“It is only in this way that the complete aesthetical meaning of art can be realised,” adds the press release, rather grandly.

By | Wed 31 Jul 2013

Last month, Art in Paradise, the self-proclaimed “largest interactive art museum in the world,” opened in a lovely old building that once housed a department store on Chang Klan Road. Art in Paradise Chiang Mai is the second edition of a museum that has operated successfully in Pattaya for the past year, with plans for a third location in Bangkok on the horizon. Founded by South Korean visual artist and chairman Jang Kyu Suk, the museum is the result of an over 60 million baht investment, one that organisers say is expected to take about three years to pay off financially.

“Art in Paradise is different from other museums as it permits visitors to touch the artwork and take photos,” says the museum’s opening press release. “Be as creative as you like – strike poses that match the mood of the artwork, and take a real participatory role at the museum.”

Indeed, this museum is probably quite unlike any art museum you’ve experienced before. Here, all the art is painted directly onto the walls, though you wouldn’t know it at first glance. Everything (including the frames themselves) is an optical illusion, designed to appear three dimensional. The desired effect becomes more striking in photos than in real life _ an interesting twist on the age-old “you had to be there” trope.

So what kind of images are we talking about? Well, there’s a painted waterfall with a rickety painted bridge crossing in front of it. If you catch the right angle and strike the right pose, it does indeed look like you are passing across an infinite gorge (or hanging helplessly from the bridge, or whatever pseudo-scenario you can come up with). There’s a giant painted hand that appears to be bursting through a cement wall, with painted strings that you can pretend to dangle from like a marionette. There’s a ferocious-looking painted shark that you can pretend is about to chomp off your head. There’s a quite accurate rendition of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with a paintbrush that you can pretend to be painting with. It’s all quite “meta,” and the possibilities are endless.

“It is only in this way that the complete aesthetical meaning of art can be realised,” adds the press release, rather grandly. “The museum’s visitors themselves become components of the pieces they have come to admire.” And while I don’t exactly agree with the grandeur of these statements – the art here, while expertly done and impressively realistic, at times feels a bit more hokey than  profound – there is certainly something to be said for the larger, more abstract implications of the experience. In many ways, the very existence of Art in Paradise is a fascinating deconstruction of the notion of art and art museums themselves, raising questions and sparking discussions along the same lines as those elicited by the Banksy quasi-documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (if you haven’t seen it, do).

What is the point of art? What is the point of museums? What is the point of experiencing anything firsthand, versus viewing a picture of it? Has the ease and utility of photography replaced the need for real memories, for real experience? Have we lost anything due to our growing tendency to view the world through the lens of our camera phones? Has anything been gained? Are we all just a bunch of amateur narcissists vying for another Facebook tag? These are all questions you may find fit to ponder as you wander the spacious halls, passing by a painted giraffe stepping out of a painted frame and a tourist posing with a pair of painted wings and a peace sign.

Of course, there’s a very real possibility that absolutely none of this is intentional – that Art in Paradise was designed simply to provide an irony-free afternoon meant to bring out your inner child and your outer Instagram obsession. Regardless, it’s a thought-provoking and fun addition to the city’s art scene – that is, if you’re willing to shell out the 300 baht entrance fee for foreigners (and only 180 baht for Thais – let the tantrums begin)!