Faith and art for the ages

Kamin Lertchaipraset's work

Kamin Lertchaipraset’s work

Phatarawadee Phataranawik
The Sunday Nation September 7, 2014 1:00 am

The exhibition “Thai Charisma” gives modern artists a chance to meditate on the ancient

RELIGIOUS ICONS separated by aeons – including images of the Buddha – are on display side by side in the exhibition “Thai Charisma: Heritage + Creative Power” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Buddhist-inspired contemporary paintings, mixed media and installations vie for attention with standing Buddhas from 25 BC and a 10th-century Hindu phallic symbol borrowed from the National Museum’s storage facility in Pathum Thani.

There are 38 ancient artefacts on view are juxtaposed with contemporary works by 19 Thai artists. Curator Apinan Poshyananda of the Culture Ministry initially combined the pieces for the “Thai Transience” exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum in 2012-13.

He took his inspiration from the teachings of the venerable monk Luang Por Cha Supanttho on the transience of life.

“We have antiques from the Lopburi Period, including a Hindu phallic symbol of creative power, as well as an Early Rattanakosin-period wooden standing Buddha. These are displayed along with the contemporary works that were inspired by these very same works,” Apinan says and adding that some artists first visited the National Museum, which houses 70,000 artefacts, many dating back more than 10,000 years.

“We’re trying to emphasise that art has roots,” Apinan says. “The show also questions the western system of classifying art as folk art, indigenous art, crafts, kitsch, tourist art, talismans and souvenirs. This results in misconceptions and misinterpretation and reinforces the selective promotion of non-western art.”

Juxtaposing the ancient and the modern is common in the West but something of a rarity for Thailand.

The show’s highlight is a pastel-green room filled with 18 rare Buddha statues. Ten of them are made of wood and bronze and gaze out from behind glass. Others are in gilded bronze. A 12th-century sandstone statue of the crowned Buddha sheltered by the naga’s hood rests on columns, drawing visitors’ stares with its beautiful details.

The new blends in with the old in the vast gallery beyond. The artists have taken careful note of the revered Buddhist scripts and Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. These include the Tribhumikatha on view, the scholarly treatise also known as the Tribhumi Phra Ruang that illustrates the three worlds in various states of transition, from dark hell to sublime heaven.

“The Journey of object no 99/1817/2532” is a video installation by Sakarin Krue-on, and it shares floor space with a recently restored statue of a standing Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from the 10th-century, the Dharavadhi Period.

Sakarin’s 15-minute video documents the conservation work done on the statue, valued at Bt10 million, and, following a ritual blessing, its shipment to the art centre.

Panya Vijinthanasarn’s mixed-media work “UN Happy” is on the opposite wall. It’s four automobile hoods mounted front to back and side by side, painted black and then adorned with depictions of a snake menacing a bird’s egg and a chaotic scene of people fighting.

Panya made the trek to the National Museum as well. “I was fascinated by the huge stone face of a Buddha from the Theravada Period when I visited the museum. I couldn’t get over the talent of the artisans in ancient times!” he says. “But the Buddha’s face is always shown quite square, so I formed them out of car hoods for a portray of modern conflicts.” And the word “happy”, he points out, is completely open to interpretation.

A series of Buddhism-inspired drawings and paintings by National Artist Thawan Duchanee, who died on Wednesday, is on display.

There’s also “Lord Buddha said, If you see dharma, you see me”, Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s 2010 sculpture of a life-size standing Buddha made of shredded Thai banknotes. It guards the doorway to another work, “Beyond”, which is a white room filled with 24 sitting Buddhas.

This is Kamin’s view of the cycle of life. The cast metal and banknotes connote the giving of alms but also reflect money’s supposed uselessness in the quest for a cessation of suffering.

Pop artist Yuree Kensaku offers huge paintings with vivid depictions of animals on parade, in the style of Japanese comics. They’re seen along with a 20th-century collection of Phra Bot – the traditional canvases illustrating the Vesantara Jataka.

Jakkai Siributr’s textiles can be just as easily compared to embroidered cloth from the last century bearing pictures from the Ramayana. Jakkai studied a piece of Lanna embroidery depicting the birth of Sita and created her own variant in colourful cross-stitching.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s seven-hour video “Untitled (Freedom Cannot Be Simulated)” was the contemporary work most anticipated in this exhibition. It’s a series of drawings set to a varied soundtrack. Rirkrit was fascinated with the “black sketches” (samut thaidum) he encountered at the National Museum, as can be seen in murals at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The flood crisis in 2011 prompted him to fuse concepts of a deluge into the project.

The Ramayana epic is revisited in a dark, enclosed space in which a female voice recites tales of morals and ethics. Computer graphics on a black surface depict the abduction of Sita and Phra Rama and Tosaganth in combat. Interspersed with enlarged chalk sketches are depictions of modern traumas. Three characters travel around flooded Bangkok and the countryside battling the deities of wind, thunder and storm. They enact a shadow play of Theodore Gericault’s famed painting “Raft of the Medusa”.

Bussaraporn Thongchai and Pannaphan Yodmanee have made a mural of the sacred and profane, inspired by the Tribhumi manuscripts, and Dao Wasiksiri has filled another room with photos of people in their varied costumes. Pictures of hill people in traditional attire perch next to four 19th-century textiles and two recently made sarongs.

The earthenware discoveries of Ban Chiang, more than 2,000 years old, co-exist harmoniously with abstract paintings by Udomsak Krisanamis thanks to their shared feature, the lively creative patterns.

And the 10th-century Hindu phallus, known as a linga, representing creative power, is surrounded by that religion’s multitude of gods and goddesses, carved in stone, adorned with flowers, insects, honey and milk. A linga and yoni signify Shiva and Shakti, the “eternal couple” of male-female energies.

Kampanath Ruangkittivilas’ ritualistic performance evokes Hindu worship and Rattawalee Chanchawvalit’s yoni is soft, delicate and triangular, made of paper – yet painstakingly perforated with a metal punch.

Araya Rasjarmrearnsook’s 2011 video “In Village and Elsewhere: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, Jeff Koons’ Untitled and Thai Villagers” feels like entering a temple. It shows her sitting among the murals at Wat Don Kaew in Chiang Mai, which depict the Buddha’s life in gaudy colours. As Araya listens to a monk, she comments on famous Western artworks and draws comparisons in the functions of religion and art as conveyers of ethics.

All this blending of old and new is a great idea and a daunting challenge. Clearly our heritage can be displayed alongside contemporary art. But much of the understanding has to come from the information notes accompanying the exhibits, and unfortunately, this multimillion-baht show is lacking in such explanations, when it comes to the artefacts from olden times.

ACROSS THE MILLENNIA

>>> “Thai Charisma” continues until November 16 on the eight floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

>>> Curator Professor Apinan, Somchai na Nakhonpanom, an archaeology expert from the Fine Arts Department, and veteran artist Panya Vijinthanasarn will have a discussion on October 4 at 2pm titled “From Thai Heritage to Contemporary Art: The Creative Power”.

>>> The Centre at the Pathumwan intersection is open daily except Monday from 10 to 9. Call (02) 214 6630-8 or visit www.BACC.or.th.

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