259th Meeting – Tuesday, February 22nd 2005

How does an artist become international?

Thailand as a case study 

A talk by Annabelle Boissier

Present: Bodil Blokker, Guy Chaturachinda, Lara Dangerfield, Lucie Dechfie, Bill Dovhey, Louis Gabaude, Yu Hanabusa, Oliver Hargreave, June Hulley, Martyn King, Hilke Koegl, Fumie Sasai, Sebastien Tayac, Pierre Wittmann, Pia Wunna. An audience of 15.

The full text of Annabelle’s talk

In my Ph.D. thesis I try to explore the notion of “legitimacy” in the context of contemporary art practice in Thailand. My aim will be: trying to bring out the process by which the contemporary art practice gains some legitimacy in the local context. On one hand by calling for international recognition, on the other hand by calling for local recognition in order to create a local “market” (world) of contemporary art in Thailand. I will expos here the first point: the call for an international recognition of Thai contemporary art.

If I think it’s needed to start with the international recognition and not with the local one, it’s in order to avoid limiting the study to the ‘culturalist’ point of view, which puts in opposition cultural traditions and contemporary art (which is a sterile opposition). I experimented with this at the beginning of my fieldwork; the result was the necessity at first to occult the cultural point of view in order to be able to later explore the social context of cultural implications (like identity or nationality).

First of all, I have to be precise about the meaning of the terms “contemporary” and “international” used here. We can’t define contemporary art by its unique membership at the current period of time, it needs to incorporate as well some specific criteria which seals its professional membership to “the world of international contemporary art”. In this context internationalisation is a fundamental characteristic, and likewise the term “international” can’t be defined by its unique geographical meaning, but by the characteristics given to it by the structure of professional membership. That means that at the starting point of my work a choice has been made, the western category of contemporary art will be the profession in which this study will be developed (the reasons of this choice will be expanded further).

For Thai contemporary artists, it doesn’t seem that there is any doubt in regard to the “contemporary” value of their works from an aesthetic point of view. But, the “international” value needed for the “labeling” as “contemporary art work” has not yet been reached.

Two texts have inspired this study: first the text of Liah Greenfeld, “Different worlds, A sociological study of taste, choice and success in art” (Cambridge University Press, 1989). In it she develops the notion of “gatekeepers” in the Israeli context, from an historical and sociological point of view. This notion is very useful in order to describe the link between the international and the local art scene, although Greenfeld uses it in order to describe the local context only.

Indeed if I want to describe how artists become international, it’s necessary to understand the work of those who are at the point of intersection of these two universes. Thus, what I am exploring is the possibility that the structural separation between local and international can be a specificity of contemporary art context in non-western countries; for example there is no art space, gallery or event in Thailand that has an international standing (with the exception of The Land[1] perhaps). There is no juxtaposition of those two universes in the same locality, as is the case in New York, London or Berlin.

The gatekeeper is the one by who artistic value is defined. Because of their status in the social context, their validation of an artwork has an effect of validation for most of the actors. This notion is a key way, which permits me to describe a situation; its sense is not fixed. My goal is less to define who the gatekeepers are or to suppose that the actors’ objective is to reach the status of gatekeeper; this notion is more an aid for the description of a specific situation and the strategic action engaged by the actors. Furthermore it’s not a professional status, there are plenty of gatekeepers who have their own primary field: critics, curators, officials… even an artist can be a gatekeeper.

The second text is one of Raymond Moulin: “The Artist, the Institution and the Market” (L’artiste, l’institution et le marché, Champs/Flammarion, Paris, 1992). I will not develop the methodological strategies here; let’s just say that the comparison with the French and international market studied by Moulin permits me to point out similarities and differences of the Thai contemporary art scene.

Using an Artist’s Curriculum Vitae

In order to clarify the structure of local/international relations, I will take the artist Curriculum Vitae as a starting point, and ask the questions: what advantages does an artist gain by doing an exhibition in a foreign country? What are the different ways of exhibiting in foreign countries? Is every exhibition in a foreign country an international exhibition? And what does that show about the recognition network of the contemporary artist?

I make the choice of using the CV because at the international level the statement of an exhibition list is a common way to express the international status of an artist; the presentation of this statement is the proof of their “professional” membership. Here is an example taken from a Master’s degree thesis in history of art relating to Thai contemporary art:

“Born in nineteen sixty one, the artist [Manit Sriwanichpoom], who lives in Bangkok, is seen as the leader of a new Thai conceptual photography art movement. He is also recognized by the international art scene: 24th Sao Paolo Biennale (1998), 1rst Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial (1999), International Photography Biennale of Mexico (1999), Cities on the Move (1998-99), Quatre de Bangkok (Galerie VU, Paris, 2002), 50th Venice Biennale (2003)...”[2].

