With graffiti, creative markets and galleries on nearly every street corner, it’s hard to avoid art in Chiang Mai. Not only do nearly 200 young artists graduate from Chiang Mai University’s (CMU) Fine Arts Faculty each year, let alone the hundreds more from Rajabhat and other colleges in the north, but artists from Bangkok – and all over the world – are now setting up studios and waiting for us all to notice the magic that is going on here.
However, since the Chiang Mai Social Installation project (CMSI), spearheaded by famous artist Mit Jai Inn in the 1990s, generated such a buzz that it established Chiang Mai as Thailand’s art heartland, there hasn’t been anything that has created as much excitement in the local art scene…until the arrival of MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum.
As I tried to learn more about the Chiang Mai art scene, interviewing artists and gallery owners, the name Eric Booth, and his museum MAIIAM, popped up so often I knew that I needed to talk to him. Only opened in July 2016, I wondered how a museum so young has made such an impact on expanding the foundation for the arts in Chiang Mai.
Being a famed centre of culture, and centuries older than Bangkok, it might be hard to believe that Chiang Mai’s contemporary art scene is still rather new. The Faculty of Fine Arts itself was only founded in 1982, initially meant to focus on Thai traditional arts. Not long after its opening, famous artist Montien Boonma left Bangkok and its conservative art scene, forging a new path for more contemporary Thai artists here in Chiang Mai. Then Mit Jai Inn’s social installation project came along, something people in the art world still speak of reverently. Our editor recalls, with almost awe, seeing shark fins – a la jaws – in the city moat one morning all those decades ago, an installation which had the city abuzz, and which opened the northern landscape for the understanding of contemporary art.
“In school, they taught technical skills, landscapes and religious events. They spoke about everything that was higher up, and Montien was like no,” Eric Booth explained to me when we finally met, “I don’t want to use those materials, and I want to talk about everyday people. Not just the kings and gods and goddesses.”
Montien was radical and as relatively-aberrant Chiang Mai was far from the deep-rooted controls of the government in Bangkok, he felt that it served as the perfect space to launch a path for contemporary Thai art. Soon artists from all over Thailand, curious and excited by what was going on in Chiang Mai, moved to our city, filling the faculties of fine arts with exceptional lecturers and our galleries with paintings and sculptures.
Upon entering ‘Feeling the 90’s’, a permanent exhibition at MAIIAM, you’ll first walk past objects you may not understand. A structure made of wood pallets with an unidentified object on top, a mandala shaped circle of a substance that looks like mud and other pieces of artwork that I hope I was not the only one rather confused about.
These are the pieces, I was told, which laid out the history of contemporary art in Chiang Mai, picked for the permanent collection for a reason. They are the controversial pieces that discuss topics many were afraid to acknowledge years ago. For example, you can find Montien’s piece titled, ‘Venus of Bangkok’, displaying the rising issue of sex workers in Bangkok in the ‘80s.
As you keep walking past the art you may not understand, you’ll suddenly come upon a series of three panels created by Navin Rawanchaikul. Like everyone else I saw that day, this was where I stopped, stared and stayed. The piece is essential for understanding the history of art and society in Thailand. Consuming most of my attention – and the warehouse’s wall – its magnitude, and paradoxically minute details, were hard to grasp.
The piece is packed with details. It depicts hundreds of recognisable people and events known mostly to Thai people. On the day MAIIAM opened, I was told, VIP guests would stand there for hours, pointing out friends, celebrities, politicians and often even themselves in the painting. Each small space on this vast painting features something or someone iconic and offers much to be gleaned. The middle panel, painted in 2004, was the original piece and depicts the Thai art scene from when the first national art school was established to the conflicts of the building of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) in 2004. Meanwhile, the new panels completed in 2014, serve as a means to further question art, its purpose, and its role in society. The left panel represents the history of Thai art, going as far back as the Sukhothai period in the 14th century. This is important to Navin, considering Silpa Bhirasri’s mention of it being the “peak of ideal aesthetics in Thai art”.
The work is displayed in the middle of the permanent exhibition serving as a bridge between the elder artists who have paved the way for contemporary art, and the new up and coming artists, pushing boundaries today. After sitting in on Navin’s talk at MAIIAM a couple weeks back, I learned that not only was the placement within the museum intentional, but that MAIIAM was its true home.
