La belle revue: It has now been two years since you moved to Bangkok to open TARS gallery. What are the specifics of it? Why did you open a gallery in this city?
Pierre Béchon: TARS Gallery opened on exactly 28 November 2015 in Bangkok in the Sukhumvit neighbourhood. TARS means The Artist Run Space. That assumes the presence of an artist, but here, it’s not the case. I simply kept the notion of flexibility that an ARS implies. It might be a laboratory, a place of production, an exhibition, residency, or social space. I arrived in Bangkok three weeks after a frustrating experience in New York. I needed the urban jungle to feel alive or just to “do stuff”. The choice of Bangkok began with an invitation. Since my arrival, I chose to stay for a while and have a real effect here, which led me to create the gallery.
LBR: You are also in charge of a program called “TAIGERS” that focuses on the emerging scene and recent art graduates in Thailand. Can you tell us what this project consists of ?
PB: TAIGERS is a programme that I created with Pokchat Worasub (a young Thai photographer) that echoes the situation of a young art graduate in France, that is, the desire to quickly “get active” to justify the value of your “education or in-depth research” into an artistic practice. This transition from student to “...” (not yet an artist, you first have to justify your ability) resembles a kind of limbo or gauntlet; people in this situation are too young for residencies and not experienced enough for the galleries. Not much happens, besides search for money to be able to produce autonomously, which complicates the possibilities of production and those of entering a professional artistic rhythm (working to live hand-to-mouth, lacking time, and exhaustion leading to an inability to produce work). TAIGERS therefore seeks to “guide” or at least “accompany” a selection of young graduates through a production, exhibition and discussion, so as to try to facilitate this transitional phase.
LBR: In your opinion, was this type of initiative necessary for the Bangkok arts scene?
PB: Yes, there is no public funding or support from schools after graduation. They can only resort to private funding. Concerning the question of “necessity”, there are obviously more important things – don’t forget that we are living under a military dictatorship. I haven’t opened up a new space, TAIGERS is a mobile platform that invites itself into other spaces or galleries to encourage cooperative networks, increase the visibility of these young artists, and above all, question the scenography depending on each new context. During the preparatory phases of the exhibition, I try to push young artists to take part in the curatorship, to stimulate their gaze regarding aspects that they may not have deemed important (the dialogue between works, for instance).
LBR: On an international level, except for a handful of artists trained abroad, Bangkok is not well known for its contemporary art scene. As a foreigner who is highly involved in this scene, what would your explanation of the question be?
PB: The impossibility of affirming itself as an international scene is caused primarily by the over exertion of political pressure that controls all the educational strata, in which art is, above all, and still prevalently, used as a weapon of cultural propaganda (portraits of the royal family, Buddhist iconography etc.). Contemporary art, as we understand it, does exist but practitioners are lacking as are investors (public or private) and other motivated stakeholders. There is little money and few sales and therefore not many opportunities to live off one’s practice. Besides which, these contemporary practices often take the form of questions (formal, intellectual, and political, for instance) and in that case, questioning a form of established cultural power equates to committing suicide, in a sense. Add to that the question of “yellows” (royalists) and “reds” (pro-Thaksin, the former prime minister) who interfere behind the scenes with the profiles of artists and the funding that they receive and we find ourselves in an extremely complex and sensitive cultural/political landscape, although it is highly stimulating. In the long run, those who really want to take their artistic practice to the international level choose exile.
LBR: The gallery recently participated in Art Stage Singapore, a contemporary art fair that brings together the countries of Southeast Asia. In France, a project-space that participates in a trade fair is generally considered suspicious (even if things are changing very quickly with fairs like Paris Internationale or the Material Art Fair). In Asia, is there an uninhibited approach to the commodification of art? Is the spirit of the project-space, as an independent entity from the art market, considered differently there?
PB: Let’s not exaggerate, a fair does represents a wide market, but there is also a relationship to production and visibility, which is huge. We were invited to participate in the Forum and not among the ranks of the traditional booths. It is a part of the fair, like at other fairs, where projects are produced especially for the occasion, like in a museum. In France, when they say “a project-space is...” that sums up quite nicely one of the reasons why I left, this potential lack of questioning or re-questioning of forms in order to generate new ones (hybrids, prototypes, protean forms) at the risk of losing an established comfort zone. On a more serious note, a contemporary art fair is a market, of course, but if we return to the points in the previous question, about financial stakeholders in Bangkok (collectors), it is important to find a form of funding that first and foremost enables you to pay the bills, then to produce exhibitions, and then complete autonomy of programming/production and, above all, political autonomy without answering to anyone (the project-space or art spaces in France, for instance, operating through public funding and other grants, often have to answer to people, I believe). In all honesty, we’re not trying to make a fortune, we are trying to be autonomous. And if participating in a fair can allow us to gain access to that autonomy, then we go for it!
LBR: Given the artworks and exhibitions shown at TARS gallery, the Franco-Thai dialogue seems important to you. Do the Thai artists strike you as being sensitive to this confrontation with more Western artistic approaches?
PB: Franco-Thai dialogue is one way of offering a window of possibilities between two countries with such different cultures, in the form of exhibitions, residencies, or quite simply, discussions. My artistic choices are often linked to a personal and non-speculative experience. “More Western” approaches, with the Millennials and even the Y-generation, hold no secrets for highly connected Thai people on Facebook and Instagram, far more than in other places in the world: they’ve already seen it all. The city of Bangkok resembles New York, London, Hong Kong, and Paris all rolled into one. It’s a cultural vacuum cleaner, despite the fact that it is sporting a military hat.
LBR: From your perspective, how would you describe the art being made in Thailand today? Where do its strengths lie? Which artists are you particularly interested in?
PB: The Thai scene is interesting to me for its relationship to production, which is continually being called into question and revised depending on political changes (I think Thailand has undergone sixteen or eighteen coup d’états since the 1930s). With the recent events, the latest coup d’état and the king’s recent death, in particular, the situation is tense and there’s something fascinating about that. From a more formal, more artistic point of view, this “cultural vacuum cleaner” aspect generates hybrid practices and artists, full of contrasts and rich in content (with meanings that are often hidden in order to avoid political problems).