How to Start a Biennial | Bangkok

by Matthew O'Shannessy

Bangkok artist and gallerist Unchalee Anantawat talks about the struggles of running a independent gallery, founding a Biennial with no money, and her optimism about the future of art in Thailand. 

Unchalee “Lee” Anantawat is running late for our call. “Let me check out this political demonstration first haha,” comes the response to my message. Later, on a video chat from her studio in Bangkok’s Chinatown district, she debriefs on the protest, which was provoked by controversy over Thailand’s recent election. 

She explains that the hastily-organized gathering was in support of political newcomer Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose center-left Future Forward party is challenging Thailand’s military junta. Facing sedition charges, Juangroongruangkit was forced to report to a local police station. When protestors were alerted, they turned up to show solidarity with the 40-year-old billionaire-cum-politician, also known as “Daddy”.

Despite the apparent turmoil, Lee seems upbeat about the future of the art scene in Bangkok, and Thai politics in general. “This political party is a new thing, so the younger generation support it more. I think it will get better.”

In contrast to the recent history of authoritarian rule in Thailand, independent galleries in Bangkok’s art scene such as About Studio / About Cafeand Tentacles have fostered a creative community since at least the 1990s. It’s a story in which Lee plays an integral part with her own gallery, Speedy Grandma, her publishing imprint POOP Press, and more recently as an organizer of the Bangkok Biennial

Despite the art scene’s resilience, it has not been immune to the ebbs and flows of Thai politics. “I think in the early 2000s with music, movies, and zines, the scene was growing bigger and bigger around that time,” says Lee. “Then I left to go to Melbourne in 2006, so I didn’t know what was happening. And when I came back in 2010 it was almost gone, the independent scene.”   

“At first I thought it was the internet that killed it...but my friend mentioned that he thought the political situation was a big part of it in 2006, when all this turmoil started.”

In Melbourne, Lee studied illustration and animation, and published an edition of her drawings, Observable Universe, on Melbourne-based art press Erm Books.

After experimenting with installation and painting, her interests shifted away from illustration, and feeling hemmed in by her own success as an illustrator, she decided to take a break from making art after moving back to Bangkok in 2010. 

While searching for a space for her graphic design studio, Lee came across a three story building in Bangkok’s Chinatown district. She took over the space with a friend, a French ex-pat and art collector Thomas Menard who was looking for an apartment in Bangkok. 

The duo soon realized the empty ground floor of the new building would be the perfect place to open a gallery. “I started to realize that there were not many independent spaces at all in Bangkok. It was more like white cube galleries, [places where] people are very nervous to go in and see the show,” says Lee. 

Initially conceived as a low-key space where people could “feel at ease when they come to see the show and talk, get drunk, and do crazy shit,” Lee quickly realized that the gallery could provide a different path for young artists looking to establish themselves than the traditional gallery system. 

“[If] you are an art student and then you’ve graduated, is there only one way to be successful?” asks Lee. “Like okay, you have to show at a certain gallery and then go overseas… Can’t we provide another way to do it? So many artists had their first solo show at Speedy Grandma.” 

Speedy Grandma’s opening night in 2012 established the gallery’s anything-goes ethos with a group show including 24 artists, many of whom had never made an artwork in their adult lives. “At the beginning the feel was very underground and DIY. We never had a lot of budget so we built our own bar. It was very run down.”

By 2015 Speedy Grandma was well established in the Bangkok art scene, with artist Pisitakun Kuantalaeng and critic/curator Judha Su joining the team. The gallery’s calendar expanded to include workshops, weekly artist’s talks, film screenings, and music. 

The second floor design studio was converted into another gallery space, nicknamed “Speedy Grandchild” which showcased the work of students and emerging artists while the downstairs space shifted to focus on older, more established artists. 

Over its seven-year lifespan, Speedy Grandma hosted an impressive cast of local and international artists, illustrators, and designers, including Orawan ArunrakTae ParvitHiraparr WilsonBraulio AmadoLe RacletAngkrit AjchariyasophonScot Cotterell, and Nathan Beard.

After disagreements with her collaborators in 2016, Lee was once again left to her own devices with Speedy Grandma. While she considered her options, a trip to the Philippine Biennale inspired the possibility of creating Thailand’s first contemporary art biennale with ex-pat artists Liam Morgan and Jeff Gompertz. 

Unbeknownst to the trio, two other biennales, Bangkok Art Biennale and Thailand Biennale, were also planning to launch in 2018. Featuring big name curators, artists like Marina Abramovic and Yayo Kasuma, and corporate sponsors like Chang beer, these two biennales outgunned the Bangkok Biennial, which had no funding and zero institutional support. 

When the Biennial was finally announced, many people thought it was a joke. “We announced after the Bangkok Art Biennale. When they announced, we were like, ‘Oh shit, we must do this,’ so we announced one week later. Initially people thought we were doing a parody of the other Biennale!”

The trio initially made the decision to remain anonymous in the hopes that attendees and the media would focus on the art. 

Like Speedy Grandma, Bangkok Biennial opted to eschew the formal structures of the art world, and instead opted for a more open, community-based model. “No support from the government, no central budget, no curator, no theme, everything is autonomous,” says Lee. There were no selection criteria. Anyone who applied could be a part of the Biennial. “No application process, it’s more like a registration form. So once you register your name and your pavillion you get the password to log in to your [web page] and then you just upload the information.”

Lee negotiated with a local printer to get free printing for a guidebook and managed to sell two wind tube sculptures emblazoned with “Bangkok Biennal” to a collector in Chiang Mai to raise money for an app. 

The Biennial included over 200 artists including pioneering Thai painter Mit Jai Inn, Japanese illustrator Hideyuki Katsumata, Charoen Contemporaries, Darkle, and Kay Walkowiak. Despite (or maybe because of) it’s anarchic nature, the Biennial was a huge success, with another planned for 2020. In the meantime, Lee isn’t slowing down. She’s preparing for the upcoming Bangkok Art Book Fairwhere she’ll run self-publishing workshops and showcase her publishing imprint POOP Press, and is also planning to hand over management of Speedy Grandma to a younger generation of artists so she can spend more time on her own practice. 

“I was super busy setting up the space and helping other people run events but I was still doing a little bit of my own drawing as well. Later I started to lean more towards a childlike aesthetic, like children’s drawings which I feel give me more freedom,” says Lee. 

As for Bangkok, Lee has noticed more and more independent spaces popping up. “I think at the beginning Speedy Grandma was the first independent run space in Chinatown. Now, there are more new spaces all around Bangkok. I think it’s good but the most difficult part is to keep it open and keep sustaining it. I think most of the spaces pop up and then they stay only one or two years.”

“Thais have always had a DIY attitude,” she says. “We never have support, so if you want to do things, you have to find a way to do things by yourself.”

Photos courtesy of Bangkok Biennial

Speedy Grandma is located at 672/52 Charoen Krung Rd, Khwaeng Bang Rak, Khet Bang Rak, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10500, Thailand. For more information on the 2020 Bangkok Biennial, visit the website.