One question can be asked: is this exhibition list a real sign of the artist’s international network membership? And following, what does this list say about the international network structure? By questioning the direct link between that type of list and the artist’s international status, my goal is to question the reality of this relationship. I mean that there is no doubt regarding the symbolic value of those lists, my aim is to question the sociological value of them.

The second point I would like to clarify about using the artist’s CV concerns the investigation’s methodology. Materials used for the elaboration of this paper are: 1. Lateral analysis of CV made up of data found on the Internet and in catalogues or provided by the artist theirself; 2. Lateral analysis based on CV’s interview with artists. These CV based interviews have the advantage over a biographical one as they restrict the dialogue with the artist to the exhibition structural context. What I am trying to find out is the process by which the artist has been able to participate in those exhibitions.

Artist’s career path read through their CV

I will now describe the different types of exhibition in which Thai artists are involved. Firstly, we can draw four groups of exhibition (table’s abscissa[3]): 1.Local level exhibition,   2. Exhibition in foreign countries, 3.Asian regional level exhibition, 4.International level exhibition.

And divide them in six categories (table’s coordinates):

  The first level is present in almost all the artist’s CVs, however the higher the artist’s international recognition, the more this type of exhibition disappears off the CVs. Those exhibitions have been held during the artist’s study time or immediately following and disappear later; there is some art competition exhibition or national exhibition, some exhibitions are organized by the student artist alone or in a group and thesis show in the country in which they studied.

We can observe that those exhibitions enter in three abscissa categories: national, foreign country and regional; however they are mostly held at the local level. Like shows for other national contexts, exhibiting a work in a National Exhibition is a way for a young artist candidate to be recognized as an artist, but they don’t really seem to have an effect on the artist’s career. The case of Montien Bonma is especially explicit, during the time of his studying in Paris he presented works in 42nd and 43rd Salon de Mai, which was at that time already acclaimed as a necessary way though for recognition. Though there is a very large selection for those exhibitions, they have the ability to raise the art student to the status of artist or young artist. It’s quite similar for the art competition but instead of being only at the local and foreign country level we can find some at the regional level (Jakapan, 2nd ASEAN Young Painting Workshop and Exhibition; Kamol, Young Art in Asia Now 1980). Once artists have been recognized at the upper level, for example, participation in a regional biennale, they don’t do those types of exhibitions anymore.

Concerning the shows organized by the artist candidate theirself or a thesis show, these are usually the first solo exhibitions of the artist. These shows function as a way to show the work in a non-classroom situation and to larger public audience. These exhibitions mostly take place in the university, and in some cases can have an impact on the artist’s career (the young artist can be “discovered” by a curator and enter the local art scene in this way). Artists don’t often widely publicize the show; they just want to show their work under exhibition conditions.

  The second level participates of the University’s Professor level, like the preceding one this level is present in the three categories: local, foreign countries and regional. These exhibitions are part of the university program in which the artist teaches. At the international level, they are part of bilateral exchange between two universities, and at the regional level they can be part of a network university program. This depends on the university network and exchange program that they organize. In this case as well they don’t reach the international level.

  Next, there are the third and fourth levels. These two types of exhibition are unique because they can be disconnected from the professional Thai art circle. As with the first two levels, these illustrate that not all exhibitions shown in a foreign country are necessarily international exhibitions because they are not part of the international network of contemporary art. Most of them are bilateral exchange, in contexts separate from the contemporary art scene; either it is the Thai scene, international scene or local art scene of the country where the exhibition is taking place.

  The fifth level is the one I will call the ‘Gatekeepers’ level. We can see that there is no case of exhibition at the foreign country category, and that they have an impact at the international level. The work developed by Gridthiya Jaweewong is a very good example of this class of gatekeepers: at the local level she has a role of discoverer; at the regional level she tries to develop a specific network; and at an international level she’s a curator or co-curator of Thai contemporary art shows.

Outside South East Asia, in Japan and Australia or even in Europe and North America, we can see that the role of these gatekeepers is quite different, because they are mostly co-curators of Asian Art Exhibitions; in that case they are considered as experts of Thai contemporary art. In some cases they are also considered as an Asian contemporary art expert.

Another important part of their role: they can also be advisors for international curators who come to Thailand to do research. Their role here is very important as they influence the choices of these curators. In addition, because these curators spend very little time in Thailand these advisors/gatekeepers have a great influence in the constitution of the exhibition.