“Showing this work at an independent private museum in my hometown – and not a mainstream government space – I hoped would encourage all of us to think about the role that art, art institutions and people in our community play,” Navin explained.
Navin’s latter statement led me to question what MAIIAM’s role might be. Although only creeping up on its 3rd birthday, the museum has created much noise in the art community displaying artists from all over the world and generating controversial conversations. In 2017 the museum received an award for being a monumental art museum in South East Asia, and has since continued to display interesting exhibitions that leave viewers feeling just the way Booth likes – horrified; questioning what art can and cannot be.
Not only has the museum helped in drawing people out of the city centre towards the crafts area, which Booth considers to be an integral part of the arts, but it also has aided in generating international clout for Chiang Mai, and has brought attention to other local art spaces in the city. Booth loves welcoming students from CMU, fulfilling one of his biggest goals – to generate conversation, and educate the newcomers in the art world.
“I don’t know what I will get out of it,” Booth answered when I asked about his future goals, “Just having people leave with questions and enjoy their time here, is what I enjoy. Yeah I am happy when people come see my collection, but ultimately I want them to be a part of the discussion.”
When I asked other artists in Chiang Mai, if and how MAIIAM had impacted them and their businesses, I wasn’t expecting to receive such positive feedback. Two notable art spaces in Chiang Mai are Matoom Art Space, and Seescape Gallery. When I talked to both owners, they wholeheartedly agreed that the opening of MAIIAM has helped bring recognition to their smaller galleries.
“After MAIIAM opened three years ago, a lot of things changed for me,” said Seescape’s owner Torlap. “People want to know more about small spaces. They come and talk to us, and even more curators and collectors have come to Chiang Mai after MAIIAM.”
While he later stated his goals are still in process and he needs to continue to do work outside of just creating art in order to make a living – like most artists in Chiang Mai – Torlap seems to believe that places like MAIIAM can help generate a movement and create a better foundation for artists.
Chumpol or Tua, owner of Matoom Art Space located in the old city agreed. He explained that while he travels a lot and may not be able to spend a lot of time at the museum, he can see the waves it is making.
“It – MAIIAM – changed the movement a lot,” he stated. “What I like though is that it brings in students. There are lots of events, and it brings in many different people.”
These seem to be the exact things Booth was hoping for.
“I had been collecting for 25 years, everything was going into storage, and we wanted to think about a nice way to use what we had,” he said.
The art fills a warehouse, a blank canvas as it were which means the art is the ‘hero’. While there are new exhibitions every few months as well as many workshops, events and activities, the one permanent exhibition tells the art story, not just of Booth’s but also of Chiang Mai’s.
“People know it’s always there, it’s not a history driven by the government, it is what I chose and think is interesting and enjoyable,” he said. ”While many people come to see the permanent collection, the museum is equally interested in bringing in other artists as it is on showing what Thai artists have to offer.”
Booth explained that exhibitions are important, saying they bring people back and allow students to see new pieces. Some have commented on the fact that most of the exhibitions don’t feature local artists, but Booth explained to me his reasoning; “It’s good to show artists from other parts of the world every once and awhile, to bring about connections. I want Thai students to see that a message can be totally personal to a region, in this case Seville, but it can also be totally global,” he said.
It is clear that Eric cares about the way his museum and its exhibitions play a role in society.
“Right now the role of art and art institutions in Thailand have become more pressing under the current political climate.” said Navin in his letter to Silpa Bhirasri. Addressing the current military leadership and the cuts in funding by said government to other art institutions namely the BACC, MAIIAM remains rather special. Being a private museum funded by Booth it is able to serve as the place where artists and others can address the pressing questions present in everyday society.
“I feel it’s more important that art encourages debate and stands for freedom of expression,” said Navin.
Thankfully, Booth’s goals coincide with Navin’s, making it a place where art can not only be observed but can also be used as a tool to connect everyday people to society at large. Therefore while the museum itself might not be everything the art community needs in Thailand, it is a start – an impressive one at that.
Happy third birthday MAIIAM.