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 garden—heads 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
"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:
Hope to see you in Sydney!