  And finally the sixth level, the one of individual networks, is the only one that occurs in every category of exhibition, this one doesn’t go through the gatekeepers.

At the local level, the artist is involved in the local art scene, they know all or a great part of the art scene actors; they can propose some projects to those actors (gallery owner, art space manager, other artists or curators) and those actors will invite them to participate in projects that they organize; they knows the key people and how to navigate in this network.

At the foreign country level, the artist has developed some special relationships with actors, mostly during their study time, this contact can propose an exhibition for them (this exhibition can be for this contact a way to give an international status to their art space, to exhibit some unknown artists to their community, and to differentiate theirself from the other art space of their area). Again, the foreign country level works mostly in bilateral relation.

At the regional level, the artist has some contact with other artists in the region because they have previously exhibited together, they can be an organizer of group exhibitions of various artists in the region. This contributes to the dynamic of developing a South East Asian network.

At the international level it’s the same principle, because of the contacts they have already made the artist has been offered participation in an exhibition without going through the gatekeepers. The participation of Sutee Kunavichayanont, for example, at the exhibition Disappearance Recent Thai Art: when he was in Pittsburgh at the Mattress Factory, Sutee met a Chinese curator who recommended him to a New York curator when he was in Korea doing research. In addition, Sutee gave some Thai artists names as well.

But there is also a difference between artists who go through gatekeepers to have those contacts; Sutee went to Mattress Factory because the curator knows his work through Klaomard Yipintsoi (director of About Art Related Activities), and those who never went through gatekeepers.

The Internet can also provide links for recognition. In the cases of Manit, Nuts Society, Varsha and Angkrit, curators found the artist’s work on the Internet and made contact by mail.

In regard to the last two levels, gatekeepers and individual networks, we can’t really say that one is more international than the other. The temptation is great to say that the individual network seems more international than the gatekeepers network, because the artist is the direct owner of the network, but actually this is not the case.

Here, the analysis of Raymonde Moulin can be very helpful especially if we take the case of Surasi’s career, which entered the international market through a team of French curators. In her analysis she shows that in the current recognition structure of contemporary art, artists need to collaborate (to work) with museum conservators or curators who will be able to “place” their works in international events or museums which have international status.

This means that in the international art scene, working in relation with gatekeepers is a more common way than handing an individual network; this doesn’t mean that there is no individual network for artist like Surasi, but the influence of curators is great. This kind of artist is probably the closer to the international structure of recognition.

The role of “information control”

In this last part of my presentation I would like to demonstrate that the question of “information control” is the key point that permits us to understand the difference between the last two types of exhibition categories: Gatekeepers and Individual network.

1. Biennials & Gatekeepers

The ‘information control’ is a fundamental part of the international structure of contemporary art and has a strong effect on the choices made by international curators for events like biennials. Participation in such international biennials is currently a very powerful way to access the “symbolic” status of international artist. And we can observe that the inclusion of Thai artists in those events is generally due to the influence of the gatekeepers or the gatekeepers’ network.

One reason for the symbolic power of the Biennales can be read through the specificities of information’s circulation as analyzed by Raymonde Moulin. As an example, here it is a citation of Apinan Poshyananda[4] preparing the Australian selection of the second Asia-Pacific Triennial:

“I have visited Australia on a number of occasions in the past five years. I have been exposed to contemporary art in Australia through exhibitions, contacts with curators and artists as well as art journals and magazines. Being involved in the 1992 Sydney Biennale “The Boundary Rider” and the first Asia-Pacific Triennial also allowed me to assess contemporary Australian art. I was able to follow Australian representations in various biennials in Venice, Johannesburg, Kwangju, Istanbul, Havana, and through exhibitions such as “TransCulture” and “Antipodean Currents” (both 1995). My expectations during this trip were more or less confirmed. Having said that I must add that there were several surprises as I was able to meet artists whose work had not widely shown outside Australia.”[5]

This citation makes very clear the importance of information, the way in which the curators access to this information, and how the Biennales have a strategic status in it. Moulin adds that “the information’s control is the equivalent for contemporary art of the erudite knowledge for classical art”, by this fact ‘Who’ holds the information becomes an issue. Thus we can easily understand that one person alone can’t handle all the information concerning contemporary art in western countries, plus Africa, Asia, etc. Furthermore there isn’t a very strong infrastructure of museums, galleries, and art spaces in those countries; that sort of infrastructure has the role of spreading information. International curators can’t do their own research in every country. Gatekeepers in non-western countries seem to have taken this role; if an international curator can’t handle all the information himself, he can control the access to this information. In that sense the gatekeepers have a very important role in the international structure; but if they have a role in the international art world, they are also very locally based because they need to control the information at the local level. In the case of non-western countries, where local and international don’t have the same territorial space, a new type of mediator appears in response to the need for information.

