by Daniela Scalise
THAILAND BIENNALE, KRABI 2018: MEETINGS BETWEEN NATURE AND ART ON THE EDGE OF THE WONDERLAND
Art for Art’s sake was a popular adage in 19th century France and subsequently became key to the British Aesthetic movement. The notion implies that Art has to be taken for its own value only. Thus, aesthetics should be judged independently from any other themes Art may touch upon such as morality, religion, history and politics. Despite its grip on the art scene, in the 20th century some artists like the famous French-American painter Marcel Duchamp labeled the concept a “falsehood” since it encouraged an Art that “had turned inward, and away from everyday concerns”.
More than fifty years later, Duchamp’s idea of reconnecting Art and the different spheres of life greatly resonates in the artworks of Thailand Art Biennale, Krabi 2018 which is taking place in the scenic, seaside province of Krabi from 2 November 2018 to 28 February 2019, under the theme “The Edge of the Wonderland”. The popular subject, chosen by the lead curator, Professor Jiang Jiehong, has been interpreted by many cultures through stories and myths, the most popular in the Western world being the English story of Alice’s adventures by Lewis Carroll.
Now, if you close your eyes and imagine a Wonderland, you are most likely picturing Krabi: sunset lights on sheer limestone cliffs, dense mangroves teeming with marine life, crystal sea water and mysterious caves, home to local spirits. The feeling here is to have reached the limits of our known world. Similarly, the edge of a Wonderland is recreated in the artworks where visitors are asked to question their presence in the space surrounding them: Am I looking into the Wonderland from my reality? What is reality and where do I fit in?
The artists on their side, took up the serious challenge of nestling their artworks into natural spaces and elements, facing natural hostility and eventually succumbing to its force in order to deliver a very site-specific experience. The large-scale map that guided me marks the four zones the exhibition is divided into: city, beach, waterfall and stream, a total of 12 sites hosting the creations of 70 domestic and international artists, some also with experience in community work and sustainability.
For those as lucky as myself to visit all Biennale areas but also to those brave and curious enough to explore Krabi’s secluded beaches and deep sacred caves, wear sensible shoes, cover yourself in sunscreen and arm yourself with an open mind and respect for the beauty that surrounds you to be ready to get a taste of Krabi Art Biennale 2018, remembering that a lot more is waiting for those who venture into this Wonderland.
Located on the lawn beside the pathway of Kong Ka Pier, we start with YANG Zhenzhong’s installation, “To Be or Not to Be”. The Krabi municipality suggested this pathway as the preferred location as this artwork will be among the few to be kept after the exhibition is closed. The installation wants to make the impossible possible and challenges the audience’s point of view. It comprises ten Banyan trees planted upside down in a row so what we see are the trees’ naked roots standing against the sky. The choice is not random as Banyan trees are sacred in Asia and apparently, very easy to regrow. Win, one of the curators and our guide on this tour, is sure the trees have already grown in height since they were first planted, proving the capability of nature to nourish itself in abnormal conditions.
All Krabi artworks can be reached by local means of transport that wear the Biennale flag, a good way to support locals and watch them in their everyday work. Khun Som’s long-tail boat takes us to Khao Khanab Nam to visit “Giant Ruins” by Taiwanese artist TU wei-cheng. Don’t be fooled by the name; the “Ruins” are not real archeological ruins, but rather an expedient to revive Thai mythology. The giant skeleton is supposed to be of the Giant that, according to the legend, fought against the Naga (mythological serpent) to take back his love. I noticed some coins are scattered around the Giant’s body, a sign of people’s prayers for good luck and protection. “Incredibly enough, people started believing in it,” said Win and, as I shade the light from the cave hole, like in Carroll’s story, I find myself exactly where the artist wants me to be: on the whisker-thin line between reality and myth, where my life narratives are suddenly questioned.
The power of Nature is a further pervasive theme, embodied in the artworks of Kho Klang beaches, an island with a strong Muslim presence. Krabi has historically been multiracial, a territory where the Chao-leh (sea gypsies), Thai-Chinese, Thai Muslims and Thai Buddhist peacefully cohabit. We are escorted by a long-bearded tuk-tuk driver to “Elevated Sea Level” by Chinese Artist WANG Wei. Space has been the biggest challenge for this installation as the artist wished to recreate artificial waves directly on the beach. At a closer look, I notice parts on the waves are cracked, some of them engulfed by the sea and the mosaic tiles they are composed of have been washed off by the strong tide. “We cannot fight nature,” says Win, giving us a worrying look as artworks are supposed to last for the whole four months of the Biennale; yet, many have already been eroded by waves and winds and will probably not survive the installation time.
Strolling on Along Ao Nang Beach the next morning, Win reminds us that the “Biennale is an invitation to look at art and see art never forgetting to stop and contemplate nature along the way.” As fatigue catches up, a quick stop sounds like a good idea, but I am suddenly given a start by stepping on the installation “About the hiding of the Giant Jelly Fish” by Vietnamese artist TRAN Luong. Here is a playful artwork, which is also wake-up experience as no sign anticipates the hidden jelly fish underneath the foot path, but as you start walking on it, the pavement slightly sinks and you become alert and very conscious of your surroundings.
As our expedition proceeds to Poda Island, from the distance we notice a black, mysterious presence in the middle of a lonely stretch of beach. It’s “Vision#1” by Oslo based artist Ignas KRUNGLEVICIUS, a 4-metre tall extraterrestrial metal craft fueled by solar power. The work has a sound system installed which plays a young voice reciting words in the local idiom. The speakers’ noise causes the metal to vibrate producing a creepy tin-can effect. Its twin installation, “Vision#2”, is a set of speakers located along the waterfalls inside Than Bok Khorani National Park. Each is treated like an episode narrated by a more mature voice. Notwithstanding the work duality, Win tells us that the message delivered from a far-away world is essentially the same: how foolish we are not to live in a sustainable way.
The last morning, we make an early start to reach Tha Pom Khlong Song Nam before the tide is too high. After observing fishermen in this area, Norwegian artist Jana WINDEREN particularly worried about the engines’ noise and its effect on sea life. She long meditated on how to bring the issue to her artwork and finally decided no piece could be more explanatory than the nature itself. As a result, all you have to do to experience “Through the bones” is to hop on a local boat and reach a calm spot in the open waters where fisherman will make you listen to the sound from under the sea. This is how you locate fish, by simply placing your head on a wooden oar and listening for the cracking sounds, something like soda water, produced by the underwater environment.
Indeed, this Biennale marks an important moment for Krabi. The community feeling is quite strong here, and local people have enthusiastically welcomed the project. Curators admitted that making locals work with artists has often been less challenging than expected as Krabi people took great ownership of their projects in the hope of developing their communities and possibly emulating the success of other Thai cities. The reference here is to Phuket, which has seen rapid growth in the last decades due to mass tourism.
The words of Krabi Vice Governer, Mr Somposh Chotechouchaung, seem in line with what communities wish for their home as he explains that technology, business and education are key areas for Krabi development; however, great importance is placed on equality and communities’ sustainability, the real guardians of this Wonderland. “Art in Krabi is used to unite, to establish a bond and create understanding among people from different backgrounds. Krabi people have lived with art for a long time, which is nature, and take good care of it. We expect all visitors to Krabi Biennale 2018 to do the same.”