In the mid-2000s I was given a private tour of The Hermitage, Russia’s famed museum of art and culture in Saint Petersburg, by one of the head curators (the cousin of a Canadian colleague of mine). It was an incredible way to experience the museum, seeing it through the eyes of someone so intimately connected to each artwork on display.
Fast forward 15 years and I find myself in a similar situation as I prepare to meet Kanachai “Kit” Bencharongkul, managing director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MOCA Bangkok. Today, Kit is going to walk us through this five-storey treasure trove of Thai and international art, which his father (Boonchai Bencharongkul, the founder of DTAC) built back in 2012 to house his own vast personal collection.
Since 2018, Kit has been running things at the museum, taking over the reins from his sister, Boonyapha. “She left to become a policewoman, and that’s when I sort of came into the position. I was working as a freelance photographer before, and I’m still doing my photography, but I’m concentrating on this now,” he informs me, adding that his father is still actively involved in the gallery as well.
Bringing the museum extra recognition via social media is a move Kit has been spearheading for a while now, and a perfect example is the indoor skating rink, temporarily installed by the main entrance – the very place where we begin our tour. Bathed in pink light, it made for a perfect Valentine’s Day IG backdrop last month.
“My friend and I designed this neon installation above, of two people kissing, because I think it represents what people need now, especially during this time of social distancing. The rink is made of synthetic plates, the kind professional skaters use to practise on. “A museum kind of needs ‘gimmicks’, things that people can have a little fun with,” he adds. “Going to museums is considerably new for Thais, so we need something to attract them first, then we can educate people about art. A few months ago, we did meditative yoga in The Three Kingdoms room upstairs. That attracted a new crowd, as some of those people had never visited the museum before.”
Of course, these novelties are balanced by a serious collection that reads like a who’s who of the Thai contemporary art scene, with multiple pieces by Prateep Kochabua, Prayom Yoddee, Thongchai Srisukprasert and Chalood Nimsamer, to name but a few.
As we ascend the escalator to the second floor, we arrive at a recently installed exhibit showcasing around 300 masks from all over Southeast Asia,
used in performances of the Ramayana epic. “We started off with 100 Thai Khon masks, a complete collection of all the characters,” says Kit. “We’ve also included masks from Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar and India, so you see the different characteristics from each country.”
Overall, this floor has a decidedly religious theme, with sculptures and paintings that touch on aspects of Buddhism such as the circle of life and reincarnation. Kit notes that his father’s vision for this floor is to tell the Ramayana story through art, and it’s here you’ll find magnificent works by the likes of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the visionary behind the famous White Temple in Chiang Rai.
“He did the large Ganesha sculpture in our outdoor garden. That’s the prototype for it,” Kit says, pointing to an elaborately detailed statue that stands just under a metre tall. “He’s quite close with my dad, who has been buying his works since he first started collecting art.” As we make our way to the escalator leading up to the third floor, a wall-mounted installation by celebrated video artist Kawita Vatanajyankur suggests we’re moving into more 21st- century territory. “We did a show for her here, with 10 videos she made placed around the museum. And we bought two for our collection. We also did a live performance and I co-performed with her. She used herself as a mop in one of her videos, so in the live performance I was mopping with her.”
There’s an ever so slight uptick in the level of Kit’s enthusiasm as we approach this much more contemporary section of the museum, and at the top of the escalator we’re met by an arresting sculpture – entitled Unsent Letter – depicting an enormous ball of crumpled-up paper.
“It’s not in our permanent collection but it’s by this artist Suntur [Yozanun Wutigonsombutkul],” says Kit, noting my keen interest in the piece. “He’s about my age. I went to his exhibition and he said this sculpture was supposed to be for sale, but he couldn’t sell it. He didn’t have any space for it, so he said, ‘Can I sort of leave it at MOCA for a while?’ It used to be in the atrium. We rearranged the whole museum during December and January, so it’s all a bit different from what you would have seen last year.”
Nearby, Kit singles out Abacus 1, by national artist Kamol Tassananchalee, as one of his personal favourite pieces. “I think he’s in his 60s, but his work is very contemporary.” As we continue on, we enter a large, white-walled room with well over a dozen artworks, including three large paintings by
Lampu Kansanoh. “These two at the end were never shown before. We just put them up. We had the pieces in this room scattered around the museum before, but now I’ve moved them together.
