Warin Lab Contemporary Gallery’s Debut Exhibition Has Everyone “Talking Trash”

Dedicated to showcasing artwork that addresses pressing environmental and social issues, Warin Lab Contemporary gallery launched earlier this year with a group exhibition entitled Swamped, exploring our relationship to the waste we create.

In the art world these days you’re more likely to hear about galleries closing, rather than opening. However, the daunting task of launching a new art space in these uncertain times was a challenge that long-time gallerist and art dealer Sukontip “Fon” Prahanpap courageously took on with the recent unveiling of Warin Lab Contemporary.

Located in the O.P. Garden complex, in the century-old house formerly occupied by Serindia Gallery, Warin Lab is Fon’s second art space in Bangkok. Her first gallery, and the one that established her reputation in the city’s artistic circles, is La Lanta Fine Art, which began life almost two decades ago as La Lanta Art Room; a small shop in the All Seasons Place that sold fine art prints and also did framing.

By the time Fon renamed and relocated her gallery to Silom Road, in 2006, she had begun dabbling in selling original art by local artists. Two years later La Lanta Fine Art moved to Sukhumvit Road, where it remained for the next 10 years. In 2018 she moved operations to a space within the N22 Art Community on Naradiwas Soi 22, an enclave of independent galleries that includes Tentacles, Gallery Ver, and Artist+Run. Knowing that operating one gallery is workload enough, I naturally ask Fon why she chose to open a second?

“If you count back, I’ve been in the business – the proper gallery business – for like 18 years,” she explains. “So, I know how to sell. I know how to make art work, but that’s just one dimension. I’ve travelled to international art fairs, and I’ve met a lot of people from different sectors of the of the art world, and gradually I began to think ‘What am I standing for? What am I doing?’

“So, one day it became clear, and I knew that I wanted to pitch at a higher level in terms of art. I wanted to talk about the bigger issues. La Lanta is very commercially viable, but I think art can play different roles in society. La Lanta plays the role of bringing aesthetics to people, but I also want talk about social issues. So I want this space to be completely different in terms of the programming.”

Warin Lab’s inaugural exhibition, entitled ‘Swamped’, opened on February 24 and ran until April 21. It was a group show featuring four Thai artists, all of whom created provocative installations dealing with the issue of waste – especially plastic waste – and the need to quench the hunger for new resources by reusing and upcycling what is already around us… in our trash!

Debris sculptures and a video of a garbage-themed performance art piece by Taweesak Molsawat made up one section of the show, while in the background the haunting ambient sound piece by Note Panayanggool detected the movement of gallery goers and altered itself accordingly; suggesting that, like it or not, our very presence always has an effect on our environment. Of course, because of their sheer scale and audacity, Swamped’s real showstoppers were Thanawat Maneenawa’s collection of whimsical wall-mounted masks, and the massive centrepiece assemblage by textile artist and designer Ploenchan “Mook” Vinyaratn.

“I’m honoured to have been selected as one of the artists,” remarks Mook as we chat during the Prestige photoshoot in early April. “All four of us are very different with the media we use and how we see things. But Fon put us all together, and I really enjoyed working with everyone here.”

For obvious reasons I’m reminded of the somewhat similar centerpiece from Mook’s October 2020 solo show at Nova Contemporary, entitled ‘The Sea Ghost and Beyond’; a show which delved into similar thematic territory regarding repurposing waste. But, as the artist point out, she’s been mining this artistic vein for quite a while now.

“I’ve been working with recycled material without knowing for the past 20 years,” she laughs, “because I want to keep my studio at zero waste. Whatever I have left over, after doing commercial pieces like area rugs and things, I turn it into something else. When you weave a rug, you may need to dye 50 kilos of a certain yarn, but you might only use 49 kilos, and you have one kilo left. What are you going to do with that one kilo? So everything’s recycled. And the new material I used for the Swamped show, which I never used before, is aluminium. I hand cut each of the tin cans into strips, before I wove them back into the piece.

“So this,” she says gesturing at her massive, complex textile eerily suspended over a cross-shaped bed of refuse, “is like a ‘swamp’ of trash.”

Also on hand for the photoshoot is Thanawat, the mask-maker who has filled one wall of the gallery with quirky collage sculptures that each resemble a human face, but are, in fact, mischievously made up of discarded materials ranging from combs, to vacuum cleaner parts, to mannequin torsos, to random plumbing supplies. It’s all unbelievably inventive, and reflects the fun-loving nature of the artist himself. The message too has an amusing spin, perhaps best paraphrased as “you create the garbage, so the garbage is you!”

In addition to the art displayed at ground level, Warin Lab has an upstairs space, which is the retail shop. Currently on sale there are Mook’s beautiful, one-of-a-kind handbags and rugs, Taweesak’s bottle cap jewellery, a bike reflector handbag and a shapeable ‘worm’ lamp from Thanawat, as well as a few other assorted items.

“This, people cannot take home,” says Fon, as I express a keen interest in perhaps buying one of Thanawat’s marvelous masks. “This is to stimulate the discussion, and if eventually we can sell the entire piece to an institution or museum, that will be great. But to help pay the bills we have a museum shop so that people can take a little bit of the exhibition home with them. Then, you know, when their friends comment on the bag or earrings, and ask, ‘Where did you get it from?’, the conversation about the issue continues outside the exhibition.”

As for the current exhibit at Warin Lab, which is scheduled to run until July 10, the focus is on endangered animal species. Entitled ‘Reincarnations III – Ecologies of Life’, this solo show by environmentalist-zoologist-artist Ruangsak Anuwatwimon was curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani and, as Fon admits, she didn’t pick the artist.

“I don’t go directly to the artists, I go to curators I respect,” she tells me. “So I went to five different curators, because we have five different shows still this year, and I explained to them what the mission of the space is. So immediately, you know, each curator has a list of artists that he or she feels could fit with the message that we want to communicate.”

Interestingly, the Reincarnations III exhibition has an extra level of serendipitous significance, as one piece in the show is a staggering, life-size installation sculpture of Thailand’s now-extinct Schomburgk’s deer. Coincidentally, the very building in which Warin Lab now sits was once part of the home of Dr. Boonsong Lekagul, a medical doctor who was also an ecologist, and the first serious researcher of Thailand’s wildlife. In the 50s and 60s he not only conducted research and advocated the preservation of endangered animal species in the Kingdom, but he also collected and produced a number of books on wildlife, including Mammals of Thailand, in 1977, which contains detailed information about the Schomburgk’s deer.

“Dr. Boonsong single-handedly created this conservation movement in Thailand,” says Fon respectfully, and I’m sure if he were alive today he’d be proud of the conversation Warin Lab is starting.

This article was first published in the May 2021 issue of Prestige Thailand.