Northern Thailand’s Lanna heritage, art and architecture are traditionally depicted in a spicy colour palette. However, portraying their unique interpretations of heaven and hell, two of Chiang Rai’s famous artistic sons have dramatically flipped the switch to mono.
Words: Carol West Photography: Robert Muir
Dragging a metal chain leash, a large black dog paced the pathway between two low-slung, glass and steel art galleries. In the stillness of mid-afternoon, the eerie sight and metallic sound were strangely disturbing. Robert and I had just arrived at The Black House, or Baan Si Dum, 10 kilometres north of Chiang Rai. Glancing around nervously, I wondered if the dog’s sudden appearance had been stage-managed. This feeling didn’t dissipate when viewing the gallery’s black, white and crimson paintings that depict the destructive energy of mythological, flesh-tearing creatures that emanate from the darkly creative imagination of Thailand’s treasured national artist Thawan Duchanee.
Black & White
Both the Black House and the White Temple located two kilometres to the south of the former, run counterpoint to what I was anticipating when drawing up my temple itinerary in Chiang Rai. The first capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom founded by King Mengrai in the mid-13th century, Chiang Rai is Thailand’s oldest city in a province separated from Burma and Laos by mighty mountains and fast flowing rivers. Set in the heart of the fabled Golden Triangle, it’s a region richly endowed with ancient culture and ethnic diversity. At Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Saen, we watched machete wielding men scale perilous heights, hacking the unrelenting foliage away from the ancient chedi. Chiang Saen’s largest and oldest, it’s the perfect embodiment of Lanna artistry.
Such decorative touches are obliquely expressed at the Black House where artist, architect and philosopher, Thawan Duchanee, has moodily re-invented aspects of Thai Buddhist architecture. Sunlight shoots daggers of light across the Assembly Hall’s immense black interior that’s supported by sturdy teak pillars. Python skins span tables roughly hewn and polished from enormous trees while ancient root systems are fashioned into seats. Described as a mystical masterpiece or, macabre and repetitive, the operatically scaled décor incorporates enormous horned chairs, animal skulls, vast shell collections, ancient weaponry and animal furs. This taxidermic excess suggested ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ rather than the Buddhist ‘Middle Way’.
Animal skins lay sprawled at entry doors, the vertebrae of a pachyderm was neatly assembled beneath another Thai teak house where cabinets were filled with arrows, daggers, knives, swords and spears – the paraphernalia of death. In another house, feathers and beaks fanned into exotic displays and enormous, black-horned chairs were arranged around a table accessorised with tortoise place settings and pots of un-plucked birds, a sumptuous pagan setting for a marauding Vikings’ dinner party, I surmised. Looking for an escape from the dark interiors, skulls and serrated teeth, I strolled through the garden past artfully arranged, free-form granite sculptures and grazing horses towards three pure white domes. A circlet of chairs, immense black crocodile skins and rings of giant conch shells were the recurrent themes here accompanied by the dank, musty smell of pagan ritual. I swore I smelt it vividly or perhaps it was just my imagination working overtime, having been assaulted by the dark and disturbing displays. While some visitors bemoan the lack of descriptive panels at the Baan Si Dum, I for one, thought it increased the sense of intrigue and amplified the surreal vision embodied in Duchanee’s dark interpretations.
Colour of Light
While signage to the Black House is minimal, it’s impossible to avoid Chalermchai Kositpipat’s dazzling Buddhist and Hindu White Temple. To some, the crystal temple is an overblown vision, a theme park dedicated to heaven and hell. But to the celebrated artist and teacher, Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple, is a symbol of Lord Buddha’s purity and the artist’s personal vision of heavenly joy. Kositpipat’s spiky white architecture resembled carved blocks of snow overlaid with ice crystals that displayed an unerring eye for detail. Even the shoals of Japanese koi fish in the surrounding moat were albino.
Designed to be viewed by moonlight, during the day the reflected dazzle of this plaster confection embedded with mirror mosaics sparkled with an eye-watering intensity that left me groping for my sunglasses. A life-like statue of revered local monk, the late Prakoo Sawai, greets visitors to this unfinished masterwork of more than 60 buildings, bell towers and sculptures that began in 1997. Like Barcelona’s celebrated architect Antoni Gaudi who began his unfinished masterpiece La Sagrada Familia in 1882, Kositpipat doesn’t plan to conclude the project during his lifetime but will leave the task to more than 60 acolytes and suggests a possible end date of 2070.
Chalermchai Kositpipat emerged in the late 1970s as a leader of the neo-traditional Thai art scene crossing genres by employing allegory, as well as cartoon-like figures. Adjacent to the White Temple, the Hall of Masterworks displays a comprehensive sweep of his paintings, finely detailed images that highlight in minutiae the cycle of life, as he seeks to challenge and create new forms of Thai culture and Theravada Buddhism.
Heaven & Hell
The White Temple is an extension of his provocative art style and provides an immense three-dimensional ‘canvas’ where his ongoing fascination with heaven and hell is explored. Mirrored mythical beasts guard the bridge to the White Temple where a writhing ‘sea’ of 500 hands claws the air, trapped in a floating torment of hell. Called The Beauty of Anguish, it is the one dark spot amongst a recurring theme of love and happiness here. The entrance to the assembly hall is graced with a skull rather than a Buddha image and the wall friezes interweave pop culture references and global issues with lyrical Thai imagery continuing a political and social commentary that first aired in Kositpipat’s work in 2009. The artist provides no answers, instead leaving visitors to draw their own conclusions from what they see, observe and absorb.
Strolling across the verdant parkland, I chanced upon a white, mirror-encrusted, concrete banner symbolising victory and, bell towers and sculptures awaiting decorative finishing touches that will eventually reach them. To Chalermchai Kositpipat, mirror mosaics signify wisdom and I reflected that in the final analysis, appreciation of art and architecture comes down to personal taste. What appeals to one may appall another but by taking a monochromatic approach to Thailand’s gilded extravagance and richly hued imagery, these large scale, long-term projects are sure to provoke, shock and encourage both locals and visitors to think a-new about spiritual symbolism.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies daily to Chiang Rai from Don Mueang Int. Airport Bangkok. Go to www.airasia.com for details.
WAT RONG KHUN
Ban Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, approx 10 kms southwest of Chiang Rai
OPEN: 8.00am to 6.00pm
Entry is free
BAN SI DUM
Moo 13, Tambong Nang Lae, Ban Dhu, Chiang Rai
OPEN: 9.00am to 5.00pm
Entry is free