2. Two types of career - Manit Sriwanichpoom and Varsha Nair

In regard to the table I present to you we can postulate that Varsha has a more international network because her network is a mostly individual network. Manit, on the other hand, was supported by a Thai curator before being recognized. Actually, the specificities of international network show that Manit has better visibility in it than Varsha. The statement of Manit’s exhibition conforms more to the international structure of recognition than Varsha’s.

We can see that Manit seems to have been integrated in to the dominant market of contemporary art (like Nawin or Surasi), while Varsha belongs to a parallel market. And we can see how she tries to make up for this status; if she is firstly an artist, she had also developed a lot of parallel activities, which have permitted her to create her own network. Let’s read how she defines herself, the statement that she’s using:

 “Varsha Nair’s solo and cross-disciplinary collaborative works have been exhibited internationally and in Thailand where she lives currently. Since 1997, she has also co-organized various art projects and is actively involved with Womanifesto, an international event that takes place in Thailand bi-annually. She was an invitee speaker at Co.operation, a conference on feminist art practice and theory held in Dubrovnic, Croatia in 2000; and in 2001, at Asia Now-Women Artists’ Perspectives, an International Symposium held at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Varsha has also published her writings in art and architecture journals such as n.paradoxa (UK), Art AsiaPacific (Australia) and art4d (Thailand). Born in Kampala, Uganda, Varsha has a BFA from Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayaji Rao University, Baroda, India.” (Provided by the artist)

When she came to live in Thailand, Varsha was assisted by those same gatekeepers to enter the local Thai contemporary art scene. However, because she’s not a Thai born artist she will not be helped to enter the international art scene through Thailand, even though she started her art career in Thailand.

By this comparison we can answer one of the first questions: the structure of the international art scene, which needs some facilities to access the information, uses the support of gatekeepers to access artists in non-western countries (where local and international don’t share the same place); especially for international events like biennials, which need to present the actuality of contemporary art all over the world. Those gatekeepers are not only locally based, and their capacity to develop international networks is a fundamental point. Likewise, the artists’ networks have to be continuously updated as well as their local knowledge, especially by looking after young artists.

3. The information sharing, non-profit and commercial galleries in Bangkok

An analysis of the galleries’ work in Bangkok can help us to further understand the structure of the local art scene, and the importance of “information control” in that context. Interviews have been done with commercial and non-commercial art galleries. We can observe that the separation between commercial and non-profit galleries fits the separation between neo-traditional or decorative art and contemporary art. There is only one commercial gallery that belongs to the contemporary art category (another, much younger gallery seems to be evolving in to this category. This one has an attraction for artists because of its space more than its reputation or network).

Again we can observe that the strategies concerning information control in those two categories are in opposition. The owners of commercial galleries were sometimes hesitant to give me some information, while owners or managers of non-profit galleries never had any hesitation concerning the questionnaire I presented to them (The questionnaire for non-profit and commercial galleries was exactly the same). The fact that the owner of one commercial gallery, which has entered the contemporary art category, offered to introduce me to one of his best buyers without any request from me, while in the other commercial galleries even questions about buyers were a delicate issue, indicates that the structure of the two systems is radically different.

In conclusion

We can observe that there is an interesting phenomenon of developing a regional network attempting to link the important contemporary art spaces in South East Asia. The curators of the region travel a lot, in order to present artists of the region in there own “locality”. Because they start to know a lot of artists they don’t need to go through gatekeepers each time they come to Thailand for research or they go through a great number of Gatekeepers. In this way there is a diversification of the ways the information is circulated at the regional level, which indicates the good health of the network.

But this point has not yet been reached for the relation with the international scene. And we can see that, more or less, the Thai artists present in the international art scene are always the same. This is due to the fact that the gatekeepers are promoting the same team of artists, which is actually a normal way of working. But because the people in-between local and international (those I call the gatekeepers) are limited in number, a great diversification of Thai artists in the international art scene can’t be reached.

At the conclusion of the question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Annabelle in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.


[1] The Land, initiated in 1998 by Kamin Lerdchaiprasert and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Chiang Mai, Thailand

[2] Anne-Laure Even, Thai Artist in the Mondialisation, Between Local and Global, DEA, Renne, 2004

[3] See table in annex.

[4] Currently director of the new Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Ministry of Culture.

[5] Cited by Timothy Morrell, Cultural Crossfire, The Cultural travels of Apinan Poshyananda in Asia, America & Australia, in Art AsiaPacific, vol. 3, n°4, 1996