She Loves Films, Music, and is One of the Great Enablers of Contemporary Art in Thailand and Beyond
I grew up as one of the youngest of a large family in the north of Thailand, moving between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in my formative years. We didn’t have a museum scene but my family had a cinema, so my experience has been largely shaped by moving images. It was still the cold war, with little access to Hollywood movies, but we saw plenty from China and India. In the late-seventies and early eighties, when I was in middle school, Thailand went through a surge of political uprisings. In Chiang Mai, students were running special film programs in the evenings. I remember watching many foreign classics, from the soviet war drama “War and Peace” to “Che!”, starring Omar Sharif as Che Guevara. It was really eye-opening. One of my cousins studied fine arts and introduced my to his art practice. I modelled for him and read his books on Western art. Another cousin was freelancing as a graphic designer doing posters for the theatre. We had them at home next to my brother’s abstract art. I ended up pursing academic languages studies but I knew I wanted to do something in the arts, I just didn’t know what or how.
After I graduated I worked in a refugee camp for three and half years. It was a program ran by the State Department and the UNHCR, called the Consortium, with refugees from Laos and Cambodia. After the UN decided to close the camp, some artists I knew from Bangkok connected me to a commercial gallery job. It was the early nineties when I started working in this very interesting place called ‘Dialogue 1991’. I met many Thai artists who are now established such as Montien Boonma. It was the beginning of contemporary art in the whole country. Thailand was benefiting from a bubble economy and the gallery owner was also in the stock market. He encouraged his network to buy and collect art. That’s how I met many collectors including my current boss, Eric Booth. We both were in our early twenties. I also met many curators from Japan and the Asia Pacific region. I developed a lot of friendships during that time.
I resigned in 1994, it was like a turning point for me. I loved working with art but hated selling it. I wanted to work in a museum and be a curator. I applied for a Masters Degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago because their programs included working with not-for-profit organizations. 16 Thai students turned up that year who had never met each other in Thailand. The Director of the school was astonished. I made many more friendships there, such as with Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
I was very inspired by the PS1 Museum in New York and kept thinking about doing something similar in Thailand. Since the 40s and up until the 90s, we barely had any institutions for conceptual artists less concerned with the market. In 1974, a non profit art space, the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art (BIMA), appeared, but it was unsustainable and closed in 1988. When I came back to Bangkok in 1996, all of us coming back from Chicago, New York, and Australia had the same idea. We had everything except money, so we used my apartment. Family and friends contributed, and that’s how Project 304 was born (it was my apartment’s number). We had leading conceptual artists on our board such as Montien Boonma, Kamol Phaosavasdi, Chiatchai Pupia mixed with the group from Chicago, which created a great energy and eagerness to do something new for the scene. With Apichatpong, we also created the Bangkok Art Film Festival in 1996, which was yet another chapter merging the independent movie and art scenes together. Our audience was small but we did inspire a very famous Thai film director, Chulayarnnon Siriphol: He told us later that he discovered experimental films thanks to our program, back when he was still in middle school. This is very rewarding.
One thing led to another and I got international projects lining up. Many were in Japan such as Under Construction (2000-2002) but also in Germany such as Politics of Fun at the HKW in Berlin. Then I got invited to do the Saigon Biennale in Ho Chi Minh in 2005, and I asked Rirkrit Tiravanija to join me as co-curator. We changed the format into an alternative model, which we called Saigon Open City. But we couldn’t get through all the Vietnamese red tape. Our private opening had 500 people but overall the project failed. It was quite depressing. That’s when Eric Booth called me—he was looking for a curator for the Jim Thomson Center. The art centre is part of the historical Jim Thomson House Museum, one of the top five tourist attractions in Bangkok. It was a great opportunity, but also challenging. People who visit the traditional collections are mostly tourists. They don’t merge with the audience interested in the program of the art center, and vice and versa.
I am currently working on the Thailand Biennale. In Thailand, we have the Thailand Art Biennale, the Bangkok Biennale, GHOST, and the Thailand Biennale. All started in 2018. This is the third edition of the Thailand Biennale and it will be in my hometown of Chiang Rai. I am organizing it with Rirkrit and two local young curators, Angkrit Ajchariyasophon and Manuporn Luengaram. We officially announced the theme, The Open World, in March 2022. It draws from a seventy-eight hundred years of layered history, and it will include Thai and international artists. There is a strong community of artists in Chiang Rai. There is an association of local artists working in neo-traditional style, and also about 80 artist studios ready to open their doors to the public. We are planning something where you can explore the art scene through different layers. For instance, I am also involved in a music project in the north-east, which history is tied with my research about the cold war and it will be part of our Biennale project.
I have strange taste in reading. I read a lot of history books related to cold war times and also a lot of trash. I also read a lot of Chiang Rai old chronicles and many books related to the north of Thailand. Two books that I can read over and over—mostly because I don’t fully understand everything and still need to digest their contents—are: “Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference” by Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and “The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand” by Peter Jackson and Rachel Harrison, with an introduction by Chakrabarty.
An advice I could share with emerging curators is to try out different areas of works, contexts, and methodologies. There are so many different ways of being a curator, from mostly working with artists and people to prioritizing research and objects. And also to not be afraid to work with dead artists because you learn so much about what you wished you’d ask them before they passed.
I am a foodie, but it’s hard to point to a specific dish. But when I am abroad, I always miss flavors and spices from northern Thailand.
If I wasn’t curating, I would do nothing. Be completely unproductive. Did you hear about this new job in Japan, be paid to do nothing? That’s my dream job.
Artistic Director, Jim Thompson Art Center
Gridthiya Gaweewong (b. 1964, Thailand) is the artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center, and co-founded Project 304, a Bangkok based alternative art space in 1996. She was recently appointed the Artistic Director of the Thailand Biennale 2023, which will take place in the northern city of Chiang Rai.
Gaweewong has co-curated prominent artistic projects with regional curators on several occasions, including Under Construction, Tokyo Opera City Gallery and Japan Foundation; Forum Japan (2003); ‘Politics of Fun’, an exhibition of artists from Southeast Asia, with Ong Keng Sen at Haus Der Kulteren der Welt, Berlin (2005), with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, Bangkok (1996-2005), with David Teh on Unreal Asia, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (2010).
She served as a curatorial team member of the 12th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, South Korea (2018). Gaweewong lives and works in Chiangmai and Bangkok.