When Chiang Mai’s Maiiam, a private museum of contemporary art, opened with a show by Thai artist-filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul back in July of last year, it stole the headlines. And rightfully so. For a brand new, family-run space to stage the first ever retrospective of the Chiang Mai-based auteur’s installations and short films was quite a coup. But there was a downside (albeit only a small one) to all this: Maiiam’s permanent collection spanning from the early 1990s to the present day was overshadowed—quickly glossed over by many writers and visitors.
Now, with the dust having settled and the museum’s programming finding its rhythm, is a good time to survey this converted warehouse properly—including the Pipitmaya Collection, which is an amalgamation of the collections of founders Jean-Michel Beurdeley, the late Patsri Bunnag and their son Eric Booth. Here, seven reasons why Maiiam—all of it—is worth savouring.
1. You can “Feel The 90s”
If you were to visit Bangkok’s National Gallery—currently the closest thing to a comprehensive state-owned collection—you’d think the history of Thai art never evolved past sinuous modernist sculptures and neo-traditional paintings and ended abruptly sometime in the late 1980s. Maiiam’s ‘Feeling the 90s’, an exhibition of about 60 works drawn from the Pipitmaya Collection, reminds us—succinctly yet persuasively—that it doesn’t. Most of the groundbreaking artists who started using unusual materials and adopting new approaches to art making during the boom-bust 1990s, and so helped set the course for today’s crop of avant garde contemporary artists, are represented.
2. Boonma is in the building...
For example: on display are several installations and sketches by Montien Boonma, an enigmatic figurehead of Thai contemporary art who passed away suddenly in 2000, leaving behind a singular body of work that blends organic and industrial materials to explore matters of the human spirit. Among them are quietly powerful works such as Perfume Painting, a circular wood panel with a surface smothered in herb essence and an aromatic sniff-hole. “All these Montien works were made in Chiang Mai,” says Booth. “First of all, his work is very beautiful but historically it’s important too, because people using these kind of natural and recycled materials was definitely a new movement in the Thai art world. Now this is maybe not as exciting but in those days it was a bit antiestablishment.”
3. And so are many firebrands
An art museum full of diversions from our post-truth, Trump-ified world this is not (naming no names, we already have one of those in Bangkok). Subversive currents tethered to Thai and wider social histories and realities ebb and flow through the Pipitmaya Collection. High-water marks include one of art-activist Thasnai Sethaseree’s abstract paintings, which prettify images of past political strife, and three images from Cambodian performance and installation artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s acclaimed Buddhist Bug series, in which a saffron-coloured creature impassively winds its way around urban locales in Phnom Penh. “When I came back to Thailand in the 90s what interested me the most were the works that have a strong socio-political message. I was excited by that—still am actually,” says Booth.
4. Women artists are well represented
Hopefully Maiiam will size up the contribution of the region’s female artists properly sometime in the not-too-distant future, but for now, the fairer sex put in a strong showing in the permanent collection. Perhaps the most important work from an art-historical perspective is an installation by the reclusive Chiang Mai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, but there are also memorable pieces by allegorical pop painter Yuree Kensaku and Ampannee Satoh, whose photographs of burqa-clad women subtly broach Muslim issues in Thailand’s Deep South.
5. The art history lesson is fun
Dominating the centre of the room is a huge painting by Chiang Mai-based Indian-Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul. Commissioned by the Bunnag-Beurdeley family, SUPER(M)ART is a hand-painted tableau-cum-panoramic survey of the Thai art scene featuring just about every artist, gallerist, writer, curator, patron and bureaucrat to have made a lasting impact on it. But this reimagining of Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese’s The Marriage at Cana is not as laudatory as that description implies. All of the controversies and cliques of the scene are also rendered in his production team’s intensely-colourful and sardonic style, while its vast size and Biblical pomp can be seen as an ironic commentary on the market growing pains of the Thai art scene, which still underperforms compared to the Philippines and Indonesia.
6. The current exhibition is unforgettable
Art as spiritual quest is nothing new, but the work of Chiang Mai-based artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert—the subject of Maiiam’s second retrospective, on until February 6—imbues the age-old search for existential meaning and absolute truth with a visual freshness. Over 36 years of it is on display, from his early experiments with elegiac photography through to mid-career forays into zen ink and mixed-media painting, pottery, wax-sculpture, video and performance. It’s an intense show, to put it mildly, one rooted in the ascetic tenets of Zen Buddhist practice, but also a beautifully conceived one that augurs well for Maiiam’s future programming, despite it having no permanent in-house curator.
7. They’re just getting started
According to Booth, we can expect more of these sorts of expansive career surveys of Thai artists going forward, but also group shows and projects involving international artists—anything that passes the Bunnag-Beurdeley family’s quality control and they think will help develop the Thai art scene. “If Maiiam serves as a catalyst for other private museums and the government to open their own contemporary art museum, I’ll be very happy,” he adds.