Is contemporary art one more complicit social practice, inevitably guided by the ulterior motives of the economy and the state, or can curatorial and artistic resistance somehow help to support a more critical role? Are biennials by implication bound to reinforce existing forms of domination, or can they help to undermine power and support more hopeful futures? Of course, these questions have always played an important role in the literature on biennials. In recent years, an increasing number of authors frame this discussion in terms of ‘hegemony.’ The call for papers for this special issue is a case in point, questioning if biennials are by necessity “hegemonic machines.” Responding to this question, we follow Gramsci’s interpretation of hegemonies as situated historic and geographic “settlements” that are actively constructed and maintained by factions of a society that make up a “historic bloc.” We argue that the political effects of biennials need to be studied in relation to such situated hegemonies. However, the precise ways in which biennials support or counter hegemonies is all but clear. We suggest that specific organizational and curatorial strategies are crucial in structuring this agency of biennials vis-à-vis hegemony.
Thailand today provides an excellent laboratory for a reflection on the political nature of biennials. The power relations in this former art periphery have since long been structured by a hegemony that combines dominant views of nation, religion, and monarchy with notions of ‘Thai-ness.’ This has naturalized vast economic benefits of various core actors that make up the historic bloc, as well as dramatic inequalities. Counter-hegemonic resistance is systematically met with military coups. In this setting, art all too often functions as an affirmative supporter of hegemony. Or, as artist Mit Jai Inn explains, “Art has become a tool for the institutionalization of the values of the ‘good’ people.” Meanwhile, there is also a relatively small world of independent art spaces that organize counter-hegemonic events. In this constellation, Thailand was late in joining the biennial craze. However, 2018 suddenly saw first iterations of various perennial art events, including the Bangkok Art Biennale, Thailand Biennale, and Bangkok Biennial. What is the relation of these biennials with Thailand’s hegemony? Which strategies are employed to support or counter this hegemony? And what does that imply for the politics of biennials in general?
Biennials and Hegemony
In recent years, the literature on the political nature of biennials is awash with references to hegemony. Oliver Marchart, for instance, discusses hegemonic shifts regarding Eurocentrism and Occidentalism in documenta exhibitions, Panos Kompatsiaris looks at art in relation to neoliberal hegemonic orders, and Michael Oren studies small, innovative art biennials in the context of “Western hegemony, whether of global capitalism or the Euro-American art world.” These references illustrate that in the biennial discussion, the term hegemony is mainly employed to foreground two types of dominance. In the early 2000s, the pendulum of attention first swung from the instrumental nature of biennials in relation to economic ‘hegemony’ to appreciation of their subversive potential regarding cultural ‘hegemony’ in a postcolonial world. Carlos Basualdo’s seismic essay, “The Unstable Institution,” has been instructive in this first shift. While acknowledging that biennials are created to promote the context—city, region, country—in which they are organized, Basualdo argued that criticism of this instrumental nature disguises the radical, subversive potential of biennials in helping to open up the very Western art world. At stake here, is the potential of the biennial to help breach the Western ‘hegemony’ on signification that was not only controlling the art world, but also the world in general. This would become the go-to-argument legitimizing biennials for years to come.
In recent years, the pendulum has swung back to attention to the complicity of biennials in economic dominance. Revisiting earlier debates about the instrumental nature of biennials, this time the discussion is explicitly framed in terms of neoliberal ‘hegemony.’ The main target of this literature is a certain type of biennial, organized through entrepreneurial strategies of states and corporations, aiming to lure tourists, middle-class consumers, and the international art crowd to art spectacles that promote the economy of cities, regions, countries, or corporations. These events accommodate contemporary capitalism’s need to continuously mobilize people’s desires while shaping their identities. In view of their promotional agendas, they tend to be risk-averse, employing forms of censorship or self-censorship; after all, who wants to risk inconveniencing their paymaster? For Chantal Mouffe, their emergence reflects the “post-political” reality of late-capitalist societies, in which the public sphere has been transformed from a core battlefield of explicit agnostic political disagreement into an advertisement domain of consensual soft power, and where critical gestures are quickly appropriated and neutralized.
This short overview suggests that in the discussion on biennials, the term hegemony is generally used to refer to forms of cultural and economic dominance operating at a global scale. Furthermore, these forms of dominance tend to be discussed in isolation. Also, this literature seems to use the term hegemony without a great deal of explanation. This is not surprising, as the term has become part of our everyday speech. However, this diminishes its analytical potential, especially when we discuss the role of biennials in relation to dominance in a specific place and time, like Thailand in 2018. We reach that conclusion on the basis of Antonio Gramsci’s interpretation of hegemony in relation to situated forms of dominance. In Nancy Fraser’s reading, Gramsci understands hegemony as “the process by which a ruling class makes its domination appear natural by installing the presuppositions of its own worldview as the common sense of society as a whole. Its organizational counterpart is the hegemonic bloc: a coalition of disparate social forces that the ruling class assembles and through which it asserts its leadership.” Hegemony thus broadens the reach of domination as it replaces direct coercion for consent through agreement on common sense. Fraser adds to her description that hegemony relates to assumptions about what is just and right regarding both the cultural and economic reality. It is important to stress that Gramsci was writing about a specific place and time—early twentieth-century Italy—and that hegemony in his conception relates to the dominance of a concrete situated alliance. This alliance and the worldview around which it is built need to be actively constructed and maintained. Meanwhile, challenges to hegemony necessitate building an alternative political alliance—or counter-hegemonic bloc—around an alternative common sense or counter-hegemony.
