The Open World

Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023
9 December 2023 – 30 April 2024

Curatorial Team

Co-Artistic Directors : Rirkrit Tiravanija, Gridthiya Gaweewong
Curators : Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, Manuporn Luengaram 


Chiang Rai has had a long and complex history, stretching back to at least the thirteenth century. Our curatorial team embraces this history as our guide into the future. This Biennale emphasizes Chiang Rai’s past as the crucial foundation for appreciating the many facets of this vibrant and contemporary region. We present a concept for this year's art biennale based on the complex history of Chiang Rai that reveals the perspective of a small narrative, astounding cultural diversity, and a unique ecosystem. Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023 will focus on Chiang Rai as a locus of artistic exploration and connection with other localities at the regional and global levels. The region will be showcased as a multicultural arena for cultural exchange and dialogue on contemporary issues in the post-Covid world. Chiang Rai has undergone numerous changes over the centuries and has been shaped by many different civilizational flows. Its transformation from the center of an ancient kingdom to a developed city at the heart of a modern border region symbolizes how societies throughout the world have changed with the passage of time. During its early history, Chiang Rai was a settlement on the banks of the Kok River, which was founded by King Phaya Mangrai in the thirteenth century. Phaya Mangrai was the twenty-fifth king of the Mangrai Dynasty who ruled over Hiran Nguenyang, a small kingdom centered in Chiang Saen on the Mekong River. Current research on contemporary Chiang Rai leads us to many questions concerning its long-span development. How has Chiang Rai Province transitioned from an ancient kingdom into a crucial part of the contemporary Thai nation-state? Furthermore, this area’s incorporation into the Thai State was also a process of intense transformation: As the colonial period transitioned into the cold war, Bangkok-based centralized state powers viewed Chiang Rai in different ways. Though this time Chiang Rai has slowly shifted from a troublesome border region to an area rich with economic potential, moving state policies and local self-identification from questions of security to those of economy. Throughout this period, Chiang Rai has reformulated its own identity, and repositioned itself away from being fully defined by centralized power. The city has grown from being merely a door at the border, a gateway to neighboring countries, into one of Thailand’s most vibrant and inviting parlors—where cultural exchange, artistic expression, and economic innovation creates a sophisticated salon of cultural production. Dr. Pollavat Prapattong, researcher and Associate Professor at Mae Fah Luang University, has explored how these processes of change provide space and opportunities for artistic and creative flourishing. This leads us to two important questions: How has this transition opened a space for participatory art and creativity? And what can artists do to reform and reconstruct Chiang Rai society today?

Chiang Rai artists return and to shape their own voices and identities

For answers to these questions we turn to the period between 1984–1992. Dr. Pollavat’s research shows that the return of Chiang Rai artists in the 1980s transformed the city’s history and identity through contemporary art (what Pollavat labels as “contemporary art” is more appropriately called neo-traditional art). An example of this is the ceremony to pay respect to the Queen's Mother (Wai Sa Mae Fah Luang), which has since been held a total of five times. The ceremonies have revived the region’s arts and the cultural engines, and stressed its "multi-ethnicity,” emphasizing the ethnic diversity for which Chiang Rai has been known. Chiang Rai’s multi-ethnic character was first captured by the book "30 Ethnicities in Chiang Rai,” written by a former local historian Boonchuay Srisawad, who was also a Chiang Rai MP during the administration of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram in 1930s. Since the book’s publication, it has been “re-read” and reassessed in a new light. The Wai Sa Mae Fah Luang ceremonies sparked a ferment of collaboration between artists, monks, and communities, which has continued to the present day. The next significant phase of Chiang Rai’s cultural awakening occurred in the mid 2010’s, as the city celebrated the 750th anniversary of its founding. The widespread 750th anniversary celebrations sought to change the city’s identity from ‘border town’ into ‘artist city’. Several artists started working with communities, building religious sites, and advocating for social policy improvements. The result was a collaborative call for the creation of a public arts space, but this did not materialize. Instead, these artists pushed the provincial authorities to officially certify the status of artist's homes as open studios and galleries for the public to visit. At the same time, traditional and ethnic art blossomed amongst Chiang Rai’s various ethnic communities. This developed into signature forms of Chiang Rai-style contemporary art and design, which continues to generate income for minority communities in the present day. Visits to the area during the past two months show that the artist community in Chiang Rai has used a bottom-up approach to build up essential and well developed arts infrastructure. As a result, Chiang Rai has excellent potential to serve as the venue for Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023. First, it is a place with a long history that stretches from ancient times to colonialism to the Cold War. Second, it consisted of various kingdoms such as Yonok Nakorn, Ngoen Yang Chiang Saen, Wiang Kalong, and Phu Kam Yao to name a few. This long and varied history is locally referred to as “Lanna” traditions and heritage. Lanna’s specific style can be seen in unique forms of architecture, culture, arts, and crafts. Third, there is a strong community of artists in the province who can work together with other sectors, including the state. Given its unique background, Chiang Rai has become a place of incubation and inspiration for many talented artists, especially early modern artists, and new traditional groups. Famous artists Thawan Duchanee and Chalermchai Kositpipat are exceptional examples of Change Rai artists who returned home to foster the artistic and economic development of their region. In addition, they worked to build an art community through their private museums, temples, and art galleries. There are currently about 300 artists and 80 artist studios spread across the province. These unique conditions, and the existing infrastructure are incomparable to any other city in Thailand, besides Bangkok. As a team of curators, we find Chiang Rai to be not only artistically exciting, but the ideal venue for the 2023 Thailand Biennale. Without a doubt, Chiang Rai offers the rare ability to host an arts event that showcases the artistic intersections of history, tradition, and the contemporary.

