sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 5

Brian Curtin: Essential Desires

Irish art historian and curator Brian Curtin announces his oeuvre, Essential Desires, both as a work of art criticism and as a resource to help fill an archival lacuna since the publication of the last major survey of Thai art, Modern Art in Thailand, by Apinan Poshyananda, in 1992. [1] Written between 2014 and 2019, Essential Desires reflects on art produced in Thailand since the 1990s, when contemporary art started to be perceived as instrumental for the nation while judged as innocent on the world stage (9). Throughout the book, Curtin responds to this opposing binary, between nationalism and internationalism and an array of (mis)interpretations that derive from the "weaving [of] references to local cultures through an 'international' idiom" (15). Instead of centering his regard on Thai ideals of nationalism - which commonly offer Thai exceptionalism (within Southeast Asia) as having escaped colonialism and were central to David Teh's 2017 monograph [2] - Curtin affirms Thailand's cosmopolitan emergence and attributes it to being "created through external pressures but essentially shaped from within" (11). Curtin's authorial tone permeates the entire narrative while negotiating the "fixity" and "unpredictability" of internal and external forces (20). The result is an important scholarly contribution that contextualizes recent events in contemporary Thai art and stands out as a progressive "conflation of art and political history" (18).

The book is organized in a chronological narrative over three decades: the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s. This sequence allows the careful weaving of socio-political and art events, illustrated through a careful curation of key artworks made by three generations of artists. Also, this order contextually informs the reader of recent developments within the Thai art scene - the rise of Thai officialdom's agenda, the development of academic institutions, and the emergence of alternative spaces - as well as the people behind them. Artworks are framed within major (artistic) local and global trends and presented in high quality images.

The author starts by situating the scope of his research in the "ongoing era or period of 'contemporary art'" in Thailand since the 1990s (14). Informing us that "'Thai cultural mandates' decreed between 1939 and 1942" still bear witness today (46), Curtin discusses paradigm shifts from national to international practice and attention, from a slightly amateurish art scene towards the professionalization of its agents, from regional to global markets. He nevertheless observes audiences' ongoing distance from all these matters (115).

Chapter 1, "Reimagining Communities: the 1990s" opens with a discussion of Montien Boonma (1953-2000), considered a father figure of Thai contemporary art, whose practice permeated national consciousness due to his capacity to "address social contexts in his work" (23) while establishing "Thainess as both a subject and an object [...] within the emerging history of 'global' contemporary art" (25). The chapter evolves to explain Thailand's convoluted 1990s, which were marked by a financial crisis, social unrest, and increased internationalization. During this time, Curtin observes, several Thai artists resorted to presenting Thailand as "defenceless and unaccountable" in line with official propaganda (35). Experimentation also took hold as the 1990s witnessed the establishment of new art galleries, independent spaces, and the return of art agents from abroad. This would lead to the institutionalization of avant-garde practices (48). In tandem, decentralization sprang up, with some artists fleeing to northern Thailand to create art within peripheral communities. Thai art in the 1990s was also marked by an incipient yet increased internationalization, mostly personified by the global activities of Apinan Poshyananda (b. 1956).

Borrowing the title from Apinan's seminal show of 1996 in New York, Chapter 2, "Traditions/Tensions: the new century" starts with an overview of Thai officialdom's interest in contemporary art and Thailand's representation at the Venice Biennial since 2003. Grounded on "metaphoric reflections" (72) that remained "the backdrop for state sponsorship of high-profile cultural initiatives" (69), Thai officials curated a nationalistic agenda. The chapter progresses by sequencing major artists working in the 2000s in new media who referenced ethnic, cultural, gender, and rural histories while interweaving "tradition and modernity" (79). Having reached international attention, this constellation of artists resisted "defaulting to a nationalism that nevertheless appeared to be exhausting itself owing to limited terms" and had generally "negotiated pervasively restrictive conditions" (82). As Thailand recovered from the 1997 financial crisis, a new and more professional art scene emerged, reaching its peak in 2006 when the country faced social unrest once again. By then, "national politics was also to begin to force questions of artists' relationship to the state", leading to ideological divisions (101). The decade ended with a sense of "exhaustion regarding nationalist ideologies" among artists and audiences and Curtin notes artists' incapacity to support national unity. Instead, the "split of identities within Thailand between an urban elite and rural poor" that would characterize much of the art produced in the 2010s became increasingly visible (115).

Chapter 3, "Post-national Impulses: the continuing century" introduces a new sentiment of artists as cultural citizens "with a developed awareness of themselves as part of a transnational milieu" (117) as well as "challenging of the very possibility of national allegiance" (129). Now, to countermand self-censorship, artists like Ohm Phanpiroj (b. 1970) and Jakkai Siributr (b. 1969) exhibited critical works outside Thailand (123). Meanwhile, overseas artists tackled the stereotyping of Thai people as sexual to challenge "the potential for moral judgment" (138). The chapter includes another "national meltdown": the military coup d'état in May 2014 (145), showing the context of continued instability. To Curtin, post-national impulses were given impetus by these events, most particularly the 2016 emergence of cultural activism that mirrored internal factions within the Thai artist community (149).

In the Conclusion, Curtin announces 2017 as marking a time of "unprecedented state-led censorship of visual art" (151), contrasting it with the 2018 unvulgar concentration of art biennial events (156-7). I highly recommend this book as it offers a comprehensive historical narrative of post-1990s Thai art in a global context and selectively illustrates the variety of Thailand's artistic practices while advancing the notion of artists' creative resilience amidst an unsettled local atmosphere. To Brian Curtin, this combination of external and internal factors has precipitated the course of Thailand's contemporary art scene, which is all the better described from Curtin's perspective as both an insider and a global player.


[1] Apinan Poshyananda: Modern Art in Thailand. Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Singapore 1992.

[2] David Teh: Thai Art. Currencies of the Contemporary, Cambridge 2017.

Rezension über:

Brian Curtin: Essential Desires. Contemporary Art in Thailand, London: Reaktion Books 2021, 176 S., ISBN 978-1-7891-4293-8, USD 45,00

Rezension von:
Leonor Veiga de Oliveira Matos Guilherme
University of Lisbon
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Leonor Veiga de Oliveira Matos Guilherme: Rezension von: Brian Curtin: Essential Desires. Contemporary Art in Thailand, London: Reaktion Books 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 5 [15.05.2023], URL:

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