This Thai City Is Southeast Asia's Next Art Hub

Christopher Wise

Chiang Mai has emerged as the Left Bank of the Himalayas, led by one of Southeast Asia’s most acclaimed artists.

On a cool spring day in Chiang Mai I was desperately trying to keep up with Rirkrit Tiravanija. We were deep inside one of Chiang Mai’s busy downtown markets, weaving at a breakneck pace through stalls piled with dried fruit, foraged mushrooms laid out on banana leaves, and shelves of brightly colored plastic toys.

Suddenly, in the middle of the market, he stopped to point at a billboard-sized, Bollywood-style poster hanging from the ceiling. “That’s a work by Navin Rawanchaikul,” he said. “He’s one of the reasons I’m in Chiang Mai.” An occasional collaborator with the peripatetic Tiravanija, Rawanchaikul frequently explores cultural identity in large-scale paintings, sculpture, and performance. We would come across his work later.

Thailand’s best-known artist, Tiravanija was born in Brazil (his father was a diplomat) and spent part of his childhood in Bangkok but now splits his time between New York City, Berlin, and Chiang Mai. The puckish 57-year-old, an inveterate scene-builder, became a major figure in the art world starting in 1990, when he confounded and charmed critics by converting a New York art gallery into a kitchen where he served rice and Thai curry for free. (Still his most famous work, the performance was later recreated at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Since then, whether replicating his East Village walkup apartment in London’s Serpentine Gallery (2005) or installing a hidden ceremonial teahouse in a bamboo maze on the roof of Singapore’s National Gallery (2018), Tiravanija’s work has tended to involve communal food-related happenings in public spaces. As The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins once wrote, Tiravanija “not only welcomes but depends on [a] collaborative embrace between artist and spectator.”

Artists in Chiang Mai, long known as Thailand’s creative capital, have been churning out exquisite statuary, textiles, and other artifacts since its days as the royal seat of the Lan Na kingdom (1259–1588). More recently the city has become a nexus of Southeast Asia’s artistic vanguard, drawing gallerists, curators, and scene-makers from abroad.

Eleven years ago Tiravanija was one. After deciding to move back to Thailand, he chose Chiang Mai, not Bangkok, in part because of what it lacked—the infrastructure surrounding an artistic scene—and what that brought out in the artists.

“There were few if any galleries or museums here,” he said. “So artists showed or made art wherever they could.”

That ethos has survived the arrival of money, names, and attention from abroad. (Last year the New York Times anointed Chiang Mai a must-see destination, citing “an avalanche of art.”) After picking up a few things at the market, we hopped into Tiravanija’s car, crossed the Ping River, and headed for Nimman, a buzzy neighborhood filled “There were few if any galleries or museums here,” Tiravanija said. “So artists showedor made art wherever they could.” with galleries, cafés, and boutique hotels. At Gallery Seescape, a community-minded creative hub, I downed a flat white and took in the indie vibe before jumping in the car again.


Rirkrit  Tiravanija; The Land, an artists’ residence. Christopher Wise

Our next destination, on the outskirts of the city, was the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, which opened two summers ago to glowing reviews. Thailand’s first exclusive showcase for contemporary art (and its only private museum), MAIIAM was founded by Jean Michel Beurdeley, a French gallerist, and his late wife, Patsri Bunnag, owners of one of Thailand’s premier art collections. Together with Bunnag’s son, Eric Bunnag Booth, they renovated a former warehouse now clad in mirror tiles and made it into the bejeweled flagship for Chiang Mai’s art scene.

Inside are two floors of minimalist exhibition spaces and more than 600 works, one of which was a triptych by Navin Rawanchaikul, the artist whose work we’d seen hanging in the market that Tiravanija had stopped to point out. Rawanchaikul represented Thailand at the 54th Venice Biennale and has had solo shows at New York’s MoMA P.S. 1 and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The massive triptych reimagines Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana using the faces of Thai artists, including Tiravanija’s.