We suggest following Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony as a situated, time and space bound “settlement” supported by a specific alliance, and expressing both cultural and economic dominance. This implies foregrounding the—so far under-researched—empirical questions “In which situated hegemony with related forms of cultural and economic dominance does this biennial take place?,” and “What is the precise role of this biennial regarding this hegemony and its related forms of dominance?” Does it operate as a “biennial of resistance,” or function as post-political affirmation of hegemony? Furthermore, we suggest that it is not enough to answer this question by looking at the financial sources behind a biennial alone. Instead, we suggest focusing on the precise strategies involved in the organization of biennials. As will become clear, it is important to differentiate between strategies of organization and curatorial strategies in that discussion.
Art and Hegemony in Thailand
As even the most cursory observer of international news will know, over the past decades Thai politics has been in virtually constant turmoil, with repeated street occupations, bloody clearances, and military coups. The by now extensive literature on these conflicts suggests that they are the expression of a fundamental rift that has characterized Thai society at least since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. This rift is rooted in fundamentally opposing views of the Thai nation that are defended by different—although changing—alliances. The dominant worldview—or hegemony—centers on the three pillars of nation, religion, and monarchy. It portrays the nation as a mystical unity (samakkhitham) and stresses the uniformity of Thai identity, organized around ethnolinguistic homogeneity, Buddhism, deference to a quasi-divine king, and ‘Thai-ness’ (kwampenthai). Furthermore, the nation is presented as having a distinctly graded hierarchy with ‘good people’ (khondi) who aspire to be ‘siwilai’ at the top, and with Bangkok as its Sino-Thai center, overseeing peripheries like the ‘Lao’ Northeast and ‘Malay’ South. A strong state needs to defend this unity against external and internal threats, thus achieving ‘progress’ and making Thailand a significant country in the world.
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit argue that this hegemony remained dominant over time, as it was continuously reactivated by consecutive alliances (or “historic blocs”). While the monarchy and bureaucracy were original core parties, from the 1950s onwards the military became more central. Beginning in the early 1970s, the alliance changed again as the military lost its central position in favor of a ‘royalist democracy’ around the ‘network monarchy.’ The dominant economic actors also shifted over time, resulting in rapid accumulation by the monarchy first, and generals later. In the 1960s and 1970s, national banks became central economic actors, and large international corporations such as ThaiBev and CP Group thereafter. However, the hegemony that these alliances supported remained remarkably constant, and it naturalized the fabulous wealth of the core actors, as well as vast national economic inequalities.
Of course, this hegemony has not gone unchallenged. In part, challenges came from alternative factions that also supported the strong-state worldview; see, for instance, the challenge to the network monarchy by Thaksin Shinawatra in the past two decades. Challenges have also been mounted by counter-alliances propagating a second—altogether different—worldview. This alternative view is built around an egalitarian popular nationalism, situating sovereignty in the people rather than the palace. This view embraces the nation’s diversity, and suggests that different groups should have equal access to power. The nation-state should improve the well-being of members of these groups, while privileges and economic inequality are criticized. Over time, different alliances have again supported this counter-hegemonic view. While successfully mobilizing transformation at times, these critics of the strong-state worldview have been systematically denigrated as ‘un-Thai.’ Control of counter-hegemonic opposition has also involved the legal system, for instance, through draconian lèse-majesté laws that make criticism of the monarchy in Thailand virtually impossible. Whenever counter-hegemonic alliances have become too threatening, they have been systematically met with military coups, resulting in what Chai-Anan Samutwanit has termed the “vicious cycle” of Thai politics. It is a stark reminder of Gramsci’s warning that behind hegemony lies an armor of coercion.
Art practices in Thailand have always operated within this context of hegemonic struggle. Since the 1932 revolution, we can at least discern three distinct roles of art in relation to hegemony. First, as David Teh observes, after the end of the absolute monarchy, “Popular sovereignty and newly mooted freedoms had to be sacrificed at the altars of national unity and progress, and in order to be imagined, these ideals had to be imaged. There was plenty for art to do.” Modern art was thus conceived in tandem with an evolving conception of the modern state. A Fine Arts Department was established “to help mould the public culture of the post-absolutist era.” In 1933, a national art academy that would become Silpakorn University was founded by Corrado Feroci, or Silpa Bhirasri, ‘the father of modern art in Thailand.’ Feroci’s views on art were conservative, equating art with beauty and goodness, indirectly restricting a more critical role for art. Silpakorn University would come to exercise an iron grip on all facets of Thai art practice for decades to come, regulating access to teaching jobs, annual National Exhibitions, state commissions, and competitions sponsored by banks and insurance companies. The gatekeepers were Silpakorn-educated ‘artist-civil servants’ with a monopoly on signification and expression of Thai culture. Art thus functions to image Thai culture in a way that affirms Thailand’s hegemony. It is this role to which Mit Jai Inn’s remark in our introduction alludes.
In the course of the 1980s, cracks started to appear in this all-encompassing ‘Silpakorn system.’ Alternative art schools were established and foreign-educated artists returned without “personal debts to the national institution or its senior functionaries.” Art spaces like the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art (BIMA) provided new podia. And while the role of ‘artist-civil servants’ within the ‘Silpakorn system’ was institutionalized in 1985 in the figure of the ‘national artist’—a honorific for yearly elected artists, whose benefits include a considerable lifelong stipend—art was increasingly wrested free from the narrow confines of Silpakorn-mandated views and the related Thai hegemony. The result was a flurry of activities in the 1990s, including recurring artist-led events such as the Chiang Mai Social Installation, Womanifesto, and Asiatopia. Meanwhile, in Bangkok alternative art spaces opened up such as Project 304 and About Studio/About Café. Open to imagining diversity, these initiatives veered far from the official narrative, thus resulting in a second role for art of implicitly and explicitly countering hegemony.
