BANGKOK — The first-ever Bangkok Art Biennale is underway with so many things to check out.
While world-class artists like Marina Abramovic drew large crowds to her talk and Yayoi Kusama invaded CentralWorld with her spotted pumpkins, lesser-known Thais and one avant-garde Chinese artist are showing works at three Buddhist temples along the Chao Phraya River.
It’s an unusual opportunity to see the grounds of sacred sites such as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) and Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) given over to contemporary art.
Here is a quick guide to what Biennale enthusiasts will experience visiting the three wats.
Visit the temple of the Reclining Buddha one more time as it has much more going on than usual. Hiding in plain sight are acrylic paintings next to a contorted hermit and Chinese ballast statues. “Sediments of Migration” was created by emerging artist Pannaphan Yodmanee to explore historical migration and the cultural dimensions of people’s lives.
Located next to the Reclining Buddha’s chapel is the work of artist-provocateur Huang Yong Ping, who founded postmodern Chinese art group Xiamen Dada and lives in France. His sculpture “Zuo You He Che” is a pair of towering legs topped by animal heads, which resemble a dragon and deer, holding rolls of scripture inside their mouths.
“Huang explained to me that the creatures were carrying something from China to Siam, representing a cultural transference from China to Siam hundreds of years ago,” said Biennale artistic director Apinan Poshyananda. “Huang himself is not different to these creatures as he, who was born in China, migrated to France.”
A few hundred meters away from Huang’s art is an installation designed for the site by Sydney-based Thai artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt. Taking over the temple’s Crocodile Pond, the shrine-like “Knowledge in Your Hands, Eyes and Minds” consists of a soundscape, herbal aroma and hanging mirror, as well as murals and paper cutouts of Thai folklore characters. The multisensory installation is meant to link the collective memory with Phaptawan’s.
The 19th century temple on the Thonburi side is a total must. Of the works at Wat Prayoon, there’s one most spectacular and appropriate for October’s scary season. Check out the temple’s majestic white chedi head on to – and onto – “What Will You Leave Behind?”
A total of 125,000 unglazed porcelain skulls created by Nino Sarabutra fill a path inviting visitors to walk barefoot and reflect on life.
“It’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be alive. It’s easy to put off life, delay doing what we promised,” a sign reads. “How long will you live? Are you sure? Can you afford to wait when death is all around you, always at your feet, ready to push you over?”
The Temple of Dawn, best known for its colorful porcelain-decorated spires, has a new landmark. “Giant Twins” by Komkrit Tepthian are conjoined twin brothers of iconic Chinese and Thai guardian statues. The 3-meter-tall sculpture, made from fiberglass, shows the friendship between Thailand and China.
The same artist also embodied Thai-Chinese relations in “Arun Garuda,” a fiberglass melding of Chinese and Thai interpretations of a garuda, though the Thai section is in the striving, muscular form of Phibunsongkhram-era modernism.
Across the twins and garuda is “Across the Universe and Beyond” which is erected over the Khao Mo garden. The work by landscape architect Sanitas Pradittasnee stands out with its transparent red acrylic walls. Looking carefully from outside, the massive phra prang can be seen in reflection.
Visitors are encouraged to walk inside the garden and look outside through the walls.
Bangkok Art Biennale runs until Feb. 3 under the theme Beyond Bliss. It features 75 artists, both Thai and international, whose works take place at 20 venues around Bangkok.