The Open World

Our curatorial team did field site research in Chiang Saen, Phaya Mangrai's hometown. After eventually moving to build his new city, Chiang Mai, Phaya Mangrai ordered his nephew, Phaya Saen Phu to renovate Chiang Saen, which had fallen under disrepair. While renovating the city, Phaya Saen Phu built Wat Pa Sak (Pa Sak Temple) in 1295 to house Buddha relics. He also planted 300 teak trees on the temple grounds. The architecture of Wat Pa Sak represents the fusion of various cultures in Lanna, such as those of Srivijaya, Sukhothai, Hariphunchai, Bagan and China. As a result, it is one of the most important ancient sites in Lanna. One of the temple’s most striking features is its ancient Buddha image in the “open-world” posture, which is enshrined in the temple’s Charanam arch. The “open-world” posture is a typical motif of Lanna art, and features the Buddha standing on a lotus flower with his arms at his sides. His hands are raised slightly with his palms extended outwards, opening the world for all. According to the Chiang Saen Museum’s curator, this Buddha posture is vital because it represents wisdom and awakening. According to the Buddhist scriptures, three months after the Buddha ascended to the Tavatimsa Heaven, he descended to perform a miracle of revelation. With his magnificent power, he opened the three worlds—the heavenly world, the underworld, and the human world—so that their inhabitants could behold one another. As a result, the angels in heaven saw humans, and the beasts of the underworld; the humans saw the angels of the heavens and the beasts of the underworld, and the underworld saw the humans and angels. Then the Buddha ascended from the Tavatimsa Heaven to Sangassa City. This event is now commemorated on the Buddhist holiday Pavarana, which comes towards the end of Buddhist lent (the 15th waxing moon of the 11th lunar month). Today, the phrase “open world” is most often used in the context of video games. An open-world video game refers to a game designed as a non-linear open space which invites many pathways through the game platform. Open-world games are different from traditional games or linearly challenging levels. Reviewers judge the quality of the open world games by considering whether there are exciting ways for players to interact with a broader range of levels or not, and players have numerous options and dimensions through which they can engage in their environments. The meaning of this open-world gameplay inspires our team to create a structure for the exhibition that challenges linear narratives and broadens accessibility to people through the various themes and chapters of the biennale. For the Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023, we propose "The Open World" as the exhibition title because of its straightforward meaning, one that also contains multiple implications. It conveys that we want to ‘open up’ people’s perceptions of art, with references to local art history from the 13th century to the present, and to engage with contemporary global issues. The concept also naturally brings out the connection between the contours of the contemporary world and the outlooks and orientations of generations of open-world gamers. Simultaneously, the term “open world” also responds to the era of post-globalization, where the relaxation of national borders that began after the Cold War era resulted in the mass migration of people and transnational capital. This relative global fluidity was interrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, as international borders closed. Likewise, another geopolitical problem in Eastern Europe has created energy and food security issues worldwide, causing a global recession. We, therefore, see that the “Open World” concept can inflect contemporary art with questions of whether we can ever imagine the possibility of a better future again. The Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023 “The Open World” uses Chiang Rai as a locus of artistic exploration to unravel the area's history of social, political, economic, and cultural complexity. Art will be the intermediary between far-flung regions of the world that have all experienced similar fates. The exhibition will prioritize the experiences of those in the global south, and the suffering that has spread from the Mekong to the Amazon. Chiang Rai’s history is positioned to explore how the city has been connected with neighboring countries through its natural topography. The city’s migratory history will be emphasized, as it has formed a multicultural society that far surpasses it’s famous 30 ethnicities to include western foreigners, and encompasses the world’s religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhi, and various forms of local belief and animism. The exhibition also explores the micro-histories of ordinary people using the context of Chiang Rai as a starting point for building dialogue with neighboring countries and the world through local-to-local connections (translocalism). Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023 will question our belief systems as they have morphed from the time of the traditional state to the present-day. The projects carried out will highlight perspectives as they may relate to local animist practices and geopolitical ecosystems of the region as they are now defined by the anthropocene. With all of this in mind, this exhibition invites artists and viewers to consider the following questions: How do we deal with the complex history of a city? How can we differentiate between myth, fiction, and reality through research in ancient chronicles, archaeological sites, ruins, artefacts, and oral histories? And how can we do this in such a way that incorporates these remnants of the past into the cultural, contemporary artistic, and historiographic constructs of the present and future? Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023 comprises three main elements. (1) The main exhibition, as explained above and organized by the curatorial team, will take place in a variety of venues throughout Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen. (2) The Pavilions, or Sala, which showcase the works of individuals or groups, as well as domestic and international organizations and museums. There will be about ten Sala found throughout Chiang Rai city and on display at the same time as the main exhibition. And (3) Collateral Events, which are special events organized to compliment the biennale. For example, these will include performances of ethnic music put on in collaboration with Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, a film series put on by the Film Archive (Public Organization), and a number of other live performances. On top of all that, visitors will have the opportunity to tour the home-studios of many Chiang Rai artists, which are spread throughout the province, and indicated on the specialized map made just for the biennale.