However, the end of the twentieth century also saw the seeds of the realignment of art with the hegemony to come. One year after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, a joint effort by Silpakorn University, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand delivered the Bangkok Art Project. Illustrating the utility of a new understanding of ‘contemporary art,’ this exhibition helped to forge a third relationship between art and hegemony. At its core was the establishment of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) within the Ministry of Culture in 2002, directed by established curator Apinan Poshyananda. According to David Teh, “In his six years at its helm, the OCAC drove both the successful reencompassing of art by the state and the concomitant collapse of art’s heterogeneity.” Apinan and the OCAC would dream up various large contemporary art exhibitions with a remarkable similarity, including punny names, reappearing artists, and a focus on the spectacle, and sometimes centered on packaging socially disturbing events—such as the 2004 tsunami and the violent crackdown of a popular movement—in ways befitting Thailand’s hegemony. One example is Imagine Peace, organized in June 2010 when the casualties of the most recent bloody crackdown were barely buried. As David Teh observes, “Here we saw art’s independence from the state, tentatively staked out in the 1970s, extended in the 1980s and ‘90s, collapse in a spectacular heap.” Art’s affirmative role in relation to hegemony was firmly re-established.
For contemporary art in Thailand, 2018 was a remarkable year. Around the world, cities, regions, and nations had been jumping on the perennial bandwagon, resulting in a ‘biennial boom’ of more than 300 events. However, despite earlier perennial initiatives, Thailand did not yet feature on the list of global events. This all changed when, in the timespan of a few months in 2017, organizers announced various inaugural biennials. The character of the three events discussed here would prove remarkably diverse. With core funding from ThaiBev—a giant drinks company with enormous real estate interests in Bangkok—the Bangkok Art Biennale was led by artistic director Apinan and his curatorial team. Under the tagline “Beyond Bliss,” they showed work of seventy-five Thai and international artists in shopping malls, heritage buildings, art spaces, temples, and a dedicated ‘BAB box’. Funded by the OCAC and Krabi municipality, the Thailand Biennale reflected on the theme “Edge of the Wonderland.” UK-based Chinese curator Jiehong Jiang and his curatorial team commissioned site-specific work by some fifty local and international artists, presented at outdoor public sites in the beautiful natural surroundings of touristy Krabi province. The Bangkok Biennial—the first of the three events to take place—was a decentralized, artist-run event. Initiated by Lee Anantawat, Jeff Gompertz, and Liam Morgan, it had neither central curation nor central funding, relying instead on the collective efforts of the organizers of about seventy ‘pavilions.’ What is the relation of these events to Thailand’s hegemony? And which strategies have structured that relation?
Bangkok Art Biennale
With a week of opening events in late-October 2018, Apinan’s long-held dream of creating a contemporary art biennial finally became reality: at twenty venues, the Bangkok Art Biennale opened for three months. Seventy-five artists—including big international names like Marina Abramović, Yayoi Kusama, and Elmgreen & Dragset—showed often spectacular works to a public mainly consisting of Bangkok’s middle-class and international tourists. From an organizational point of view, this biennial is the reflection of a new, capable Thai elite, valuing a certain idea of smooth professionalism. While main sponsor ThaiBev was an indispensable partner, the spider in the web creating Thailand’s first “world-class art event” was its artistic director. In interviews in the run-up to the opening, Apinan referenced various earlier one-off events like Siam Art Fair and Bangkok Bananas, organized while he was working for the Ministry of Culture. However, in his opinion, in the complicated Thai setting, “Hosting a proper biennial requires a lot more money and professional commitment.” Thanks to an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Thai bureaucracy, the willing ear of the CEO of ThaiBev—to whom he is art and culture advisor—and a Moleskine bursting with high-profile international art world contacts, Apinan finally pulled off what he could not do as a bureaucrat. This no doubt informed a certain triumphant boldness, which he exuded in all manner of international (media) appearances.
One has to admit, Apinan did pull it off. But what exactly did he pull off? Unfolding here, with many distracting bells and whistles, was the affirmation of Thailand’s hegemony, through a new way of imagining Thailand—the third way of relating art to hegemony discussed above—heavily focused on the economy, but with implicit support for the (military) regime. This link to Thailand’s hegemony and its “historic bloc” was illustrated by the location of the biennial’s many opening events, suggesting close links to Thailand’s Sino-Thai economic elites and the army. And the instrumental nature of this biennial for the urban economy was always clear, as Apinan expected that, “it will not only encourage tourism and positively impact our economy but will lead to benefit the quality of life of Thai people in terms of commerce and services.” Here the biennial is employed—rather traditionally—for branding Bangkok as a city of art, while envisioning its public as consumers, finally able to reach their full potential as worldly citizens by experiencing contemporary art in leisure spaces. The Bangkok Art Biennale also related to economic development in a second—more innovative—way as well: by using art to ‘enrich’ the spaces where the exhibition took place. Those spaces included existing shopping malls and hotels, but also—more importantly—the enormous real-estate holdings of ThaiBev, including its One Bangkok project located next to the purpose-built ‘BAB Box’—likely to be the project’s future sales office—and the beautifully dilapidated East Asiatic building, to be redeveloped into a luxury Plaza Athenee hotel. Despite a smokescreen of supposed subversiveness, to which we will return later, the biennial dovetailed with the interests of the state as well. After all, according to Apinan, “the social malaise and political upheavals of the past decade have made it difficult to organise” large-scale recurring art events. It is no surprise then that, at the 2014 “Innovative City Forum” in Tokyo, he spoke about the then five months old coup d’etat in positive terms, crediting the military as “quite creative and contribut[ing] much to bringing back happiness to the people.”
Bangkok Art Biennale, Komkrit Tepthian’s Giant Twins (2018) at Wat Arun - Temple of Dawn (January 2019). Photography by the authors.
