MOCA Bangkok: Jumbled homage to contemporary Thai art delights and confuses

MOCA Bangkok is an impressive building with an even more impressive collection of art, but it could use a little more thoughtful curating at times.

The museum was built by DTAC founder and chairman Boonchai Bencharongkul to house a comprehensive collection of Thai art, hopefully on par with the Louvre, MOMA, and other international bastions of culture. MOCA is dedicated to Professor Silpa Bhirasri, the Italian-born sculptor who settled in Thailand, founded Silpakorn University, and is credited with being the “Father of Thai Contemporary Arts.”

The building is imposing and modern in design – it’s filled with large airy spaces, high ceilings, white walls, and interesting architectural details. One flows through the building along a set path. There are even arrows on the floor to guide you. When I tried to deviate from them, the guards seemed quite perturbed.

The first floor is dedicated to temporary exhibitions and consists of three gallery suites, one of which is dedicated to the photographs of C.S. Wong. They’re mainly black and white documentary shots of Thailand. There’s also a sprinkling of experimental images were Wong plays around with solarizations and multiple exposures.

The work is well done. A standout is “Escape the wave,” where two gulls are doing just that. Such hints at psychological turmoil fade into images of Monks, temples, nature and the occasional candid portrait. This is Wong’s attempt at building an archive of Thai imagery. It’s also the only photography in the building.

Something I’ve never seen in a museum before is a book with forms for ordering prints from Wong’s show. Prices range from THB30,000-50,00 – blurring the line between gallery and museum. I wonder what MOCA’s cut of the sales is.

As you move up the floors there is a lot of strong work. It is mainly paintings with some sculptures. There is a mix of Surrealist and Buddhist art, and sometimes even Surrealist Buddhist art. The collection heavily features works by Sayan Santrat, Sompung Adusarabhan, and Prateep Kotchaba all skilled Thai painters.

The strongest room, in terms of curation, is one filled with Thawan Duchanee’s paintings. The work is monochrome with splashes of gold leaf and the walls are red. Duchanee’s work is full of active brush strokes reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy. The subjects are all Buddhist and include a menagerie of animals coiling, flying and otherwise bursting from the frames.

The curators made some good choices – the red walls set off the gold accents and create an environment for the paintings to inhabit. They were also greatly helped by the consistency of Duchanee’s work. He’s been mining a single theme throughout his entire art practice. Fill a room with any of his works and they’re bound to speak to one another.

Another stand-out is a wall of prints on the fifth floor. This was some of the most amazing art in the building. Prapha Srisouta’s grid installations blew me away. I only wish they’d been given room to breathe.

From there we move on to what I like to call the curiosities, or just some really weird stuff.

We’ll start with “Journey Through Space” – a tunnel filled with a galaxy mural. It’s an attempt at an immersive installation, but comes off as something more akin to theme park environments. If you want to see an immersive installation that’s speaks to our stature in the universe look no further than Yayoi Kusama’s recent piece for the Whitney: “Fireflies on the Water.”

Then there’s the replica of a historic Thai house in a room. The lights are dim, and the smell of fresh cut wood fills the space. If it had stopped there I would have loved it. Needless to say, it didn’t. There were wax figures sitting on the porch, and the house was filled with paintings that could easy double as illustrations for a bodice ripper. To top it off there was a series of bronze sculptures of dogs in various acts-including pooping.

But I have to say the oddest thing were the sculptures of Professor Silpa Bhirasri. There is a bronze life size full body one and a secret VIP gallery that houses a wax portrait of him at work in the studio.

The mini gallery floats somewhere between the first and second floor. Professor Silpa is frozen in front of a new sculpture in full view of visitors going up and down the stairs — a jarring way to reinforce the museums position as a monument to Professor Silpa’s legacy.

The MOCA is a good start in creating an authoritative art space in Bangkok, but in order to reach the heights of museums like the Guggenheim, their visual choices are going to have to become more considered and deliberate. They have the collection and they have the space to do it.

I’m rooting for you MOCA.
Tuesday-Sunday 10:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M., Adult : 180 THB, Student: 80 THB,
Children (15 and under), Monks, Seniors over 60 and Disabled: Free

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