. Courtesy Thailand Biennale. Photo: Wanchai Phutthawarin.

    Fig. 2: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Solarium (2023). Courtesy Thailand Biennale. Photo: Wanchai Phutthawarin.

    Fig 3: Korakrit Arunanondchai, 2557 (Painting with history in a room filled with men with funny names 2), 2014. Installation view at the White Temple. Courtesy Thailand Biennale. Photo: Wanchai Phutthawarin.

    Fig 4: Nguyen Trinh Thi, Ri s̄eīyng (Sound-Less), 2023. Installation view at the Mae Fah Luan Art & Cultural Park. Courtesy Thailand Biennale. Photo: Wanchai Phutthawarin.

    Fig. 5: Shimabuku, Flying People, from the Self-Portrait Kite Making Workshop in Chiang-Rai, Tobacco Warehouse, 2023. Photo: AWC.



To improve our website for you, please allow a cookie from Google Analytics to be set.

Basic cookies that are necessary for the correct function of the website are always set.

The cookie settings can be changed at any time on the Date Privacy page.