Skip to main content Start of main content

Introduction: Artist-to-Artist

Montien Boonma, Body Temple, Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, 1996

The urge to compose histories of ‘Asian contemporary art’ has recently reached an intensity that those committed to the mission could scarcely have imagined when they began it. The demand issues from the same powers who demand it elsewhere – the market, collecting institutions (state and private) and, to a lesser extent, academia – yet the conditions shaping such initiatives in Asia differ from those where art’s twentieth-century ‘master’ discourses were formulated. Among these differences we should note, first, the paucity and irregularity of literature and archival resources on the modern art from which, and in tension with which, that contemporary art emerged. Second, the breakneck pace of institutional and infrastructural development in certain parts of Asia has both stimulated and scrambled a relatively immature research workforce. And third, the proper means of writing such histories is nowadays a matter of contention, with not just scholarly accounts but also oral histories, archival exhibitions and art works being considered seriously as historiographical instruments. In most of Asia, art history is not a well-entrenched academic discipline, however the lack of settled methods and vocabularies may be as much a blessing as a curse.

The present volume undoubtedly answers this rising demand, yet it is atypical inasmuch as it carries a certain circumspection regarding the disciplinary apparatus of art history now seeking its global footings and bearings. Our central object, a series of artist-initiated festivals held in northern Thailand, is surely a strange attractor for the new imperatives to historicise, and epitomises some regional specificities – an emphasis on ephemerality and sociality being perhaps the most notable of these qualities from an outsider’s perspective. These festivals certainly lend themselves to an art history that would de-privilege the work of art in favour of the moment it encounters a public. Their most significant exchanges were by all accounts the moments of communion between artists, encounters that would not conventionally be regarded as ‘exhibition’.

Siting the Chiang Mai festivals at a moment of emergent contemporaneity in Southeast Asia, David Teh’s central essay addresses the local, regional and transnational conditions that gave rise to them, approaching their challenges to established modes of historiography as a set of speculative coordinates for future research – an approach shared by this volume as a whole. 01As noted in the essay’s epilogue, the existing historicisation of Chiang Mai Social Installation has been largely dialogic, passed on piecemeal through art-scene word of mouth. As with any storytelling worthy of the name, these tales are embellished and filtered according to their relevance to the particular moment of telling. When considering the question of how to produce a publication about CMSI, it seemed important to us to emphasise the oral dimension of historicisation, in keeping with the festivals’ spirit of performativity, ephemerality and interpersonal connection. At the same time, this was to no small extent a pragmatic decision – in the absence of extensive written discourse on the festivals, there simply was little else to go on. With the invaluable research assistance of Manuporn Luengaram, innumerable conversations with the festivals’ instigators, participants and other interested parties shaped the resulting ‘oral history’ here, a multivocal account of the festivals following the themes and threads that emerged in the telling. 02 This verbal archive runs in parallel to several others, from scattered moments captured on VHS camcorders during various festivals, to the extensive collection of documentation and ephemera kept by organiser Uthit Atimana, to personal photographs shared by participants. 03

Rosalind C. Morris’s personal account of Chiang Mai in the 1990s offers a perspective deeply informed about the cultural and political context of the festivals, albeit from the relative distance of a non-participant. 04 Morris was at the time conducting her own investigations into the paradox of a ‘new city’ that was ‘saturated with the ethos of the market’, in which ‘signs of antiquity [were] constantly being produced anew and where the monumental aspirations of newly empowered classes produce[d] ruins of glass and cement much more quickly than did the builders of stone and brick fortresses of earlier eras’. 05 Suffused with signs of the premodern kingdom of Lanna, which had Chiang Mai at its centre, the now provincial city manifests a complex tension in the modernity of the comparatively young Thai nation. Morris notes the ‘odd continuity in the discontinuity of Chiang Mai’s history, in the impossible tradition of disintegration and disruption that afflicted the city so regularly and rendered it the ruinous memory of another era’s aspiration to futurity’. 06

