The Genteel
February 26, 2021


Gallery VER entrance and Untitled Flood by Pratchya Phinthong. Photograph courtesy of Gallery VER.

VER, which is short for "over," but also refers to a slang word meaning "severe" in Thai, was co-founded by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija twelve years ago. It began on paper and CD with O ver, a large-format photography and sound art magazine. As VER's website explains, "We are interested in various senses of the word 'over' - 'across an intervening distance'; 'from an upward to an inverted or reversed position'; 'in repetition'; and 'again.' But we are not interested in its sense as 'the end.'" In fact, O ver represented a beginning.

Rirkrit Tiranvanija Panu Boonpipattanapong Playing With Words
Untitled 2012 by Rirkrit Tiravanija & Playing
With Words by Panu Boonpipattanapong.
Photograph courtesy of Gallery VER.

In a 2008 interview with Art India magazine, Tiravanija explained that, "In Thailand, I met other, mostly younger, artists. There were no museums or galleries that could really support their work. They were about to get out of school and talked about forming an agency to do something around commercial practices like photography or advertising in order to survive but also because it was possible to artistically intervene in these contexts. The magazine came out of this." The spirit of the magazine soon evolved into a production and design centre, as well as an agency for linking artists for collaborations and networking, officially becoming an artist-led gallery in 2006.

True to its name, VER's current home is not in the packed centre of town, rather, it is housed in a converted warehouse and office building owned by the state railway system in the historic area of Rattanakosin. The area also plays host to the popular Chatuchak weekend market and Rod Fai night markets. It took me quite awhile to find the gallery; after a series of phone calls, in which I tried my best to cover up my lack of directional sense, the gallery's manager came out to the main road to retrieve me. We walked over an empty lot and up a set of stairs to a roofed-in, concrete platform dotted with columns that were reminiscent of a parking garage. An orange-painted, metal sliding door marked the currently closed main exhibition space and a smaller door led me to an office, which was being used for Retro-ver-spective.

The show was an assemblage of art that, while fragmented and without obvious curatorial context to the first-time viewer, conveyed a particular authenticity of spirit; as if the works themselves had committed to co-existing harmoniously in that small room for some larger purpose.

Retro-ver-spective, as the name suggests, was a retrospective show of works by 16 artists that the gallery has worked with since its inception six years ago (as well as two invited artists), all of whom are Thai. The show was an assemblage of art that, while fragmented and without obvious curatorial context to the first-time viewer, conveyed a particular authenticity of spirit; as if the works themselves had committed to co-existing harmoniously in that small room for some larger purpose.

An interactive piece by Mit Jai-Inn drew attention to the range of feelings invoked by Thailand's controversial article 112, a law banning the criticism of the royal family. A serene painting of a monochromatic planar form by Nim Kruasaeng simultaneously recalled the shape of a vessel and a grain of rice and seemed to derive its energy from the essence of the land. To highlight the contrasts in the exhibition, Kruasaeng's work was juxtaposed with a provocative video of masturbation by Thunska Pansittivorakul, which while certainly more aggressive, similarly offered a perspective on the needs and desires arising from daily life.

While I was only able to achieve a superficial grasp of concepts and context during my short visit, I felt, having seen so many works by young Thai artists, I finally had a glimmer of understanding as to the important cultural currents within Thailand.

The mix was broad - there was also work by Tiravanija in the show and I recognised the artist of the print at the entrance of the gallery as Pratchaya Phinthong (who was featured in this year's New Museum Triennial in New York), who, as I found out, used to direct the gallery. It became clear that this was a community and in crowding into this space, the larger purpose that all these works had committed to was offering homage to VER. The effort demonstrated an ethos of collaboration and mutual support, while showcasing the space's history and potential for the future.

I began thinking beyond the art and about what VER, as a platform, has in common with some of the most interesting art spaces in the rest of Asia. What is shared is a space in which highly conceptual work is welcomed; where the exchange of ideas and, concurrently, the equality of all participants is encouraged; and where commercialism, while present (the works in Retro-ver-spective were for sale), does not inform or distract from its artistic investigations. The context in which these spaces operate, however, are usually rapidly developing urban hubs, where culture tends to become swiftly commodified, which is perhaps, precisely why they are important. What's problematic is the ability of a fledgling "alternative" space, in an emerging art market, to stay that way for very long. 

No Name Nim Krusaeng
No Name by Nim Kruasaeng.
Photograph courtesy of Gallery VER.

To describe an art space as "alternative" could refer to a number of things. However, generally, it signifies that the gallery provides a space outside of institutional or entrenched gallery systems for artists to produce, show and, sometimes, sell their work. It might mean that it is artist-run but it probably means that it provides an alternative mode of communication or collaboration for artists who find it difficult to use traditional channels, whether due to financial, political or social constraints.

Historically, the role of such spaces was to provide an avenue for younger, emerging, anti-establishment artists, but it's not necessarily just the young or rebellious. By their nature, "alternative" art spaces have become advocacy agents for artists with limited resources or social or political capital, no matter what their age. In this sense, many have successfully become modes of discovery, reflection and engagement for a broader audience and community. While alternative art spaces are often assumed to be non-profit, they often engage in commercial practices, such as the sale of art and publications, in order to provide a living for the artists they support, particularly if they operate independently of institutional funding.

I later sat down with curator Josef Ng, the director of the gallery, who came onboard in 2010 after years of working with well-known Chinese gallery Tang Contemporary. While he was enthusiastic about the potential of the space, he also expressed frustration at the lack of patronage and support in the Thai contemporary art market relative to other markets - a fact confirmed by others involved in the Thai art scene with whom I spoke casually. Ng mentioned the possibility of exploring more commercial avenues, such as art fair participation, presumably in order to sell more aggressively to sustain the space. But he admitted that this would require overhead and manpower, an effort that can be taxing when the returns are uncertain. Later on in an email he told me that he, "would prefer to engage in art discourse rather than the daily realities of keeping the space operating on a monthly basis," and that he feels the biggest challenge is, "to be able to establish the notion of conceptual practices locally, more can be done to enhance the visibility of experimentation and leftfield expressiveness."

Mit Jai Inn 11.2 Project
11.2 Project by Mit Jai-Inn. 
Photograph courtesy of Gallery VER.

This is of course a worthy goal, and despite the obvious challenges and frustrations involved, I was heartened to see Gallery VER in active operation. The existence of these alternative spaces, wherever they may be, is vital, if only to create a dialogue, maintain philosophical and conceptual rigor and to educate people and support artists in a way that commercially inclined galleries cannot. However, the challenge of sustaining them, and further innovating them, remains.

I'm not a collector but, if I were, I'd think of supporting an alternative space as one of the most rewarding and, frankly, needed investments I could make. For your average tourist or enthusiast, visiting these places and supporting their activities can provide an entirely new perspective on a city or culture. Next time you're in Bangkok, make the trip "over" to Gallery VER.



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