If you go to Chiang Mai please visit the Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum on the outskirts of town. Even if you’re visiting Chiang Mai for the ancient temples, the rich cultural history, or to start off on a trek, this modern art museum is a big deal. Here’s why.
Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know until I am presented with more information. The Maiiam opened my eyes about the incredible talent of contemporary Thai artists and the relative lack of visibility that Thai artists receive on the international art scene. The artwork housed in the Maiiam is amazing, plus, the museum is architecturally gorgeous and their cafe and bookshop are fabulous. Just grab a Grab (Thailand’s Lyft-like app) and hop over there.
I love contemporary art. I like how I feel when I stand next to big colors and big courage and the ability of different artists to transmute big emotions into something tangible. A light turns on inside me.
When we travel, we museum. And while we’re museum-ing, we notice that certain artists are everywhere. Beyond the Warhols adorning the major modern art museums, there are (rightfully talented) artists who are ubiquitous. For example, in the span of a few years, we’ve seen Anselm Kiefer in Copenhagen, Paris, San Francisco, L.A., and New York. His pieces are massive—scorched landscape murals and torched airplane hull installation art—the muted destruction of post-WWII Germany as experienced by a child. Everyone who is anyone has their hands on his stuff. It’s fascinating, and it’s everywhere.
My wife and I remark that surely he is the art world’s most recent darling, but I didn’t grasp the bigger picture of who wasn’t hanging on the walls. Where is there space for the rest of the world when the same people are showing up time and again?
At the Maiiam a light went on. (Side note: their current exhibition (running through March 3, 2019) titled Diaspora: Exit, Exile, and Exodus in Southeast Asia was phenomenal. More on that in a minute. First, I always have to use the bathroom.)
Inside the Maiiam’s bathroom was a photographic reproduction of a guerrilla art installation by artist Thitibodee Rungteerawattanon. In 2010, the artist smuggled contemporary Thai artworks into the men’s bathroom of the Tate Modern in London. He installed the works in the bathroom covertly and then photographed the exhibit, titling it ‘Thai Message.’ His commentary was clear—was this the only space for these Southeast Asian artists in the international art world?
Sometimes I get so used to looking at what is given to me to see that I forget to question what isn’t being shown. There is underrepresentation by non-Western artists. We are shown a sliver of works by a disproportionately small group of artists. How can this cultural hegemony be shifted? Some of that shift can start with me and looking deeper than just what is presented to me. Thanks Maiiam for sparking me.
Speaking of internationally unsung artists, Diaspora: Exit, Exile, and Exodus in Southeast Asia is phenomenal. The exhibition features artists depicting the experiences of the many groups of people whose lives and cultures have been shifted and/or harmed by movement. My wife and I were crying. One particularly moving collection was a series of portraits by Hmong artist Pao Houa Her. Born in Laos, her family escaped the violence of the Laotian ‘Secret War,’ fought in tandem with the Vietnam War. They eventually settled in Minneapolis and she began documenting the idea of identity for Hmong Americans. Her ‘Attention,’ series showcases Hmong Veterans who fought alongside U.S. troops, but didn’t receive military recognition or honors until 2018—over 30 years after the Vietnam war ended. The men are photographed wearing self-sourced medals and uniforms. The photos are beautiful, dignified, and honestly so heartbreaking. I wish I could tell you about each artist and each collection.
While I had narrowly thought of Thai art in terms of the kingdom’s Buddhist history and its glorious, golden statues, the opportunity to visit Thailand gave me a chance to see how much I’m missing when it comes to contemporary Thai (and Southeast Asian) art. Clearly, there are internationally renowned Thai artists, like Navin Rawanchaikul and Rirkrit Tiravanija. And Bangkok itself is modernizing so rapidly that contemporary art is a natural response to the shifts. To that end, the Bangkok Biennial—a response to the exclusivity of events such as the Venice Biennial—was launched in 2018, and showcases Thai and international artists in a range of venues throughout the city. So modern Thai art is claiming its rightful space on the international scene, but this exhibit opened my eyes to how complacent I am in accepting what is offered to me. (Side note: I’m fascinated by the work of the Guerrilla Girls to bring more visibility to women and minority artists.)
What I’m trying to say is, when you’re visiting Chiang Mai—a visit to Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum is a must. Get a ride using the Grab app and don’t go on Tuesday when it’s closed.