Affirmation of Thailand’s hegemony was realized by a strategy of ‘total curation,’ integrating organizational and curatorial strategies behind the biennial. This strategy is reflected in a string of decisions: with Apinan as artistic director and lead curator, this biennial de facto operated without an independent curator; the curatorial team mainly selected artists working on themes that do not touch on issues sensitive to the Thai hegemony; control over Thai artists—who are ‘risky’ for this hegemony—was further enhanced by the fact that the international curators were not supposed to work with them; and on top of this, various artists and curators participated in this biennial on the basis of personal favors relating to earlier contributions of Apinan to their careers. These decisions supported in an ornamentalization of the presented works, which often had a spectacular, experiential nature. Works that were conceptual in nature were reduced to their superficial ornamental appearance as well, through a strategy of de-contextualization. Throughout, the exhibition was very text-light, comprehensive curatorial texts were largely absent, and a discursive embedding of the works in a larger context was missing. In short, without meaning-generating components, works were reduced to mere objects in venues, neutralizing the critical potential of participating artists and curators even further.
The involvement of ThaiBev meant that the wider organizational strategy was tightly locked in with the above issues relating to what is commonly understood as the curatorial. Through its highly diversified business portfolio, ThaiBev functioned as a one-stop shop for biennial organization. After all, as one person involved with the event remarked, “They have everything under their kingdom”: from spaces to host the event and hotels for the participating artists and press, to commercial avenues and water bottles for advertising and Chang beers as lubricant for opening events. Even if biennial locations were not owned by ThaiBev, the company often had pre-existing relationships—for instance, through their patronage of temple complexes, or sponsorship of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (BACC). To a large extent, these relationships predetermined the format of this biennial, up to the green-yellow color scheme of its brand identity, which reflected the company’s Chang beer colors. Mirroring ThaiBev’s investor-speak on the One Bangkok project, the Bangkok Art Biennale was Thailand’s first fully integrated biennial.
Apinan’s experience in organizing large-scale exhibitions in Thailand’s sensitive political context surely has at least in part caused this tight control over both organizational and curatorial strategies, as this helped to neutralize the potentially risky contents of contemporary art. However, this defanged version of contemporary art is problematic if you want to present a biennial as a legitimate art exhibition to the public and the international art world. That realization has resulted in a final strategy of imaging—a strict control over communication about the biennial. In a string of media appearances, Apinan has posed as risktaker; as someone who is choosing the difficult path, sticking his neck out in Thailand’s dangerous political setting. During an elaborate, fully paid-for press tour, he even did a little censorship performance: standing at the banks of the Chao Praya River, he told the press: “‘We have taken risks with the biennale but I’ve been in so much trouble in the past, so risk-taking is part of the excitement. […] If there is any trouble, we will just deal with that when it comes.’ Interrupted by the loud roar of a passing boat, Poshyananda laughed, adding: ‘Ah, that must be the military, I’m being censored!’” The international press lapped it up, repeating his message in their publications. In the end then, the Bangkok Art Biennale is an expression of the culture industry on steroids. Linking organizational and curatorial strategies tightly together, it presents contemporary art that can be consumed, while virtually guaranteeing that this will not evoke any serious discussion of the underlying hierarchy. In order to do this job well, it needs an image of risk, empowerment and global relevance as well. And it is in this economy of appearances, that both Apinan and the Bangkok Art Biennale excel.
“Are you researching the Thailand Biennale? Ouch! A friend of mine does some design work for them; the bureaucracy is a drama!” We are talking to a friend in the run-up to the Thailand Biennale, and our conversation proves indicative of the expectations in the Bangkok art scene: the OCAC will not be able to pull off an event of this magnitude and international allure. Insider stories of artists pulling out, and last-minute letters from the organizers aiming to tone down proposed projects seem to confirm the image of bureaucratic incompetence. However, despite the pre-event gloating, the eventual exhibition proved remarkably enticing. Admittedly, the opening event itself was a painful amalgam of stereotypes, presented to a core audience of bureaucrats that omitted the curatorial team. Also, an almost total lack of upkeep of the outdoor artworks—combined with an impressive seasonal depression—meant that many works soon were damaged or destroyed. Meanwhile, in the very dispersed locations, works were hard to find, not least because the OCAC-maps did not correspond to reality. Visiting the sites also proved expensive, as transportation was not arranged, and the local taxi and boat mafia had a field day. However, in the beautiful natural surroundings, the high standard of the artists and their site-specific works nonetheless made for an intriguing visit. Judged from an international discourse on contemporary art biennials, the result seemed remarkably current. In the words of one surprised Thai reporter: “It is actually really nice!”
These ambiguous attitudes go back to a fundamental ambivalence at the heart of the Thailand Biennale and its relation to Thailand’s hegemony. On the one hand, this biennial forms a logical continuation of attempts by the state—from the Bangkok Art Project to various large-scale art exhibitions under Apinan—to use contemporary art to imagine Thailand in new ways, but befitting the existing hegemony—the third way of relating art to Thai hegemony in our discussion above. In line with those ideas, the OCAC had already started to make plans for the first Thai biennial. Initial plans centered on organizing a four-yearly national ‘art Olympics,’ to be organized in different Thai regions. It is probably no coincidence that the activation of these plans coincided with the Bangkok Art Biennale, guided at least in some measure by a perceived competition over competence with its former director. The Thailand Biennale then resulted from a last-minute decision to change to a two-yearly format; the original aim to re-energize regional economies remained.
The Thailand Biennale relates to Thai hegemony in a second, very different way as well. Funded through government agencies, this biennial was very much run by the bureaucracy, especially the OCAC, translating into an inward-looking, ‘please the line-manager’ view of success. This also intimately tied this biennial to traditional ideas about the role of art in imaging the state and Thai society, and the related Silpakorn system of signification, built around national artists. At its core, in this system, art needs to image Thai culture in line with the country’s hegemony; in the regionalized format of the Thailand Biennale, this results in paternalistic notions of a Thai core showing Thai culture to the uneducated rest of the country. Meanwhile, the Silpakorn establishment has traditionally had little appreciation of the experimental fringe of Thai art and its perceived ‘strange’ practices, which often focus on discussion and engagement. With national artists playing a central role in the Biennale Board—the unit responsible for the organizational strategies—not surprisingly, these two opposing links to Thai hegemony resulted in serious conflict.
