Out on the fringes of Bangkok where the long tangled motorways untangle themselves into long, straight, congested roads sits MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a bit of a journey away from most of the tourist heavy areas in the city centre but, for discerning art fans, is considered worth the journey. The building is an imposing solid slab of granite adorned with sparse openwork carvings of jasmine plumes. Being a modern, state built gallery the first thing you’ll notice inside is the open space; naturally lit, echoing, wide, hollow spaces. It’s quite a contrast to the city itself which any visitor knows is a dense jumble of continuous activity.
However you don’t need to go far to remind yourself that MOCA is a haven, or perhaps a mirage, from what else the city has to offer.
Directly outside there’s a wasteland of concrete that represents both the stop-start enterprise of the Skytrain extension, one of Bangkok’s two premier transport systems, and the completely failed Hopwell project. While the latter is now only fit for destruction the former has also been fraught with delays, political intrigues and at least once was seemingly abandoned. Recently a third project, to do up the already existent railway tracks, was greenlighted and awarded to concrete barons Italian-Thai.
This seems to be the nature of development in Thailand. Despite there being some negative reports of Thailand’s economic growth and political instability it still remains the second richest country in South East Asia. Whatever the economists may say, on the ground Bangkok is in the grip of rampant capitalism. Buildings are shooting up everywhere and the banks are loaning. The kind of mega malls that would usually serve a whole county in the UK can be found facing each other on certain Bangkok streets.
MOCA is part of this expansion. It screams wealth and confidence at anyone who wishes to pay a visit. Its art is those of masters long established, peppered with Thai interpretations of old European techniques and sensibilities. There’s a lot to like but the Thai conservatism is pervasive. Often the work is all technique and no substance, other times it’s burdened by its context or message. This is not to imply that MOCA fails as a gallery, merely that it does not offer the whole story. It may be a contemporary gallery because it features artists that are relevant now but at the same time it doesn’t feel of now.
Back outside with the concrete, where the unfinished pillars look like a Soviet take on Japanese tori gates, things are different. Amongst the debris and overgrown bushes and nestled amongst the snoozing workers are wholly different works of art. Reflecting, if not quite mirroring the institution that looms behind it, this place has become a frequent hit for the cities growing graffiti artists. Graffiti will always be a sign of disenfranchisement, industry and outsider, and here, on the crumbling blocks of a shady development program and with the crisp gallery behind, this couldn’t be more literal.
The work on show is indicative of a growing movement. The technique isn’t flawless, the result isn’t always exceptional but what it shows is a group learning their craft through trial and error and whatever means necessary. More often than not the pieces have been crafted with poster paint or acrylic, these items being more readily available then specifically bought spray cans. Yet despite the lack of mechanical sophistication the results are still bold and effective. Pieces that could fit into the graffiti canon anywhere in the world are placed amongst more stylistic, idiosyncratic pieces. Other note worthies include the commentary on Thailand itself; the blue skinned, confused crossdresser or the Thai flag turned on its side with the shadow of an army marching over it.
It is worth noting that rebellion hasn’t been commercialised here yet. The cameras lens, the journalist’s fingertips and the writers left hemisphere is still firmly fixed on the dominant HiSo Bangkokians. A class that, if you go by the media, are the only people who exist in the city. Flawless white skin, immaculate hair, wide open eyes. A largely inane but still interesting demographic it has no gaps for rebellion outside the kissing the wrong girl or wearing sunglasses indoors kind. This is not culture bashing, all culture has inherent worth, but what is wrong here is that one culture is so all pervasive (similar to the ubiquitous shopping malls it is utilised to advertise) that everything else can’t help but be underground.
This is what makes the area around MOCA so important. Just by the simple proximity of the art, one set institutionalized, the other ignored, a dialogue takes place. The artists may or may not have known it when they started adorning the useless concrete left over from a failed venture but the result is the same. It’ll be a while yet before artists like this find their way onto the white glossy walls of a gallery like MOCA but they’ve got as close as they possibly can.
MOCA show us what Thailand sees of itself as it grows exponentially upwards and outwards while the strip outside is a look at the heart of the changing times, its capacity for failure, its ability for metamorphosis. The work on show is playful and culturally aware, happily riffing off anime and Nickelodeon alike. While the work in the museum is about celebrating a strong Thailand galloping onto the world scene, the work outside seems to be aware of the cultural assimilation taking place at the meeting point. Both voices are relevant and interesting which is why, in a city that has everything, it’s so good to find a place where they converge.
All images copyright Aisling Lanigan