“In Chiang Mai, things aren’t fixed. Art is fluid here,” said Lyla Phimanrat, founder and curator of Lyla Gallery, Chiang Mai’s newest art space.
Lyla debuted her gallery with AN-TI-TLE, a selection from Chiang Mai artist Mit Jai Inn. Lyla guides me through the pieces; vast, paint-splotched canvases on the floor and wall, welded steel tumbleweed like sculptures and metre-high free-standing canvas scrolls.
“You can touch everything in this exhibition,” Lyla explains while unfurling a vivid green scroll. “Mit doesn’t want to label anything here as a ‘painting’ or a ‘sculpture’. He wants people to make up their own minds about the work. That’s why he named it AN-TI-TLE, a contraction of ‘anti-title’.”
As she lets go of the scroll, it swiftly curls back into shape.
Thailand’s Alternative City
It seems quite apt to open a Chiang Mai gallery with an exhibition that strives to break the mould; Chiang Mai’s art scene itself doesn’t follow the rules.
Ever since the revolutionary Chiang Mai Social Installation (CMSI) transformed public spaces into sites for art and debate, the city has built a reputation for nurturing alternative creativity. Today, Chiang Mai is home to a rising contemporary art scene.
“Of course, Bangkok is still the centre of Thai art,” Lyla admits when asked what attracts artists to Chiang Mai. “There are more galleries, more events and more people interested in art in the capital. But Chiang Mai offers artists and art lovers something different.”
Lyla is perfectly positioned to give a levelled view on the two cities. A Bangkok native, Lyla first discovered art at eighteen when she began to frequent gallery openings and exhibitions. It was the start of a deep-rooted passion. From then on she would devour everything she could on art and art history. After working for a while in Shanghai, Lyla returned to Bangkok, determined to make a career out of her passion.
Chiang Mai Magic
Like many artists and curators, Lyla was drawn to Chiang Mai. She accredits this, among other things, to the great freedom the city gifts creative residents. While Bangkok can be tough to crack, Chiang Mai welcomes artists with open arms and lets them blossom.
“Bangkok has a bigger scene, but it’s hard to break into. While there’s a lot of art happening in Bangkok, Chiang Mai offers new artists opportunity. It’s easier for emerging artists to get their work seen. Plus, there’s a strong sense of community here. Everybody knows each other and helps each other out.”
That’s not to say Chiang Mai is only a retreat for those who can’t yet make it in the big city; many nationally and internationally renowned artists also call Chiang Mai home.
“It seems to me there’s a kind of magic that draws people to Chiang Mai” Lyla reveals with a sidelong smile.
There was perhaps a little magic at play when Lyla first stumbled across the gallery. Although it looked very different back then, she knew it was the perfect place for art.
“A friend introduced me to this space and I fell for it instantly. I immediately saw its potential.”
Lyla makes a living out of seeing potential, whether it’s a new artist to support or an exhibition to curate. But perhaps where she sees the most potential is in the Chiang Mai art scene itself.
“The Chiang Mai art scene is growing and getting better. I see more people becoming art lovers, more people wanting to explore, see and understand art. With Chiang Mai’s alternative art culture there’s so much scope for people to appreciate art.”
In fact what Lyla feels prevents the Chiang Mai art scene from moving forward isn’t a dearth of people interested in art, it’s a lack of support for art across the country.
“The problem is art infrastructure isn’t good here. We need more art critics. We have so many artists but so few magazines sharing art news. This is not just a problem in Chiang Mai but across the whole of Thailand. Great art is being missed.”
In fact, it’s not just a lack of media attention that plagues Thailand’s art scene, but a legacy of little government funding. Much of Thailand’s art activities are initiated on a do-it-yourself basis by proactive artists.
Lyla hopes her gallery will help change. She plans to bring some of the best Thai art to the public eye, both in Chiang Mai and abroad.
Art in Politics, Art in Life
Lyla believes art speaks to people best when they can relate it to their own lives. For this reason, much of Lyla’s work has been politically engaged.
“I’m very interested in politics. Some people say that politics is separate from our everyday lives. I disagree.”
For Lyla, art offers a vehicle by which statements can be made on the current political climate.
She is no stranger to politics in art. Before curating the artwork of Mit Jai Inn, a hugely influential commentator on Thai politics, Lyla worked with Bangkok-based artists Arnont Nongyao and Piyarat Piyapongwiwat to create Trance, a multimedia installation combining propaganda songs of different nations with photos, videos and texts that was exhibited in Bangkok last November.
Her newest exhibition, Flashback, currently on show in Lyla Gallery, seems to continue on the same trajectory. Featuring work from Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose work explores government control of popular media, and Araya Rasdjarmreansook, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Montien Boonma, whose work in this exhibition explore the inspiration Chiang Mai has had on them, having all lived in the city at some point in their life.