If an emphasis on region offers a strategic middle way between the traps of a regressive nationalism and the countervailing tendencies of a one-size-fits-all globalism, it is not without its difficulties – not least, in the case of ‘Southeast Asia’, the region’s formative history in Cold War geo-politics and US ‘area studies’ departments. Morris’s keen analyses qualify Chiang Mai as a peri-urban geography heterogenous and complex enough to demand focussed study in itself, and suggest a framework of enquiry at least as illuminating as ‘nation’ or ‘region’. Rather than an exercise in fixing new borders, this approach calls for a more speculative kind of history, grounded in instability and discontinuity. And, in what is perhaps another of the inexplicit theses of this volume, ‘that profoundly ambiguous entity, the regional center’, inspires a local or translocal rejoinder to the question of regionality. 07

In search of an alternative narrative of the festivals, May Adadol Ingawanij turns to the practice of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, whose involvement with and reflections upon CMSI offer ways of sidestepping a melancholic-nostalgic reminiscence bound up with the social-political anomie in Thailand since the 1990s. 08 Could the festivals’ ethical potential be recaptured, and reactivated at another juncture? Any duly sceptical take on the progressivist claims of CMSI must take account of the gendered nature of its organisation – as a ‘boys’ club’, no less.09 Araya’s influence and her reserve, also in evidence in the oral history, bear witness to important counter-narratives immanent to the festivals and their history. Seen alongside other artist-led initiatives such as Womanifesto 10 and the vital organisational and curatorial work done by a younger, predominantly female post-CMSI generation in Thailand, such practices moot the ‘condition of possibility for [female] artistic autonomy: a … resistant, evasive, perhaps even anarchistic potential’ which May associates with ‘a “matriarchal” practice yet to be named’.

Finally, from a region-wide standpoint, Patrick D. Flores offers a genealogy of the ‘installative’ as a specifically Southeast Asian mode of practice, seen in ‘the desire of the artist to convene an art world, or a relational or transpersonal world of art, by creating conditions for people to assemble along the various axes of dissent, development, nationalism and solidarity’. 11Forerunners to the confluence of social and installative tendencies at CMSI are detectable in contemporary art practices emerging in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore from at least the 1970s; and in artist-curator Raymundo Albano’s estimation, Flores notes, installation is akin to indigenous rituals of the Philippines and may be seen as ‘natural-born’. Albano’s nativist spin on installation foreshadows what may be a far more radical proposition: that certain localised, always-already-present and lifegiving practices – ‘installative’ practices – do not merely expand the framework of ‘exhibition’ but decentre and recentre it. What is the encounter that really matters when artists share their work? Is it not the social more than any material exchange? Or as Albano puts it: ‘Maybe the most fitting art form is fiesta.’ 12

A note from the Series Editors: A refrain of this book is process – and this volume should be seen in light of a larger project of research, collectively undertaken. In this regard, the fact that this volume is the first in an ongoing research collaboration with Asia Art Archive, who join our existing partners Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, is also a matter for celebration.


  • See David Teh, ‘Artist-to-Artist: Chiang Mai Social Installation in Historical Perspective’, in this volume, pp.12–47.
  • See ‘Oral Histories of Chiang Mai Social Installation’, in this volume, pp.50–85.
  • See ibid. and pp.86–243.
  • See Rosalind C. Morris, ‘Chiang Mai: Looking Back at the Nineties’, in this volume, pp.244–51.
  • See R. C. Morris, In the Place of Origins: Modernity and Its Mediums in Northern Thailand, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000, in particular its second chapter, ‘Ruin, or, What the New City Remembers’, pp.55–79.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • See May Adadol Ingawanij, ‘Art’s Potentiality Revisited: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Late Style and Chiang Mai Social Installation’, in this volume, pp.252–63.
  • Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, quoted in ibid., p.252.
  • See pp.31 and 82–83.
  • See Patrick D. Flores, ‘A Changing World: Phases of the Installative in Southeast Asia’, in this volume, pp.264–78.
  • Raymundo Albano, ‘Installations: A Case for Hangings’, Philippine Art Supplement, vol.2, no.1, January–February 1981, p.3.