Montien Boonma

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Buddhist Minimalism

Montien Boonma was born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1953, and received his BFA in Painting in 1978. He started exhibiting internationally in the late 1980s and became known as one the most important Thai artists of his generation. Although trained as a painter, Boonma became known for his sculptures and installations that fuse a sincere faith in Buddhism with a contemporary aesthetics and a very subtle and poetic sensibility for materials. In 2000, Boonma died prematurely of cancer.
Montien Booma’s artistic oeuvre can be seen as an almost exemplary interplay of personal beliefs, religious traditions and Eastern as well as Western aesthetic influences. Although visually highly striking, his large scale drawings, sculptures, and installations must be seen within the framework of Thailand’s Buddhist traditions and Boonma’s intense and devote personal belief. Punctuated by a series of tragic events, his life and his religious practice increasingly influenced his artistic practice, as he was concerned with a search to gain personal relief from suffering and to attain a state of mental and spiritual health.

Originally trained as a painter, Boonma belonged to a generation of young Thai artists who searched for new styles and themes since neo-traditional Thai art, especially in the medium of mural painting, was resurging as the dominant brand of official Thai art in the early 1980s. After he graduated in the late 1970s, Boonma created paintings that critically questioned the state of affairs in contemporary Thailand, using street signs, the national flag, and other official markers of order and control as visual elements. By the mid-1980s, Boonma had ventured into a bricolage-like sculptural production that combined natural elements, such as tree trunks, with metal rivets and screws. The sculpture “Natural Form in the Present Environment” (1984), where a forking tree trunk is planted in a bed of sand and connected at the roots by a curved tube-like aluminum protrusion, won a National Art Award and put the young artist on the map.

In 1985, Boonma lived for three months as a monk at a very strict temple in Nonthaburi. In the same year, he married his partner Chancham and left for Europe to begin a two-year residence to continue his studies. In Rome and Paris, Boonma became acquainted with the artists of Arte Povera and the work of Joseph Beuys, which particularly resonated in him. Upon his return, he began teaching in Northern Thailand and living apart from his wife, following the advice of a monk. The temples, pagodas, and stupas of Northern Thailand served as the inspiration for a series of wall relief panels, such as “Earth Pagoda” (1989). For these works, Boonma alternatingly stacked several frames vertically and horizontally in order to replicate the overall pyramidal shape and construction method of these buildings. Covered with sand, soil, indigo and detergent powder, the relief paintings alluded both to abstract painting in the tradition of European Art Povera and could be understood within the framework of a Buddhist critique of the replacement of old culture by new materials.

“Drawing of the Mind Training and the Bowls of the Mind” (1992) is a series of drawings and small sculptures that repeats the image and shape of an alms bowl that is traditionally used by Buddhist monks. Drawn over an extended period of time as early morning exercises (between three and six in the morning), this work can be seen as a striking example of Boonma’s mature style: its formal economy and aesthetic restraint recall the Western influences of Arte Povera and Minimalism, while its subject matter is still deeply rooted within traditional Buddhist ideas, namely the hollow vessel, which both represents the monk’s alms bowl and “the idea of the inside-outside space of the body and mind” (Apinan Poshyananda).

“Lotus Sound” (1992) consists of a circular wall of stacked ceramic bell-shaped vessels, which, when installed, corner off a segment of a given space. Behind the screen of ceramic vessels, gilded terracotta leaves are attached to the walls, suggesting the falling leaves of a lotus flower. The installation draws its inspiration from both traditional symbolism in Buddhism—interpreting the walls of bells as at once permanent and perishable, solid and fragile—and from the sculptural operations of minimalism—repeating the same sculptural object in structured, rational orders. Boonma himself also recognized works such as Joseph Beuys’ “Terremoto in Palazzo” (1981), with its shattered glass containers, as an influence in which he saw a similar combination of Western sculptural language and personal spirituality.

The element of the bell-shaped vessel continued to appear in other works by Boonma, and in 1994 he produced “Rock Bell Garden” in Tokyo as part of a public art commission. For this work, more than a thousand brass bells were stacked to create a cylindrical enclosure around a black stone, once again surrounded by a circular passageway. The straight approach to and circular movement through the work resembled the circumambulatory movement typical of Buddhist stupas.

Earlier that year, Boonma’s wife prematurely passed away from breast cancer, and his work became both increasingly monumental in scale and spiritually involved in questions of suffering and healing. In works such as “Temple of the Mind: Sala for the Mind” (1995), “House for Practicing the Mind” (1995), and “House of Hope” (1996-97), Boonma incorporated medical herbs and spices into his installations, creating environments of intense sensual experience which should lead to a state of heightened awareness and perception. "House of Hope" consists of thousands of strings of medical herb balls that hang from the ceiling in a grid-like pattern to form the volume of house. A platform underneath the beads invites visitors to enter the volume of herbs, and wall paintings made of colored herbs are reminiscent of the smoky, tinted walls of Buddhist temples that are discolored from the many candles burned over time.

Boonma’s last body of work consists of a series of hollow metal forms of Buddha statues, which resemble molds for casting and are propped up on high stilts to allow visitors to stand underneath them. Rough and raw on the outside, and refined and smooth on the inside, these hollow Buddhas refer to the ancient process of wax casting and may inflict a sudden experience of heaviness and buoyancy when standing underneath them. One of the last works Boonma was able to complete before his untimely death in 2000 goes back to the form of the empty bowl: “Untitled” (2000) combins five large-scale charcoal drawings of empty bowls and two polished brass casts of bowl-shaped solids. But while the form of the empty bowls still registers within the spiritual framework of Buddhism, the bowls themselves no longer seem hollow: in a life’s work of combining Eastern and Western artistic vocabularies with Buddhist spirituality, Boonma has filled them.

Author: Christian Rattemeyer

Bio

*1953 in Bangkok, Thailand. †2000

1978 B.F.A. (Painting), Silpakorn University, Bangkok
1986-88 Studied in Sculpture, Ecole Nationale Supeireure des Beaux - Arts, Paris
1988 Studied Maitrise Nationale en Arte Plastiques, Universite de Paris VIII, Faculte de L’Arts Plastique Saint- Denis, France
1988-95 Taught in mixed media sculpture, Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiangmai University, Chiangmai
1989 M.F.A. (Painting), Silpakorn University, Bangkok
1996 Instructor in intermedia, Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok
1997 Instructor, Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, Silpakorn University, Bangkok

Works

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2004 "Montien Boonma - Temple of Mind”, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia "Montien Boonma: Temple of the Mind”, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, USA 1999 "Das Haus der Sternzeichen“, Academie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany 1998 "House of Hope“, Deitch Projects, New York, USA "Melting Void“, Marsi Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1997 "Montien Boonma”, Art Front Gallery, Tokyo, Japan "Montien Boonma: Arokhayasala Installasjoner“, Stenersenmuseum, Oslo, Norway 1996 "Arokhayasan“, Visual Dhamma Gallery and Bangkok Playhouse, Bangkok, Thailand 1994 "Marks of Mind“, Silom Art Space, Bangkok, Thailand 1993 "Works 1991-1993“, National Art Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1992 "Arte Amazonas“, Goethe Institut, Bangkok, Thailand 1991 "Montien Boonma: The Pagoda &Cosmos Drawn with Earth“, Japan Foundation ASEAN Culture Center Gallery, Tokyo, Japan "Aum”, Visual Dhamma Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1990 "THAIAHT (Thai-Thai)”, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand "Form and Material”, Visual Dhamma Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1989 "Story from the Farm“, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand

Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2005 "51. Biennial Venice 2005“, Biennial Venice, Venice, Italy 2002 "Asia-Pacific Triennial 2002“, Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia 2001 "Shanghai Biennial 2000 - Shanghai Spirit“, Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai, China 2000 "Shanghai Biennial“, Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai, China "Glocal Scents of Thailand“, Edsvik konst och Kultur, Sollentuna, Sweden "1. Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2000”, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, Niigata-ken, Japan 1999 "Trace“, Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool, Great Britain 1998 "Construction in Process VI: The Bridge“, Works in Public Areas, Melbourne, Australia "Global Vision“, New Art From the 90’s Part III, Deste Foundation, Athens, Greece 1997 "River Project“, Dimension Endowement of Art, Taipei, Taiwan "In Between the Void“, Johannesburg Biennial, Johannesburg, South Africa "Corner”, Project 304, Bangkok, Thailand "Glimpses Into the Future”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan "Die Andern Modernen“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany 1996 "Traditions/Tensions: Contemporary Art in Asia“, The Asia Society, New York, USA "Into the Next Decade“, Tadu Contemporary Art, Bangkok, Thailand "Montien Boonma/Thaiwijit Puangkasemsomboon”, Bangkok University Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1995 "Asian Modernism“, Japan Foundation Asia Center, Tokyo, Japan "4th International Istanbul Biennial“, Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, Turkey "Thai Tensions“, The Art Center, Center of Academic Resources, Bangkok, Thailand "Art and Environment III“, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1994 "Faret Tachikawa Art Project“, Tachikawa Perfecture, Tokio, Japan "Beyond the Material World“, Adelaide Festival, Adelaide, Australia "Content and Sense“, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1993 "Prospect 93 International Exhibition of Actual Art“, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Germany 1992 "Melancholic Trance“, Visual Dhamma Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand "Arte Amazonas“, Museum de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1991 "Thai Spirit“, White Group, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand "Print Installation“, National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1990 "Readymade Boomerang 8th Biennale of Sydney“, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia "Von der Natur in der Kunst“, Messepalast, Vienna, Austria "Asia Contemporary Watercolour Exhibition“, City Hall, Hong Kong, China "Enneagram Nine into 9“, Visual Dhamma Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand "Art &Environment“, Gallery of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, Silpakorn University, Bangkok, Thailand 1989 "Les Peintres Thailandais Traditionnel et Contemporains“, L’Espace Pierre Cardin, Paris, France "From the Outside Looking In“, USIS Gallery, Chiang Mai and National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand "Asian Contemporary Watercolours“, Thailand Cultural Centre, Bangkok, Thailand 1988 "43eme Salon de Mai“, Grand Palais, Paris, France "Olympiad of Art”, Olympic Park, Seoul, Korea 1987 "42eme Salon de Mai“, Grand Palais, Paris, France "La Rue Vors L’Art:Exhibition of Schools of Fine Arts“, Nantos, France 1984 "Paper Work“, Silpakorn University Art Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand 1982 "Culture in Danger“, British Council Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand "White Group Exhibitions”, Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, Bangkok, Thailand 1977 "National Exhibition of Art“, National Art Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Die Anderen Modernen

Contemporary Art from Africa, Asia & Latin America

(08 May 97 - 27 July 97)