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.