Jennifer Gampell
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March 4-6, 2005

Montien Boonma Finally Gets Some Recognition in Thailand
by Jennifer Gampell

BANGKOK--The current retrospective for the late Montiem Boonma at Bangkok's National Gallery represents the first--and probably last--time this groundbreaking Thai artist will receive the attention he deserves in his home country.

"Death Before Dying: The Return of Montien Boonma" opened on Feb. 17 and will run through April 20th. Augmented by many pieces never displayed before on loan from private Thai collectors, this retrospective includes some 65% of Montien's entire body of work and is the first show ever to fill all eight rooms of the woefully underutilized gallery. During 2003-2004 a smaller version of the current retrospective exhibition entitled "Temple of the Mind" traveled to New York (Asia Society), San Francisco (Asian Art Museum) and Canberra (National Gallery of Australia).

Montien's early work on sociopolitical or Buddhist themes--along with his unorthodox materials and presentation--contrasted sharply with the more traditional-style paintings coming out of Thailand in the late '80s and early '90s. The ruined pagodas and rapidly urbanizing rural culture of the northern region of Chiang Mai where he taught from 1988 to 1995 inspired Montien to create increasingly large sculptural works made from used wood, cardboard, soil, etc.

"Montien kept trying to find a new expression of Thai identity separate from the accepted mainstream norm," explains retrospective organizer Apinan Poshyananda, head of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture under the Ministry of Culture and the first curator of Thai art abroad. "But Thai audiences could not grasp the fact that he'd take found objects--junk--and make it art."

"Arte povera, art without luxury, is against the Thai ethos," concurs Alfred Pawlin, owner of the now-defunct Visual Dhamma, the first private Bangkok gallery to exhibit Montien's work. "Fighting that was one of Montien's biggest achievements."

But if his work was underappreciated in his own country, Montien's work resonated abroad. He received the acclaim of the many foreign curators who flocked to Southeast Asia during the early 1990s looking for unusual works to display at a growing number of international exhibitions, and he was one of the few Asian artists--sometimes the only one--represented at these early multicultural extravaganzas. In 1990 and 1991 alone, Montien showed in Vienna, Sydney, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Berkeley, Rio de Janeiro and Melbourne.

A 1978 graduate from Thailand's conservative Silpakorn fine arts university, Montien initially painted on canvas and created small sculptures exploring sociopolitical and environmental themes. In 1986 he received a two-year scholarship to study in Europe. Before leaving, Montien proposed to a former classmate and in accordance with Thai tradition, the couple consulted a monk prior to the wedding. Their astrological signs portended a difficult future, predicted the monk, and he suggested they live apart for 10 years after marrying in order to offset the bad omens.

Montien went alone to Europe where he taught himself French and English and began reading voraciously on philosophy and aesthetics. Meanwhile his art was becoming particularly influenced by the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys and the Italian arte povera (impoverished art) movement. Upon returning to Thailand in 1988, Montien took a teaching position at Chiang Mai University where he stayed until 1995. Still following the monk's counsel, his wife and a son born in 1989 remained in Bangkok.

While Montien received more international recognition and praise than any Thai contemporary artist of his generation, his short life (1953-2000) was marked by ongoing personal tragedy. "Montien's life was cursed and blessed at the same time," says Mr. Pawlin. "He suffered so much and art was a must, a therapeutic necessity for him. That's what made him so great."

In 1991 Montien's wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. His attempts to reconcile his feelings about her illness and subsequent death--in 1994--with Buddhist notions of impermanence and suffering transformed his mode of expression. He began creating enormous interactive installations made from metal, wood, or plaster. Their shapes evoked places of worship (pagodas, Buddha heads, church spires) or healing shrines. Montien often incorporated traditional Thai medicinal herbs into his art, either painted into the wood, sprinkled in the interior, or hung from the ceiling.

"Montien connects with people in a very profound way," avers American anthropologist Sandra Cate, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Thai mural painting in a London temple. "Westerners with no prior knowledge or understanding of Buddhism or Thai art find his work genuinely moving."

Always somewhat of a workaholic, Montien grew even more frenetic after his wife's death. When not traveling the world to supervise the labor-intensive process of installing his work in museums and galleries, he taught classes at Silpakorn University. In 1997 alone he participated in 12 exhibitions abroad and three in Thailand.

Montien collapsed in Kyoto in 1997 and again in Sao Paulo and Bangkok in 1998. Diagnosed with brain cancer in 1999, he kept working until his failing health stopped his physical art production. When he could no longer walk or use his hands, he relied on his assistants to sketch out the endless streams of new ideas. But mentally, Montien never stopped. When I visited him six weeks before he died we were trying to come up with a title for his latest project, a huge installation of the monkey god Hanuman.

Whether or not Thai audiences value Montien's work more now--five years after his death--than they did during his lifetime wouldn't have concerned a talented artist whose universal themes transcend the confines of cultural identity.

"Thai artists don't accept my work as traditionally Thai," Montien told me during a 1995 interview. "At the same time Westerners think it's not absolutely Western and has some sense of the Thai. This is contemporary art, in between all the time."

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright 2005 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell