temple of the mind
23 July – 10 October 2004
Self Portrait: A Man Who Admires Thai Art 1982 Colour pen on photograph, Collection of Chongrux Chantaworasut, Bangkok more detail
As one of Asia’s most gifted contemporary artists, Montien Boonma’s death in 2000, at the age of 47, was not only a great loss for Thailand but also for the international art community. His work explores the tensions and transformations between the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern, and developed and developing countries.
Montien Boonma: life and work
Montien Boonma studied art in Bangkok, Rome and Paris and began exhibiting internationally in the late 1980s. Initially trained as a painter, he is best known for his sculptures and installations, which combine traditional and organic substances (such as herbs and spices, wax, gold leaf and lotus petals) with cement, steel and other industrial materials. Montien Boonma consistently searched for alternatives to conventional expressions in Thai art and looked critically at 20th-century art movements, including fluxus and arte povera.
Boonma’s deepening belief in Buddhism drew him to the ancient concepts and symbolism of that faith, through which he found his creative voice. Herbs and healing practices played a central role in much of Boonma’s work from the 1990s when he lost close family members, including his beloved wife, to cancer, the disease to which he also succumbed.Many of his works are metaphors for hope, faith and healing, symbolising religious devotion and the possibilities of connection with the spiritual realm.
What is installation?
An installation is a construction or assemblage made for a specific place, and is often on display for only a short period of time. It differs from sculpture because of its physical domination of the surrounding space. Installations often demand the viewer’s active engagement, inviting them to physically enter into the work of art, and often appealing to a range of senses – sight, hearing and smell (which is especially important in Montien Boonma’s work).
In Montien Boonma’s installations, the visitor is invited to engage with the works of art physically, mentally and spiritually. This encounter provides the opportunity to contemplate what lies within and beyond the self. In the case of Melting void, for instance, the interiors of the sculptures are very different from the immediately visible exteriors. In many instances in this exhibition, the visual experience is enhanced by the inclusion of smell and inferred sound.
Montien Boonma drew increasingly, but not unquestioningly, on his Buddhist heritage and faith. In Buddhist teaching, sacred enclosures are cosmic centres of contemplation and concentration. Montien Boonma’s constructions embrace this concept and visitors are invited to physically enter many of his installations and sculptures. In these tactile and sensuous works, Buddhist spirituality finds contemporary expression. Boonma’s work includes references to different traditions of faith and, in the case of works inspired by a visit to Europe, incorporates Christian symbolism alongside Buddhist symbolism and architecture.
Loss and grief
Much of the work in Montien Boonma: Temple of the mind was created during the last decade of Boonma’s life during a time when tragic events were unfolding for Boonma and his family. Boonma and his wife, Chancham, lived apart for ten years on the advice of a trusted Buddhist monk. It was during this time that Chancham developed breast cancer. She subsequently died from the illness in 1994. Boonma himself developed a brain tumour and died in 2000, leaving a young son, Choompong.
Both Montien Boonma and his wife sought spiritual and physical healing to overcome their illnesses. They visited Buddhist monasteries, pagodas and other sacred pilgrimage sites. Boonma’s work is imbued with the questioning of suffering and particularly with the hope of healing using traditional medicinal herbs and spices. In his work he incorporates symbols and places of healing with medicinal herbs.
Aromatic herbs and spices
Aromatic herbs and spices are used extensively in Buddhist ritual and healing, which had a strong impact on Boonma’s works. Montien Boonma made his paints from herbs and spices, as well as incorporating them into his installations. Some of the traditional substances that Boonma used include sandalwood, cinnamon, turmeric, jasmine and pepper. Their aromatic smell, appealing to both the senses and the spirit, entices the viewer into the space.
The lives of sentient beings are like clay pots destined to break sooner or later.
The notion of transience is at the heart of Buddhist belief. Just as the Buddhist proverb above suggests, much of Montien Boonma’s art is ephemeral in nature, destined to crumble and decay. Through the use of earthenware objects, including bowls, pots and burnished terracotta bells, Montien Boonma embraces the everyday, the domestic and the temporary nature of human life.
The burning of candles is a symbolic part of many Buddhist rituals. Montien Boonma also viewed burning as a symbol of the creative process that is initiated by the artist but then takes on a life of its own. In Bowls, candles and matches A, B, and C, 1990, Montien Boonma uses the random nature of dripping candle wax.
Shapes and symbols
Montien Boonma was inspired to make a structure of bells, a work he called Lotus sound, after listening to bells in the tranquil gardens of a Buddhist temple. He found that imagining the sound of a bell relieved his stress, suffering and pain and he visualised the temple melody in his stacks of terracotta bells. Interestingly, the brass bells coated with medicinal herbs inside Temple of the mind do not contain a clapper to make them ring. Entering this space of quietness provides endless possibilities for the mind.
In Nature’s breath: Arokhayasala, fragile lungs replace bells inside the temple structure. They represent the human body and its frailty. Here breathing is a reference to the physical link between the inside and the outside of the body and the spiritual link between mind and body that is established through mindfulness – the awareness of breathing in and out in the practice of meditation.
Stupa or pagoda
The shapes of Montien Boonma’s installations allude to the stupa or pagoda (Buddhist structures that house religious relics and, in Thailand, have a bell-like shape). He sometimes used simple and fragile materials painted on rectangular panels to construct his triangular pagodas. Boonma’s work imitates the qualities inherent in Buddhist architecture, such as stillness, lightness and a sense of ascension.
For me [the shape of a monk’s bowl] is organic and geometric and ambiguous. The bottom of the bowl is curved so it can stand by itself without support from anything underneath. Monks always hold the bowl … When I think about the space in the bowl, I prefer to be inside this space which is separated from the outside world. I would like to place my mind inside the bowl.
Members of Buddhist communities gain merit by placing food and other gifts (alms) in the bowls carried by Buddhist monks. Montien Boonma began to draw alms bowls early each morning as part of his meditation. Boonma has also created sculptural bowls that are variously hollow or solid, where the interior may be light or dark, full or empty.
Lotus Sound (detail) 1992 terracotta, lotus petals, gold leaf Collection of Petch Osathanugrah, Bangkok more detail
The lotus is an important Buddhist symbol. It symbolises purity: it blooms out of the mire but is itself pure. The petals, stems and budding flower represent different spiritual levels. Lotus buds and flowers enhance statues of the Buddha in temples throughout Thailand.
In Lotus sound, 1992, Montien Boonma uses golden lotus petals and stems to evoke inner peace, separating the lotuses from the viewer with a wall of clay bells.
Montien Boonma covered the walls of his wife’s hospital room with question marks. These marks represented the unknown, surprise, discovery and hope. Montien Boonma saw faith as a never-ending cycle of questions and answers, with answers only creating more questions. To Boonma, the spiral shape of the question mark represented movement from the outer realm, or self, to the inner, which can only be achieved through meditation and concentration.
All quotations are taken from the exhibition catalogue, Apinan Poshyananda, Montien Boonma: Temple of the mind, Asia Society, New York 2003 (available from the Gallery Shop for $75).
Apinan Poshyananda, Montien Boonma: Temple of the mind, Asia Society, New York, 2003.
Kate Davidson and Michael Desmond, Islands: contemporary installations from Australia, Asia, Asia, Europe and America (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1996.
Melissa Chiu, ‘An architecture of the senses: Montien Boonma’s installation in context’, artonview, Winter 2004, pp. 30–35.
Find out more about Montien Boonma at these websites:
Montien Boonma: Temple of the mind was curated by Dr Apinan Poshyananda, Thailand’s leading art historian, for the Asia Society Museum, New York.