The double-headed relationship of the Thailand Biennale with Thailand’s hegemony is reflected in the ambiguity of its organizational strategy. On the one hand, following international ideas about the efficacy of art to stimulate tourism, the OCAC hired an international curator, Jiehong Jiang. He compiled a curatorial team that aimed at commissioning some fifty site-specific works with a sustainability and community focus, to be exhibited in public space. This team’s selection of international and Thai artists did not include any national artists. The team also suggested developing a biennial app, transportation arrangements, and a symposium. Directed at open discussion and engagement, these ideas did not sit well with the second—Silpakorn-centered—idea that art must educate the Thai regions. Most likely, the OCAC did not have a clear understanding of the implications of hiring an independent curatorial team; according to one interviewee, “They thought that they would place some sculptures on the sites.” However, while the Bangkok Art Biennale based its approach on total control of both organizational and curatorial strategies, by the time that the OCAC and the Biennale Board realized what was happening, they had lost control and would never fully regain it. From there on, a strategy of reactive control resulted in serious infringements in the autonomy of the curatorial team: artists were vetoed, works of Thai artists were censored, national artists were inserted into the artist list, budgets were not released, and suggestions for workshops, public engagement programs, maintenance, and transportation solutions were ignored. This resulted in a total disconnect between the curatorial team and the OCAC; a divide that was illustrated by the fact that curator Jiehong Jiang organized his own separate opening event for the art crowd in late December.
Creating the first Thailand Biennale has probably been painful for everyone involved. The fact that there even was an exhibition in the end is testament to the single-minded determination of the curatorial team, who—against all odds—continued hitting theirs heads against the proverbial bureaucratic wall. While the end-result might be enticing for the interested visitor, from a viewpoint of openness and engagement the biennial could have been so much more. Meanwhile, while bureaucrats at the Ministry of Culture might have been positive about the event—despite its eventual excessive costs—for the OCAC and the national artists involved, the lack of control over the format of the exhibition and its message, and the resulting struggle, must have been deeply painful as well. It is not surprising, therefore, that the current preparations of the second Thailand Biennale, planned for late 2020 in Nakhon Ratchasima province, seem to indicate a fundamental turn inwards. The original Thailand Biennale Facebook page with its many followers has been disavowed, all communication is now exclusively in Thai, and the idea of an international curator seems to have fallen by the wayside. Meanwhile, the new Facebook page—the only communication channel to the outside world—suggests a transformation towards community engagement around arts and crafts, thus moving the Thailand Biennale away from an international discourse on contemporary art.
Organized from July until September 2018, the Bangkok Biennial was an altogether different affair. Initiated by three artists, this biennial had neither central curator nor finances. Instead, as this biennial’s Guide to Pavilions explains, it was “set up as a challenge to the authority of access to representation in art and curatorial practices.” About seventy ‘pavilions’ therefore replaced a main exhibition. These pavilions could be anything: the location, duration, and pavilion contents were to be determined by pavilion organizers without external vetting, thus placing responsibility for the overall event firmly in their collective hands. Away from the gatekeepers of the ‘Silpakorn system’ and exhibitions such as the Bangkok Art Biennale, this resulted in a huge variety of venues for experimentation with alternative social roles for contemporary art. Pavilions included physical and virtual spaces, existing art spaces and private residencies, one-day events and three-month exhibitions, and were located in Bangkok, elsewhere in Thailand, and in cities around the world. Re/form/ing Patani, for instance, featured artists in multiple locations in Pattani in Thailand’s deep South. Hong HUB in Bangkok hosted French artist Michaël Harpin who organized a community project around his outdoor sculpture, built during a three-month residency. And Chiharu Shinoda directed three performances on multiple evenings as part of the outdoor Supernatural Pavilion, located at a Bangkok temple complex.
With these choices, the Bangkok Biennial continues the Thai tradition of alternative, independent counter-hegemonic art events. With its radical openness and circumvention of gatekeeper-control, this event did not tell the audience—perceived as participants—what they were or needed to be, or what excellent Thai culture is; instead, the pavilions opened up possibilities to reflect on the variety of located practices in Thailand, and on the capacity of contemporary art to question or support those. Together, the pavilions of the Bangkok Biennial thus created avenues for questioning Thailand’s hegemony. This adverse attitude was the result of various organizational and curatorial strategies. Most important amongst these was the principle of decentralized curation through the pavilions, opening an escape route beyond surveillance and control. This anti-authoritarian approach translated to every aspect of the biennial, as there was, for instance, no overarching narrative or manifesto, while pavilion organizers received full control over communication about their pavilion through a wiki site. On a par with the organizers of the Chiang Mai Social Installation some thirty years earlier, the initiators of this biennial thus acted as hosts rather than authors of the event.
Decentralized curation alone, of course, does not guarantee counter-hegemonic practices. However, other organizational and curatorial strategies further accommodated a move in this direction. These included an implicit strategy of networked invitations to potential pavilion organizers, who themselves then were responsible for the contents of their pavilion. In view of the convictions of the initiators, this nudged these pavilions in a counter-hegemonic direction. Next, there was a strategy of deconcentration. The inclusion of pavilions from other cities in Thailand and elsewhere enhanced the biennial’s counter-hegemonic nature, as hegemony in Thailand relates to a spatial hierarchy in which Bangkok is the center; pavilions from Thailand’s regions were therefore always more likely to be counter-hegemonic. A third strategy supporting this biennial’s counter-hegemonic nature was radical local engagement. Overall, the pavilions did not perceive their public as passive learners, to be infused with Thai culture; instead the public was seen as diverse, and as active collaborators that need to be engaged. Not the works or performances on show, but the encounter between artists and their public was the core event. David Teh’s description of the Chiang Mai Social Installation again seems apt, observing that “If the exhibition of artworks was the pretext for this encounter, it was not necessarily the main point.” More crucial, according to Teh, was the meeting between artists—and their public, we would add—“unmediated by the institutions that had long governed their work and determined its value.”
