Book Review

I had a book review published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Asian Studies (Volume 73, Issue 04 (for those of you keeping track)) on this amazing book:


Buddhist Storytelling in Thailand and Laos: The Vessantara Scroll at the Asian Civilisations Museum by Leedom Lefferts and Sandra Cate, with Wajuppa Tossa, published by University of Hawai'i Press, 2012.

This is a beautiful book--large format mate-finish hardcover that is chock full of amazing full-color prints and top-notch scholarship. I'm not going to go on about it here, cause you can just read the review below. I will simply say that you should buy this book. You will not be disappointed! 

Buy it here!

Click here to read my review!

Copyright for the book review is held by Cambridge University Press.

Bibliographical information: Anthony Lovenheim Irwin (2014). The Journal of Asian Studies, 73, pp 1160-1162

Access the Journal of Asian Studies by clicking here

Stay tuned!

Constant Uncertainty : ความเปลี่ยนแปลงนิรันคร์

On April 22nd I'm presenting a paper titled "Is There a Buddhist Avant-Garde? Religious Themes in the Work of Contemporary Northern Thai Artists" at the 12 International Conference on Thai Studies at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia. My talk focuses on two artists, Tinnakorn (Neung) Nugul and Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, both Chiang Rai natives who produce work that, in different ways, pushes the limits of acceptable social and religious criticism. Furthermore, both artists play with and confuse the line between religious art made for the temple context, and contemporary works made for display in the gallery. Justin McDaniel, Buddhist Studies scholar extraordinaire, has dubbed Tinnakorn Nugul "one of the most controversial and dynamic Thai artists working on Buddhist themes..." (The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk, 262 n. 32). I completely agree with McDaniel, and would add "talented" and "worthy of your patronage" to Neung's list of superlatives. While I am saving what I am writing on Neung and Angkrit's Buddhist-based art for future publication, Here is a little something about Angkrit's most recent body of work:

Last October I went to my friend Angkrit Ajchariyasophon's combination soup shop/art gallery (Angkrit Gallery) located about 15 kilometers north of Chiang Rai city on the highway that leads up to the Burmese boarder. I have known Angkrit since 2005, when I worked as a physical education teacher at his son's school (worthy of a separate blog post). In my opinion, Angkrit is one of the best Thai artist of his generation, and, more important than that, he is a wonderful human being. 

After a coffee and a chat, Angkrit took me up to his studio, located two floors above his family's large restaurant, which is famous for its pork soup (เกาเหลาเลือดหมู). East-facing windows let in an even, brilliant light as Angkrit and I sat on stools talking about his most recent work large, unstretched, painted canvases stacked on top of each other in the middle of the floor. Angkrit explained to me his painting practice, and the concept behind these pieces.

"They aren't actually art, just different colored lines on canvas. I don't think of anything while I paint them, I just come in and do it like a physical practice."

Angkrit explained that he was inspired by the Japanese monks at Kyoto's Ryōyan-ji monastery and their daily practice of maintaining the monastery's rock gardenheads down, raking rocks, with no attachment to the permanence of pattern or line.

"The paintings themselves don't matter as works of art, actually they are just evidence, evidence of how I spend my time."

"Have you looked at the backs of the canvases?" I asked

"The backs?"

"Yeah, if the paintings are only important as evidence of your time, then the backs of the canvases are also interesting, they have traces of your movements, paint splatters, dirt stains, all of which were produced as you were painting the canvases on the floor."

Angkrit and I picked up one of the large, flimsy paintings and flipped it over. Holding it between us, its underside smudges, scratches, and swirls shining in the light, Angkrit's eyes widened.

"Yeah, that's it! Wow! Look! I made those marks, but I didn't intend to make them. This is perfect!"

Angkrit sent the works to Bangkok's 338 OIDA Gallery for a solo show titled "The Constant Uncertainty." Some of the canvases were stretched with their undersides facing out, others stretched to display the large fields of painted lines. He asked me to write a short essay for the exhibition catalog, and I happily complied.

Here is the text of my very short essay:

The Constant Uncertainty

This exhibition is a performance, the way that gender is a performance, ritual is a performance, or business is a performance. Many years ago, Angkrit arrived at one of his art openings in full SCUBA gear—mask, flippers, wet suit. He moved about the crowd, waving and shaking hands, people not knowing whether they should gawk at him or politely look at the pictures on the walls. Tonight you are supposed to politely look at the pictures on the walls. Tonight Angkrit has arrived dressed in his artist outfit, which is equally as absurd as a wet suit.

The works you see tonight are not so concerned with the performative realm that the exhibition demands. These works are not commentary—they are not spiritual notes or precious pieces of personal expressions. They are evidence, evidence of how Angkrit has filled his time in his studio. If you ask him, he may not even call them art. His art now leans towards grand temporal experiments—watching groves of trees grow from seeds, to saplings, to sturdy stands—witnessing the giant swing of the scale of time while riding the waves of constant uncertainty as they heave against the horizon.  

Angkrit began working in abstraction after staring out at the ocean from the Japanese coast. He crawled to shore after years of underwater exploration, stood and turned around towards the water, lifted his mask and gazed out at the everlasting scene—that uncertain line where water meets sky. You can still find his wet suit laying there on that beach near Okinawa.

But how do we fit the ocean at Okinawa into the gallery? What do the white walls have on heavens and horizons?

