"Follow your bliss" was the signature pronouncement of Joseph Campbell, an American writer on comparative mythology who became a guru for many of his readers. Campbell took the idea from the Indian holy books, the Upanishads, in which the Sanskrit word for "bliss" is "ananda".
It may be pure coincidence that the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale, under the directorship of Apinan Poshyananda, has the theme "Beyond Bliss". Perhaps it's a hope for continuity, a deep desire that this new Biennale is the first of many. If the show outlasts Poshyananda, one of the most well-connected art personalities in Thailand, it may consider itself a fixture.
One suspects that future expectations rely primarily on the major sponsor, Thai Beverage, which has committed to back the first three iterations of the exhibition. As art and alcohol have always proved highly compatible there's no reason not to feel confident.
Over the past two decades Thai artists have been finding their way into many of the world's most important contemporary surveys, but the country has lacked its own showcase exhibition. This has been partly due to political instability and ever-present threats of censorship, but perseverance has paid off. The first BAB is spread across 20 venues, taking advantage of potential tourist attractions, from temples to shopping centres. In a city such as Bangkok, where the traffic is often gridlocked, this doesn't make it easy to see the entire event, but perhaps the idea is to encourage visitors to extend their stay for a day or two.
Poshyananda has chosen 75 artists or groups of artists. Roughly 50 percent are Thai, with the other half he has striven to get the most high-profile representatives of their respective countries. For Australia, that means Fiona Hall, who has contributed an installation of skeletal remains painted on broken bottles. There's a work by Russian video superstars, AES + F; an installation by Japan's Yayoi Kusama, and a sculpture by Yoshitomo Nara; large pieces by French-based Chinese artists, Huang Yong Ping and Yang Pei Ming; and works by two of the most prominent South Koreans, Lee Bul, and Choi Jeong Hwa.
From nearby countries in South-East Asia, Poshyananda has invited Heri Dono of Indonesia, Ho Tzu Hyen of Singapore, and others of similar calibre. With the possible exception of Italy's Francesco Clemente, and Scandinavians, Elmgreen and Dragset, the Europeans in the show are of a more obscure cast. The United States is represented by a single painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat – a minimal involvement that might reflect America's increasingly marginalised role in the world today. However, it might just as easily be a reflection of the BAB's budgetary restrictions.
The star attraction is Marina Abramović, the empress of performance art, who no longer does the physical stuff herself but presides over an entire institute of aspiring performers. The Marina Abramović Institute bears more than a passing resemblance to a religious cult in which Marina is the high priestess. In Bangkok the Institute's presentation includes the participatory display called "The Method", which we experienced in Australia three years ago; and durational works by invited performers from Greece, South Korea, Myanmar, India, Iran, Bangladesh and Thailand.
Always thoroughly committed, Abramović is spending three weeks in Thailand working with this project. This counts as an epic stay, considering that most artists of her stature are unlikely to last three days at a foreign biennale.
Abramović has been treated as art royalty in Bangkok, in recognition of the way her influence has spread throughout the world. For example, the first image one encounters in a catalogue of work by young Thai performance artist, Kawita Vatanajyankur, is a photograph of herself and Abramović posing cheek by cheek.
Vatanajyankur, who lived for years in Australia and showed at Stills Gallery in Sydney, is already being included in international shows. Her videos, photos and performance pieces are a peculiar mixture of feminism and fetishism, as she portrays herself tangled in ropes, being lowered head-first into a dish of noodles, or weaving a piece of fabric by playing the role of a human needle diving through a gigantic loom. All this takes place against vividly coloured backdrops.
Less spectacular but equally confronting is Chumpon Apisuk's video, I Have Dreams, in which a dozen Chiang Mai sex workers talk about their lives and hopes for the future. The film makes it clear that sex for these women is just a job that enables them to support their families and nurture fantasies of owning a house or a business. If Vatanajyankur's videos deal with issues of women's work, albeit with an erotic undercurrent, Apisuk does the opposite. He normalises the loaded subject of the sex industry in interviews with women who look forward to the day when they can lead ordinary lives.
It allegedly required long, patient negotiations to be allowed to install works of art in the grounds of temples, Wat Arun and Wat Prayoon, but the setting has brought out the best in the artists. The first requirement was almost certainly to be respectful of the environment, and this has acted as a stimulus rather than a constraint.
One can walk on these tiny skulls, presumably reflecting on mortality.
At Wat Arun, Komrit Tepthian has created a large sculpture called Giant Twins that combines traditional effigies of Chinese and Thai warriors in the form of Siamese twins, as a wry comment on the inextricable mingling of the two groups. Nearby, Sanitas Pradittasnee has created a red glass enclosure that turns a collection of rocks into a model of the cosmos.
Pannaphan Yodmanee and (Sydney based) Phaptawan Suwannakudt have contributed paintings that are finely attuned to their settings, drawing upon Thai history and cultural tradition. The show-stealer, though, is Nino Sarabutra, who has installed 125,000 small ceramic skulls on the corridors around the white stupa at Wat Prayoon. One can walk on these tiny skulls, presumably reflecting on mortality.
For Buddhists to go "beyond bliss" is to escape from all worldly desires and strivings. This makes death a benign prospect, and many artists have picked up on this connotation, from Sarabutra's skulls to Fiona Hall's mass grave, to Yan Pei Ming's portrait of his late mother.
The works in shopping centres send a contrary message: that people seek their bliss in objects, as a distraction from the fundamental truths of life and death. Perhaps art is the most desirable destination for those who are able to transcend the all-encompassing power of consumerism, but not yet ready to embrace oblivion.
The Bangkok Art Biennale runs until February 3.