Currencies of the Contemporary
The interplay of the local and the global in contemporary Thai art, as artists strive for international recognition and a new meaning of the national.
Since the 1990s, Thai contemporary art has achieved international recognition, circulating globally by way of biennials, museums, and commercial galleries. Many Thai artists have shed identification with their nation; but “Thainess” remains an interpretive crutch for understanding their work. In this book, the curator and critic David Teh examines the tension between the global and the local in Thai contemporary art. Writing the first serious study of Thai art since 1992 (and noting that art history and criticism have lagged behind the market in recognizing it), he describes the competing claims to contemporaneity, as staked in Thailand and on behalf of Thai art elsewhere. He shows how the values of the global art world are exchanged with local ones, how they do and don't correspond, and how these discrepancies have been exploited.
How can we make sense of globally circulating art without forgoing the interpretive resources of the local, national, or regional context? Teh examines the work of artists who straddle the local and the global, becoming willing agents of assimilation yet resisting homogenization. He describes the transition from an artistic subjectivity couched in terms of national community to a more qualified, postnational one, against the backdrop of the singular but waning sovereignty of the Thai monarchy and sustained political and economic turmoil. Among the national currencies of Thai art that Teh identifies are an agricultural symbology, a Siamese poetics of distance and itinerancy, and Hindu-Buddhist conceptions of charismatic power. Each of these currencies has been converted to a legal tender in global art—signifying sustainability, utopia, the conceptual, and the relational—but what is lost, and what may be gained, in such exchanges?
In this valuable and long overdue study of recent art in Thailand, David Teh reminds us of why and how we need to rethink the language used to discuss contemporary art. With equal parts sympathy and criticality, Teh offers an innovative set of tools aimed at refreshing necessary debate on how we might usefully imagine the future structure of a history of cultural production.
Joan Kee, Associate Professor, University of Michigan; author of Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method
How might we write contemporary art histories that explore the challenges of the global without forgoing the rich specificities of a locality, a nation, or a region? Teh's landmark study of the contemporary in Thailand shows us how, deploying a suite of extraordinary case studies that weave deftly between the 1960s and the present, and across a remarkable range of media throughout and beyond the Thai peninsula. This book is a game-changer not only for Southeast Asian art histories but for anyone engaged in contemporary art—it's a beautifully illustrated, superbly written explosion of ideas.
Anthony Gardner, Associate Professor in Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of Oxford; author of Politically Unbecoming: Postsocialist Art against Democracy
David Teh's engaging and lucid book is not only an authoritative study of recent contemporary Thai art but also breaks truly novel ground for a discipline that has long struggled with the adequate conceptual framing of the contemporary and its global currencies.
Anselm Franke, curator and writer, Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin
Thai Art, the richness of which is relevant both to experts and to those seeking an entry point to the region, will become a key reference to understanding the deep entanglement of the specific context of this nation and the art that arises from it.
Ute Meta Bauer, Founding Director, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore
This is a thoroughly researched and focused book, the only one to look seriously at contemporary Thai art and its relationship to its nation. It is a welcome corrective to the Western assumption that Thai works are happily Buddhist, always characterised by the Thai smile.
The Burlington Magazine