Maybe, just maybe, while gazing into Angkrit’s fields of abstraction, we can catch a glimpse of the ever crashing waves, and the constant uncertainty that forces us into forms of performance that fool us into thinking that we too will last forever.

Anthony Lovenheim Irwin
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Here are some photos:

 stretched underside-out. Photo:  338 OIDA Gallery

stretched underside-out. Photo: 338 OIDA Gallery

stretched topside-out. Photo: 338 OIDA Gallery

 stretched underside-out. Photo:  338 OIDA Gallery

stretched underside-out. Photo: 338 OIDA Gallery

 stretched underside-out. Photo:  338 OIDA Gallery

stretched underside-out. Photo: 338 OIDA Gallery

 Catalog cover

Catalog cover


 Text of my essay in English

Text of my essay in English

 Text of my essay in Thai

Text of my essay in Thai

 My essay was also translated into Japanese, but I guess they didn't know what to do with my mother's maiden name.

My essay was also translated into Japanese, but I guess they didn't know what to do with my mother's maiden name.

Hope to see you in Sydney!

I like this poem, sort of.

New Yorker Guy.jpg

The other night I was reading The New Yorker and came across a poem that I liked, sort of. There is a special place in Hell for people who write blog posts about poems that they read in The New Yorker--it's a subsection of the monocle-wearers' circle, which Dante locates above the circle of ascot enthusiasts, but below the circle of corrupt fourteenth-century Italian magistrates.

I love that there are poems scattered among the articles in The New Yorker. They allow us to have a passing experience of poetry without getting all uptight and serious about it. Just imagine everything that Robin Williams says about poetry in Dead Poet's Society and pretend I'm saying it here, also, everything Garrison Keillor says before The Writer's Almanac and add that to what you're already imagining. The short of it is that we shouldn't be too serious about poetry. We shouldn't be afraid to talk about poetry, we shouldn't think that we need to know a bunch of stuff or read literary journals in order to say something interesting, and most of all, we shouldn't be afraid to simply enjoy poetry, that shit is awesome.

Here is the poem I like, sort of: 

by Don Paterson

For months I'd moved across the open water
like a wheel under its skin, a frictionless
and by then almost wholly abstract matter
with nothing in my head beyond the bliss
of my own breaking: how the long foreshore
would hear my full confession, and I'd drain
into the shale till I was filtered pure.
There was no way to tell on that bare plain
but I felt my power run down with the miles
and by the time I saw the scattered sails,
the painted front and children on the pier
I was no more than a fold in her blue gown
and I knew I was already in the clear.
I hit the beach and swept away the town.

Don Paterson, Poem, “Wave,” The New Yorker, March 3, 2014, p. 65 

My favorite line is this: "with nothing in my head beyond the bliss / of my own breaking"

Runnerup favorite is this: "I was no more than a fold in her blue gown"

My least favorite line is this: "I hit the beach and swept away the town"

I hate this last line, in fact, and it almost ruins the entire poem for me. When I got to that last sentence I was shoved out of the poetic bliss the poem had put me in. I was loving this wave, its hinting at imperfection and whispers of redemption. I was with the wave as it moved across the open water, all wet and velvety. But that last line steals from poem the full power of its craft. What a wholly different feeling we would be left with if that last sentence had been sliced away before going to press. Imagine if that last line wasn't there, and the poem ended with "and I knew I was already in the clear."

I know it would disrupt the rhyme scheme, but ending the poem there would allow the motion that the imagery invokes to continue. We would leave the wave right before the moment of its breaking, leaving the action implied and inevitable, allowing us to finish the image on our own, with emotion and spirit instead of with the cluck and clank of stupid words. Isn't that what we want poetry to do, to lead us someplace where we no longer need words?

last year I taught the Zen poetry of Ryokan in a Buddhist Studies class for which I was the TA. Sitting on the bus on the way in to discussion section, I forced myself to come up with an answer to the simple question "what is poetry?" 

"Poetry is the process of bringing words to orgasm," I told the class, and we all burst out laughing. Then I said something like this: "Poetry takes words and brings them to the absolute edges of themselves, it brings them to the brink of their utility where they are able to transcend the confines of their definitions and actually MEAN something!" I most likely slapped down my book on my desk at that end part there.

Maybe my definition of poetry is a bit simple but I think it works. We can see it in action in the successful bulk of Paterson's "Wave,"  especially in this line:

"a frictionless / and by then almost wholly abstract matter."

I'm stuck on the double meaning of the word "matter" in this line, and how that double meaning, as executed in the poem, is self referential. Here's what I mean: 

"matter" here can mean "substance," the actual stuff of the wave, or "issue," the fact of the wave' existence. How the word is embedded in the poem calls to this double meaning, invites ambiguity, and allows the word to exist as both meanings at once. We know from science class that no matter (substance) can be in motion without friction, even waves, but the wave calls itself "frictionless." Then it calls itself "almost wholly abstract matter." What is wholly abstract matter (substance) if not the matter (issue) of its existence? But the wave is only ALMOST wholly abstract, not quite purely thought but still some silky shreds of substance.

Where is the substance of a wave, anyway? It moves constantly across the open water, in no instance (matter) is its substance (matter) consistent. It can be isolated in the abstract, but in the actual it's all force pushing forward, leaving forgotten substance behind in a foamy trail of friction.

Unlike the motion of the wave, however, the mental motion from matter (substance) to matter (instance) that the poem inspires, is frictionless and forever.

So too is the sweet and subtle succor of the mind.