Perspectives: An intro to underground art in Bangkok
CHINATOWN’S SHOP HOUSES, WHERE THE THAI CAPITAL HIDES INSPIRATION.
Beyond all the flashy skyscrapers and lofty new condos, Bangkok is subtly holding down Asia’s most exciting contemporary arts scene. In the last four years, a wealth of galleries, studios and design rooms have popped up in the back alleys of Chinatown. Aging shop houses - an architectural form prevalent in Asia, featuring a shop on the ground floor and two storeys of housing above - haphazardly rejuvenated with modern art, are drawing crowds for all-nighters with DJ beats, cheap booze and the chance to revolve in the sphere of fascinating creators.
We got the lowdown from Lee Anantawat, the co-founder of Speedy Grandma, one of the original galleries to start the movement. A teacher at Bangkok’s School of Architecture and Design, and the owner of Poop Press, a Chinatown-based publisher of young artists and designers, Lee explains how Thailand’s laidback vibe gives artists capacity to thrive.
How has Bangkok’s underground arts scene grown so much, so quickly?
People just started to think, “I could have my own space.” It’s valuable to just walk around [Chinatown] and look for rental signs. You can negotiate with owners and there’s not like a council or anything that regulates the rent. For example, say you want to set up just a graphic studio. You can affordably rent a building with a friend. The laws and regulations here are super easy. There are still so many opportunities to do things here without going through all the paperwork. That’s how all these spaces can exist how they are – concerts, events, cool lighting, you name it.
Why Chinatown specifically?
The area is only starting to be gentrified now. It has more of the feeling of a neighborhood, not all business like downtown, but really local people living here selling food on the street or who’ve had the same shop around here for 20 years.
How do artists make ends meet?
There are some artists here that are very established, quite serious and have been around the world. But I think the younger generation is really active about starting their own things, not necessarily feeling like they have to be in the same scene as the older generation. A good example is Tae Pichienrangsan. He sells a lot of his work - he can go mainstream for sure. There’s a certain aesthetic that everyone likes about it.
Well, we originally wanted to have Speedy Grandma as a bar, but I didn’t want to go to school teaching with a hangover all the time. That’s why we only open for events, but the bar is our main source of income. We pay the rent from selling beer. Only some exhibitions sell artwork and then we would get a commission, but that is quite rare. That usually only happens at exhibitions for screen printing, painting or photography.
Why should a visitor to Bangkok check out Speedy Grandma?
We don’t have much of that community space for sharing your ideas, so Speedy Grandma is kind of that. When you enter, you will see a big group of people who already know each other, but most of the time we just start gathering more and more people there. So if you’re new, just talk to us, we talk to everyone. There’s always plenty of beer. It’s quite a nice place to hang out and make friends and start some new projects together.