These strategies put the Bangkok Biennial squarely in a tradition of alternative, counter-hegemonic art events that emerged in the 1990s in Thailand. As a result, it comes close to what Dave Beech has called a “critical biennial.” The biennial has certainly not been without its challenges, hampered as it was by well-known issues relating to independent precarious art practices. In view of the initiators’ decision to reject sponsorship, this biennial was always going to be run by a very small team with minimal resources. As is illustrated by the demise of earlier artist-run initiatives, this might put the long-term sustainability of this event at risk, as well as its archiving and communication. With limited ‘quality control’ over the pavilions, there also have been concerns by outsiders about the standard of individual works and pavilions. But maybe that criticism misses the point of this biennial’s overall aims and strategies regarding openness and engagement. Especially, it underestimates the crucial importance of this infrastructure for accommodating experimentation with alternative ideas about contemporary art and its social role beyond the control of traditional gatekeepers. After all, with their linkages to hegemony, operating within the formal confines available seems to be too restrictive altogether. Maybe, therefore, this move beyond the formal Thai institutions is the only viable option.
Beyond Art: Taking Politics Seriously
With its sudden surge of events in 2018, Thailand is a great laboratory for research into the politics of biennials. We have argued that those politics need to be understood in relation to hegemony, seen as situated “settlements” of worldviews, supported by a dominant alliance. We therefore started our analysis of three biennials in Thailand with a discussion of Thailand’s hegemony, and we distinguished three political roles of Thai contemporary art. Next, we wondered how the three events related to this hegemony; and how that relationship was forged. In response to those questions, we conclude that there is a stark contrast between the three events, for instance, in terms of scale, finances, and curatorial and organizational choices. We also conclude that those disparities tie in with the three political roles of contemporary art in Thailand, which in turn relates to different attitudes towards Thailand’s hegemony. While the Bangkok Art Biennale implicitly affirms this hegemony, and the Thailand Biennale has been affirmative towards different aspects of that hegemony, the Bangkok Biennial developed in clear opposition to it. We also conclude that these politics of the biennials were not only determined by curatorial strategies, but also by broader organizational strategies. In the Bangkok Biennial, both of these strategies were geared towards decentralization and away from gatekeeper control. As a result, the initiators functioned as hosts instead of authors of the event. Meanwhile, the strategies behind the Thailand Biennale proved ambiguous, resulting in a painful struggle between curatorial team and Biennale Board. In contrast, the Bangkok Art Biennale organizers controlled and aligned both curatorial and organizational strategies, thus neutralizing the potentially risky nature of contemporary art.
These conclusions illustrate the political nature of each of the three biennials. However, the organizers of the Bangkok Art Biennale in particular went through great lengths to obscure that political role and the related affirmative attitude towards the Thai hegemony; they even bothered to actively construct an appearance of criticality, in clear contradistinction to various strategies employed to control criticality. These apparent contradictions make sense from a framework of the ‘post-political,’ which—as we have seen at the start of this paper—argues that the public sphere has been transformed from a core battlefield of explicit agnostic political disagreement into an advertisement domain of consensual soft power, where critical gestures are quickly appropriated and neutralized. In this view, biennials are now instrumentalized as advertisement tools. There are, of course, differences. Whereas the Bangkok Biennial aims to approach the world from a framework of agnostic political disagreement, the Bangkok Art Biennale actively tries to suppress the political through consensual soft power. And that strategy works better when hidden from view. Providing one blatant illustration of the processes at work, in another confirmation that the Bangkok Art Biennale is all about appearances, Marina Abramović stated in an interview that while many biennials “are very political and deal with power and the art market,” the Bangkok Art Biennale “is for art itself.” Her insistence on discussing art in isolation is itself a political act, helping to obscure hegemonic effects—or the complicity of curators and artists. As we have shown, all biennials are thoroughly political, and it is crucial that they are discussed as such. We feel that a framework that understands hegemony as a situated temporary “settlement” can help in such a discussion.
The authors thank some forty interviewees involved with the organization of the three biennials discussed here for generously sharing their time and knowledge.
Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink spend their time between Hong Kong and Bangkok. Lara is an independent art historian, involved in art research, curation, and production. Bart is associate professor of urban studies and urban policy at City University in Hong Kong. Together, they have a research-based practice, focusing on issues relating to the social role of art and independent initiatives in East and Southeast Asia. For the 2018 Bangkok Biennial, they created Coming soon • เร็ว ๆ นี้ , and a related research project that informs this contribution.
 Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 5 (1986): 15.
 Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink, “Interview with Mit Jai Inn,” 2018, https://www.comingsoonbkk.com/mit-jai-inn.
 Other inaugural perennial events in the same year included Khonkaen Manifesto and Ghost. For a discussion of these events, see Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink, What Should Biennials Do? Zine for the Bangkok Art Book Fair (Bangkok: Poop Press, 2019), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342199721_What_should_biennials_do; and art4d’s special issue “Biennale,” 265 (Dec. 2018-Jan. 2019).
 Oliver Marchart, “Hegemonic Shifts and the Politics of Biennalization,” (2008) in The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hall and Solveig Øvstebo (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010), 466-90; Panos Kompatsiaris, “Curating Resistances: Ambivalences and Potentials of Contemporary Art Biennials,” Communication, Culture & Critique 7 (2014): 76-91; Michel Oren, “Biennials that Promote an ‘Emancipatory Politics,’” World Art 4, no. 2 (2014): 277-305.
