Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 4, 2004
Montien Boonma: Temple of the Mind
Asia Society Museum, New York, February 4–May 11, 2003; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, February 25–May 23, 2004; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, July 23–October 10, 2004
Montien Boonma. House of Hope, 1996–97. Steel grill, herbs, herbal medicine, and mixed media. 400 x 300 x 600 cm. Collection of Estate of Montien Boonma, Bangkok. Photograph courtesy Deitch projects, New York.

Montien Boonma: Temple of the Mind, a traveling exhibition of Buddhist-inspired art by the internationally acclaimed Thai artist, Montien Boonma (1953–2000), leaves the viewer with vivid memories of transforming experiences. Boonma’s art is not marked by iconic images and didactic narratives, but rather expresses more conceptually the tenets and healing aspects of Buddhism. Most of the art in this exhibition dates from the early 1990s to 2000, a period during which Boonma’s wife became ill and died from cancer; he then became fatally ill himself. In this difficult time, Boonma turned more emphatically to Buddhism for spiritual and physical healing and created art that could help to alleviate suffering and open paths to enlightenment.

For the installation at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, each object was given respectful place and space for viewing and, where appropriate, physical engagement. The exhibition was divided into three galleries, one room primarily for two-dimensional work, a middle open space for a few sculptures, and a large gallery for the bigger sculptures. The objects in this latter room engaged me the most, as the soothing aspects and physicality of Boonma’s three-dimensional work appealed immediately to my harried mind. Many sculptures were constructed with herbal medicines, emitting gentle scents as one approached the works. Abstracted motifs of stupas, begging bowls, and temple bells dominated in warm, earthy hues.

Among the most memorable images was Temple of the Mind: Sala for the Mind (1995), made of herbal medicine, wood, and brass. Viewers were invited to walk inside a private stupa-shaped space formed of empty boxes, which looked much like Asian apothecary medicine drawers. These boxes were open at their backs to the interior of the temple; as such, they seemed to offer invisible medicine to me. My breathing slowed and deepened as I filled my lungs with the fragrance of soothing herbal tonics. Above, several ceramic bells hung aslant, as if ringing overhead. The sensory effects of the visual and the tactile, the tacit sound and movement of the bells, the sweet smells, and my own deep breathing made this room a surprisingly comforting space that engendered meditation.

House of Hope (1996–97), a work made of steel grill, herbal medicine, and mixed media, was placed in its own chamber in the center of the gallery. Panels painted with tawny, abstract, cloudlike forms were hung on the walls, simulating temple walls stained by devotees’ candles and smoke. Thousands of floor-to-ceiling strings of hanging prayer beads made from balls of aromatic herbs in shades of brown and tan hung densely within this central chamber. A wooden altar absent of Buddhist imagery placed under the strings of beads in the core section permitted meditative circumambulation. The viewer/pilgrim was invited to walk through the passages, letting the prayer beads wash over the body. As I moved slowly through them, I enjoyed the gentle touch and sounds of the strings pulling against me, as well as the pattering as they struck against each other in my wake. My vision became abstracted, and I lost sense of depth and place, achieving a sense of purified being.

Among the seemingly simplest and therefore most ascetic of the works was Drawing of the Mind Training and the Bowls of the Mind (1992). This series of crayon-on-paper drawings of begging bowls on colored paper (shades of red, yellow, orange, white, and black) was mounted on the wall before a line of large begging bowls, formed in various media and placed on a low table next to the wall. The drawings were attached to the wall only at their top corners; they tended to curl at their lower edges or flap gently. Looking much like unfinished studies (from above, frontal, three-quarter views, in shadow, casting shadow, etc.), the repeated forms and flat colors suggested prayer flags and chant. The sealed bowls below were oversized and (presumably) too heavy for an individual mendicant to carry. It occurred to me that not only physical items such as food, but also intangibles like kindness, compassion, and inner peace, could be bestowed at the site of a begging bowl, and that this exchange could be mutually given.

Boonma’s art compares with the best of contemporary international artists. Like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Boonma’s art creates powerful places for meditation. Whereas Lin’s wall prompts reflection on lives lost through warfare, Boonma’s focus is on Buddhist tenets for living. Mariko Mori, too, involves Buddhist imagery, but her often playful, tongue-in-cheek representations that question social conventions move determinedly away from the spiritual. Boonma’s art, in contrast, subtly demonstrates the principles of the Historical Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path of behaviors for living and engaging with others to offer an end to suffering, and thereby, a summons to acceptance and inner peace.

Katharine P. Burnett
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of California, Davis