Published in VAULT: Australasian Art & Culture | Issue 20 , 2017
Giles Ryder, a Bangkok transplant, gets his international art fix at TARS and unwinds at the home of Thai disco, Studio Lam.
Six years ago, Giles Ryder wrapped up an arts residency in Berlin and planned to return home to Australia. On the flight back, the artist stopped over in Thailand to give a guest lecture to university students. While there, he became transfixed with Bangkok’s predilection for using bright colours, neon lights and abstract formations to beautify its urban landscape – from festivals, to side-streets, to shop fronts. That, and being charmed by “smiling, happy Thais” and “tropical greenery and temples,” the Sydney artist relocated to Bangkok, where he has been living and working ever since.
Scouting an adaptable and readymade stance, Ryder transforms industrial materials into installations, sculptures and paintings that intersects geometry, colour, light and space. Since his Thailand move though, his practice has taken a mutative approach. “Some of the pigments and materials I used back in Australia were not available here,” he observes. “So I’ve had to adapt the way I make works based on what I can get my hands on. I get a lot of materials from markets and fabricators.”
Having previously studied art in Brisbane, Sydney, Edinburgh and Berlin, Ryder currently lectures in colour theory and package design at Bangkok University International. In between, he makes brief trips across Asia and Australia for exhibitions, workshops and residencies. During this time, he has seen a dramatic shift in Bangkok culture. “I find that this city constantly re-situates its histories and ideals,” Ryder notes. “When I first arrived, it was rare to see a Thai person with a mobile phone – in fact it was treated as a luxury item. Now everybody has a smartphone, and with that comes this new-found use for technology and the Internet.”
As a result, political Thai artists have began using Facebook to document and promote art that criticises the government. In turn, soldiers are using the same social media platform to spy on these artists, resulting in the physical removal of ‘politically-sensitive’ works from gallery walls. “Before, the militia didn’t pay attention to the polemics of contemporary art, but now, all of a sudden they’re trying hard to control what locals want to say through art,” he observes. “New morals are being placed on Thai society as we speak.”
Ryder may have been called a Western foreigner – or farang – at one point, but the Australian says he now feels firmly rooted in his adoptive country. Entrenched in the local arts community, he counts preeminent painter Mit Jai Inn and H Gallery curator Brian Curtin as friends, and on a personal front, he finds joy in raising his three-year old son who “has recently started kindergarten.”
Presently, Ryder lives in the bustling area of Bang Chak, “though I’m about to move house again soon.” Since relocating to Bangkok, the artist has worked out of multiple studios and homes of various sizes, and finds rhythm in being nomadic and constrained – which, not surprisingly, mirrors his unanchored process of “making DIY art according to the materials and spaces that are available around me.”
Wedged into an alley at Prakanong district is TARS, a four-storey shophouse converted in a white-cube, with a Monstera-laden courtyard out the back. Directed by Frenchman Pierre Béchon, who spent his formative years in Thailand, the gallery showcases international artists with a cross-media, experimental slant, and “has a certain freedom to experiment through site specific productions,” Ryder says, adding that “Pierre has injected a touch of European critical flair to the art scene here.” Ryder, who was invited by Béchon earlier this year to stage his neon-splashed solo show Night Visions and New Fundamentals, describes TARS as a “hybrid site that exists somewhere between a project gallery and a privately-run art space with commercial aspirations.” After opening nights, Ryder usually strolls down to the Japanese sake bars nearby, or to the W District Markets “for its expanse of open-air bars and food stalls – there’s also a 24 hour bar called Cheers.”
TARS, 10/3 Sukhumvit 67 Alley, Khwaeng Phra Khanong Nuea, Khet Watthana
W District Markets, 1599 Sukhumvit Rd, Phra Khanong, Khlong Toei
The trendy area of ThongLor holds a plethora of mixology bars and social clubs, and is where Ryder retreats to for drinks, listening parties, and art at night. He likes dropping by Studio Lam to sink down a home-made Thai whiskey with traditional herbs and spices, while tuning to “a large sound system that plays long-forgotten Thai disco or Molam beats from North East Thailand.” He explains “Molam has a place within the blues genre, but the music is sped up. Locals call it ‘working people’s music’ – it’s meant to reflect the hard life of a rural worker who looks forward to partying hard as a release.” Next door to Studio Lam is WTF Gallery & Cafe, run by a former photographer, curator and hotelier. “WTF works as a split-system,” Ryder notes, “there’s a bar downstairs, and they run a curated program of contemporary exhibitions upstairs.”
Studio Lam, 10110, 51 Sukhumvit Rd, Khlong Tan Nuea, Watthana
WTF Gallery & Cafe,51 Khwaeng Khlong Tan Nuea, Khet Watthana
Four of Bangkok’s most talked-about artspaces, Gallery VER, CARTEL, Artist+Run and Tentacles are grouped together in a warehouse metropolis called N22. Based in the up-market Narathiwas 22 area, their opening nights often attract the who’s-who of Thailand’s independent art scene. Gallery VER normally exhibits politically-driven work, “and is in part the project space of prolific Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija,” Ryder explains, “while Tentacles runs interesting community events, exhibitions and residency projects from artists within this region.” At the helm of CARTEL is artist Mit Jai Inn, revered within the arts community for his radical activism. “Mit is an antagonist painter and agent provocateur,” says Ryder, who first met Inn at Chiang Mai in 2010, and has since shared his studio to create work. CARTEL, which was set up as an experimental agency and meeting place to give voice to provocative artists, made national news in June this year, when the Thai military brigade demanded the removal of a photographic exhibition featuring human activists and political prisoners. “Censorship is big in Thai society,” Ryder reveals, “more artists are becoming afraid now because the volume of military monitoring has been turned up.” While Ryder isn’t politically-inclined, he believes spaces like VER and CARTEL form an integral platform for artists to express the country’s socio-political strife. “Even the name CARTEL is pragmatic,” he offers, “it’s a politically undesirable word that has negative associations with the mafia. Through this space, individuals and groups are invited to come to the table so they can join the cartel – almost like an art mafia.”
CARTEL / Gallery VER / Tentacles / Artist+Run, Narathiwas 22, Khwaeng Chong Nonsi, Khet Yan Nawa
Named after a cowboy-hat wearing bar owner in the 1970s, this red-light strip at Asoke district is flooded with flashing neon-sign frontages and go-go bars bearing scantily-clad hostesses and bar girls who promise “a good time” to every punter walking past. Frequented by expatriates, tourists and locals alike, Soi Cowboy “is a nesting of clichés, where the stereotypes become louder and more cartoon-like,” reveals Ryder. “It’s a space that exists on unequal desires, and uses the same effect of a fun fair.” There’s “humour and play” to the bar names – notably The Doll House, Toy Bar, and Fanny’s – that act as a throwback to the strip’s Vietnam war origins as a recreational haven for American soldiers. “I don’t want to glamourise this place or make out like it’s the best spot on Earth to get a drink,” he confesses, “but Soi Cowboy is definitely a place that people need to see at least once, even if it’s just to walk down the soi (side-street) and witness its dense cluster of lights and sense of decay at the same time.” After all, Ryder says, “Bangkok is not the place for those who don’t like grit or grime.”
Soi Cowboy, Khwaeng Khlong Toei Nuea, Khet Watthana
Giles Ryder: Mandalas For The Lost is showing at MARS Gallery 20 Dec 2017 – Jan 29 2018.
Giles Ryder is represented by MARS Gallery, Melbourne. marsgallery.com.au