 Carlos Basualdo, “The Unstable Institution,” (2003) in Curating Subjects, ed. Paul O’Neill (Amsterdam: Open Editions, 2007, 2011 Edition), 39-52.
 See, for instance, Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hall, and Solveig Øvstebo, “Biennialogy,” in The Biennial Reader, 20 and 23; Hanru Hou, “Reinventing the Social,” The Exhibitionist 6 (2012): 45; Charles Green and Anthony Gardner, Biennials, Triennials, and documenta: The Exhibitions that Created Contemporary Art (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 3.
 See, for instance, Kompatsiaris, “Curating Resistances”; Oren, “Biennials that Promote.”
 See Van Meeteren and Wissink, What Should Biennials Do?
 Chantal Mouffe, “Agnostic Politics and Artistic Practices,” in Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London & New York: Verso, 2013), 85-105.
 Mouffe, “Agnostic Politics.” On the ‘post-political’, see, for instance, Japhy Wilson and Erik Swyngedouw, “Seeds of Dystopia: Post-Politics and the Return of the Political,” in: Spaces of Depoliticisation, Spectres of Radical Politics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 1-22.
 The tensions between the role of biennials in relation to cultural and economic dominance is illustrated by Oliver Marchart’s discussion of biennials in the Gulf region, in which he argues that, “It becomes increasingly difficult to seriously refer to some of the more recently founded biennials as Biennials of Resistance, even if they do favour local and national artistic production over that of the West. […] Authoritarian regimes [in the Gulf States] utilize the biennial format to glamourize their image and prepare the tourism industry for the post-oil era.” Apparently, biennials can be subversive and complicit at the same time. Marchart, “The Globalization of Art,” 266-267. For further discussion about this relationship between social and economic justice, see, for instance, Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age,” New Left Review 1/212 (1995): 68-93.
 For an obvious exception, see Marchart, “Hegemonic Shifts.” However, while Oliver Marchart centers his discussion on Gramsci’s interpretation of hegemony, he does not follow the situated understanding of hegemony suggested in this paper.
 Stuart, “Gramsci’s Relevance,” 16.
 Nancy Fraser, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born (London: Verso, 2019), 9-10.
 Stuart, “Gramsci’s Relevance,” 16-17.
 Ibid., 15.
 Fraser, The Old is Dying, 9-10.
 For a comparable argument for the need to see the resistance potential of a biennials as an empirical question related to a specific biennial in a specific historical and temporal context, see Kompatsiaris, “Curating Resistances.”
 On the potential of art in general and biennials in particular to inform resistance, see Mouffe, “Agnostic Politics”; Kompatsiaris, “Curating Resistances”; Marchart, “The Globalization of Art”; Oren, “Biennials that Promote.”
 For more detail, see, for instance, Duncan McCargo, “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand,” The Pacific Review 18, no. 4 (2005): 499-519; Michael Connors, “Ministering Culture: Hegemony and the Politics of Culture and Identity in Thailand,” Critical Asian Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 523-551; Federico Ferrara, The Political Development of Modern Thailand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Thongchai Winichakul, “The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy: Two Elephants in the Room of Thai Politics and the State of Denial,” in ‘Good Coup’ Gone Bad: Thailand’s Political Developments since Thaksin’s Downfall, ed. Pavin Chachavalpongpun (Singapore: ISEAS, 2014), 79-108.
 In his overview of the development of Thai cultural policy and its relationship to hegemony over time, Michael Connors presents “Thai-ness” as the central ideological resource of the ruling elite. See Connors, “Ministering Culture.”
 ‘Siwilai’ is the Thai translation for civilized. See Thongchai Winichakul, “The Quest for ‘Siwilai’: A Geographical Discourse of Civilizational Thinking in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Siam,” The Journal of Asian Studies 59, no. 3 (2000): 528-549.
 Research shows relatively high levels of racial prejudice by Thais. See, for instance, John Draper, Teresa Sobieszczyk, Charles David Crumpton, H. L. Lefferts, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “Racial ‘Othering’ in Thailand: Quantitative Evidence, Causes, and Consequences,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 25, no. 3 (2019): 251-272.
 Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017, 3rd edition), 282-284.
 Ibid., 282-284.
 Duncan McCargo, “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand,” The Pacific Review 18, no. 4 (2005): 499-519; Thongchai Winichakul, “The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy.”
 Akira Suehiro, “Capitalist Development in Postwar Thailand: Commercial Bankers, Industrial Elite, and Agribusiness Groups,” in Southeast Asian Capitalists, ed. Ruth McVey (Ithaca NY: SEAP, 1992), 35-64; Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Thailand’s Boom and Bust (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1998).
 Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, eds., Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power (Singapore: NUS Press, 2016).
 Thongchai, “The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy”; Duncan McCargo and Ukrist Pathmanand, “Thaksin’s New Political Economy Networks,” The Thaksinization of Thailand (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2005), 209-247.
 Ferrara, Political Development; Pasuk and Baker, History of Thailand, 282-284.
 Lotte Isager and Soren Ivarsson, eds., Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2010); Thongchai, “The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy.”
 Chai-Anan Samutwanit, The Thai Young Turks (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982).
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 263.
 For an extensive discussion of the relationship between art and hegemony in Thailand, see David Teh, Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017); David Teh, “Artist-to-Artist: Chiang Mai Social Installation in Historical Perspective,” in Artist-to Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai, eds. David Teh and David Morris (London: Afterall Books, 2018), 12-47.
 David Teh, Thai Art, 25.
 Silpa Bhirasri, quoted in Piriya Krairiksh, “Thai Reflections on American Experiences,” in Suddenly Turning Visible: Art and Architecture in Southeast Asia (1969-1989), eds. Seng Yu Jin and Shabbir Hussain Mustafa (Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, 2019), 266.
 Teh, “Artist-to-Artist,” 16.
 Ibid., 18.