“Here I am,” he said, pointing at the canvas. “And here is Kamin.” That would be Kamin Lertchaiprasert, a Chiang Mai artist whose work is now in the Guggenheim and has been featured at the Venice Biennale. We would shortly run into him in the museum’s café. (“This is what it’s like in Chiang Mai,” said Tiravanija after introducing us. “You bump into people, but unlike New York, there is time for each other.”)

Lertchaiprasert was on his way to the Land, a project he and Tiravanija founded outside the city, and we followed him. The Land, which appears to be an abandoned utopian village reframed as an outdoor art project, was founded in the mid-1990s when Tiravanija, after establishing himself in the U.S., started spending time in Chiang Mai. “I was surprised by the energy of the artistic scene,” he said. At the time it was winter, Chiang Mai was cold, “and people would make a fire, and everyone would sit around asking questions and debating philosophy and art.”

When he and Lertchaiprasert bought the property, it consisted of working rice fields and patches of farmland. Over the years, while continuing to share the three-acre site with local farmers, they reinvented it as a commune centered around artistic experimentation as well as an off-the-grid refuge for visiting artists, such as a Danish collective that attempted to turn water-buffalo dung into cooking gas. Their broken-down generator now functions as a kind of site-specific sculpture.

From the Land, Lertchaiprasert drove me along dirt roads to the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit, a series of galleries made of shipping containers that displays his sculpture and paintings. (Viewed from the air, the containers form the number 31.) Entering the containers felt a bit like opening a Russian doll, only the museum itself was Lertchaiprasert’s head, and within each head was another that he asked the viewer to fill. In the last—a meditation room for one person, Lertchaiprasert explained— I found a massive golden skull.

The next morning I was met by Thasnai Sethaseree, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Department of Media Arts and Design. Last year Sethaseree, without official permission, took over his department’s building and covered its walls with large-scale paper works inspired by a traditional Thai paper-cutting technique. The layers include decorative patterns imposed on archival photographs—some portray political violence, others scientific diagrams of tumors—on top of stretched Buddhist monks’ robes.

Layering is also at play in the work of Udomsak Krisanamis, an artist whose small atelier we visited. Although welcoming, Krisanamis is renowned for not speaking about his work, which seemed unnecessary anyway as I wandered through his studio, which was cluttered with paintings the artist was preparing for a show with his longtime dealer, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York City.

“I think it’s better when people discover the artists here,” said Tiravanija when I met him that evening at Yongyang, a restaurant next to a home he built here in 2008. (“I gave the owner the land,” he grinned, “and in exchange I get to eat here for free.”) Krisanamis was there too, as was Sethaseree. “I encourage the curators and collectors I know to come to Chiang Mai, to see the artists in context.”

As we dug into bowls of northern-style noodles loaded with greens and pork, I looked around our table—the only one in the restaurant—and had the feeling I was in a performance orchestrated by Tiravanija. It was delicious.


Gallery Seescape; khao soi at Howie’s HomeStay. Christopher Wise

Chiang Mai Checklist

ART AND EXPERIENCES
The Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai offers bespoke tours of the city’s cultural riches, from indie showcases like Gallery Seescape to the institutional depth and dazzle of MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum. For visits to the Land, email theland@ thelandfoundation.org.

EAT
Twenty minutes outside the city but worth the drive, Huen Jai Yong (65 Moo 4, Thambon Buak Khang) serves regional standbys in an often-packed traditional Thai house. For a more intimate experience, try Puang Thong (Chang Klan Rd.), run by a beloved mother-daughter team.

STAY
Besides the Four Seasons (rooms from $640), visitors can stay at Rachamankha (rooms from $260), a boutique hotel quietly sequestered in the walled heart of old Chiang Mai. Outside the city lies Howie’s HomeStay (rooms from $1,100), an art- and antiques-filled private estate designed by legendary hotelier Bill Bensley.