“Kids like to take pictures of themselves with the art, they like the interaction. This one, I don’t know why, is one of the most popular paintings on our social media,” he laughs, indicating Mirror No. 5, a rather comical painting of three young schoolgirls by Amarin Buppasiri. “Everyone has to come and pose with this picture, but it’s actually a painting making a comment on social media and selfies, and how kids are growing up too fast. So ironic!”
In the next room, where the walls are painted a deep sea-blue, I recognise a work by acclaimed Thai street artist Alex Face that was on display last year at Bangkok CityCity Gallery. “This is my own painting. I bought this,” says Kit. “It’s one of the first pieces I’ve bought for myself, and I thought it would be nice for MOCA. It’s quite a strong painting, and also Alex is at the point where he’s doing quite well and it would be a good time to collect his pieces.”
As we continue our tour we move past works by Sompong Adulyasaraphan, whose intricately detailed surrealistic canvases bring to mind Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch. “That painting took him three years to complete,” Kit remarks, pointing to a 2013 oil on canvas entitled Two-Dimensional Village. “We’re actually making a puzzle set of that, which will be ready in a few months.”
We eventually make our way to the fourth floor, which is dominated by the works of Thawan Duchanee, creator of the Black Temple in Chiang Rai. “He inspired my dad to build MOCA. They were very close. He told my dad he should create a place where Thai artists could show their work. Thawan dedicated some paintings to the museum and planned out the whole floor, and the wall colours, and how the works would be displayed.”
Also on this floor is the aforementioned Three Kingdoms room. As I imagine doing yoga in this high-ceilinged, light-filled space, while confronted by the room’s trio of eye-popping, 7m-tall paintings, Kit mentions that this is another of his favourite places in the building.
We conclude our tour on the fifth floor, most of which is given over to photography, and paintings by international artists. Knowing my guide is an
accomplished shutterbug himself, I naturally enquire if any of his images are on display. “There’s one”, he says, leading us over to a 2015 work entitled Ploy. “It’s a collaboration between me and this artist called Alec Monopoly. He did a show here a few years ago. I worked with him on three pictures, using my photography of three Thai actresses, and we bought one for the collection.”
Also on display nearby are several oversized photos by Austrian artist Sylvie Blum, who had a temporary exhibit at MOCA Bangkok in 2020, but Kit and I conclude our tour with paintings and a visit to the museum’s lavish Richard Green room.
“It’s the name of a gallery in London where my dad bought all these particular paintings from,” he informs me, as we take a seat on one of the plush green sofas in this very European-looking salon. “He had a close relationship with John Green, one of the family members of Richard Green. When he didn’t have much money, he would save up just to buy one painting.”
Among the many highlights here is a work by Dutch artist Pieter Casteels III, painted three centuries ago. “It’s one of our oldest paintings,” Kit remarks as we both marvel at this exquisite masterpiece.
Having grown up in a creative milieu, with a love of art instilled in him by his father, Kit studied architecture in London before having a change of heart that led him to pursue photography. Now, having just turned 32, he’s actively involved with the museum on a daily basis, as well as with side projects like the new Art Space by MOCA Bangkok at the Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya River.
“The hotel’s general manager, Lubosh Barta, came to me and said, ‘We want to do an art space but we don’t know how, because we’ve never done it, so why not partner up with us?’ They gave us the freedom to create anything in there, and the idea is to mix it up between some of our collection here, and then new artists. So you get a very different show about every three months.”
When I ask about the long-overdue Red Line extension, with the as-yet-unfinished Bang Khen station practically at the museum’s doorstep, Kit has no doubt that it will help bring more visitors.
“People have the perception that MOCA is very out of the way,” he admits, “but when we have new shows and something that people are interested in, they’ll come regardless. For instance, we hit our highest numbers, around 1,000 people per day, in 2020. Before Covid it was like 80 per cent tourists. Then after the first lockdown we promoted through social media to Thais and locals. Some people didn’t even realise that we were here, they only just found out about us.”
(All images: MOCA Bangkok)
This story was published in the April issue of Prestige Singapore.