 Teh, Thai Art, 35.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ronald Kolb and Shwetal Patel, “Draft: Global Biennial Survey 2018,” OnCurating 39 (June 2018).
 Notable earlier biennials included the Chiang Mai Social Installation and Womanifesto. On the Chiang Mai Social Installation, organised four times in the 1990s, see David Teh and David Morris, eds., Artist to Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai 1992-1998. On Womanifesto, organised biannually from 1997 until 2003, see Varsha Nair, “Womanifesto: A Biennial Art Exchange in Thailand,” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia 3, no. 1 (2019): 147-171.
 See ThaiBev, “2018 Sustainability Report: Preserving and Promoting Arts & Culture,” http://sustainability.thaibev.com/2018/en/arts_and_culture.php.
 See, for instance, Nicharee Pathitit, “Behind the Biennales,” Thailand Tatler, July 9, 2018, https://www.thailandtatler.com/life/creating-artistic-bliss; Siriya Suriyanon, “What’s holding back Bangkok’s Art Scene?,” BK Magazine, September 7, 2017, https://bk.asia-city.com/city-living/news/censorship-bangkok-art-scene.
 Phatarawadee Phataranawik, “Art with A-Peel,” ACE, Lifestyle Insert of The Nation, April 27, 2009, 9-11, https://issuu.com/charoen_naeem/docs/name728924.
 See, for instance, the panel discussion “Curating in Context: Making Exhibitions Work” at Art Basel Hong Kong, March 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28v-yYQquT0.
 See Grace Ignacia, “Dr. Apinan Poshyananda: ‘We want the works to relate to and reflect upon the spirit of the spaces’,” The Artling, September 26, 2018, https://theartling.com/en/artzine/dr-apinan-poshyananda-we-want-the-works-to-relate-to-and-reflect-upon-the-spirit-of-the-spaces/.
 For an analysis of the use of art for the enrichment of real estate in Hong Kong, see Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink, “Public Art in the Private City: Control, Complicity and Criticality in Hong Kong,” Open Philosophy 2 (2019): 280-298, https://doi.org/10.1515/opphil-2019-0020.
 Siriya, “What’s holding back.”
 Apinan Poshyananda, “Creative Chaos: Art & Design for Chaotic Future,” Keynote address at Innovative City Forum 2014, Tokyo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQPxPBZPO6k.
 For an understanding of the importance of patronage in the Thai art system, see, for instance, Teh, Thai Art, 166.
 Dave Beech, “Notes Towards the Critical Biennale,” Art & the Public Space 5, no. 2 (2016): 167-184.
 Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Risk-taking Artists Defy Thai Taboos in Bangkok Art Biennale,” The Guardian, October 21, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/21/risk-taking-artists-defy-thai-taboos-bangkok-art-biennale.
 Marianna Cerini, “Venice of the East? Bangkok’s Inaugural Biennale Showcases Challenging Thai Art,” CNN, October 25, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/bangkok-art-biennale-2018/index.html; David Belcher, “Bangkok’s First Biennale: Politics, Temples and Sex,” The New York Times, January 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/opinion/bangkok-biennale.html.
 For the crowing criticism of inadequate bureaucracy in Thailand, see for instance Ariane Sutthavong, “A Government Hurling Pebbles at the Sky,” Bangkok Post, March 11, 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1876044/a-govt-hurling-pebbles-at-the-sky.
 Teh, “Artist-to-Artist,” 19.
 For a discussion of the censorship of Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s work at the Thailand Biennale, see for instance Kong Rithdee, “A Note on Thailand Biennale,” January 2, 2019, https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/arts-and-entertainment/1603974/a-note-on-thailand-biennale.
 Bangkok Biennial, Guide to Pavilions: 01-07-30.09.18, available at https://www.bangkokbiennial.com/2018-edition.
 Gregory Galligan, “Curating the Contemporary in Decolonial Spaces: Observations from Thailand on Curatorial Practice in Southeast Asia,” in A Companion to Curation, eds. Brad Buckley and John Conomos (Hoboken, NJ: John Willey & Sons, 2020), 220.
 Teh, “Artist-to-Artist,” 41.
 Ibid., 47.
 Beech, “Notes Towards the Critical Biennale.”
 This theme ties in with a wider debate within radical political theory on the best response to the hegemony of neoliberalism. For an introduction to this debate, see, for instance, Chantal Mouffe, “Radical Politics Today,” in Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London & New York: Verso, 2013), 65-84.
 The problematic nature of a more generic treatment of hegemony—for instance in the postcolonial criticism of Western hegemony—in specific political settings became painfully clear when Elmgreen & Dragset appropriated such critique—“Thai culture is a bit more soft-spoken than some other cultures”—when downplaying criticism from “people from outside” that there is too much self-censorship in the Thai art scene. As we have seen, the curatorial strategy of the Bangkok Art Biennale—in which Elmgreen & Dragset participated—leans heavily on mechanisms of control and self-censorship. Furthermore, as we have also seen, the BAB is complicit to a highly problematic economic and social hegemony against which many Thai have been protesting for a long time. Indirectly, Elmgreen & Dragset therefore use postcolonial critique to neutralize criticism on the political role of the BAB. Hiding their own complicity to this dominance to boot, their response is deserving of a Thunbergian “How dare you!”. A situated understanding of hegemony helps to spot such facile forms of appropriation and neutralization. See Mary Losmithgul, “Thoughts from Elmgreen and Dragset that Make You Think Twice about Art and Bangkok,” Prestige, November 21, 2018, https://www.prestigeonline.com/th/pursuits/thoughts-elmgreen-dragset-make-think-twice-art-bangkok/.
 Mouffe, “Agnostic Politics.”
 Khetsirin Pholdhampalit, “The Stillness of Being,” The Nation, October 23, 2018, https://www.nationthailand.com/lifestyle/30357025.
 Cf. Marchart, “Hegemonic Shifts,” 467.