Showing up a latter-day 'deity'

by PATTARA DANUTRA, Bangkok Post, Jan 11, 2007

A new exhibition at Tadu Contemporary Art has a devastating point to make about our attitudes to money and material possessions

Bangkok, Thailand -- Of several auspicious anniversaries celebrated last year, the one closest to the heart of regular gallery-goers was probably the 10th birthday, in October, of Tadu Contemporary Art. A non-profit art space, mainly sponsored by the Yontrakit Group of Companies, it is now widely recognised as a quality venue with high standards of curatorship.

To commemorate the occasion, the gallery hosted an exhibition by several leading local artists whose works had previously been displayed there. Unfortunately, the show attracted little public attention. One reason for this could be accessibility; its new location is pretty inconvenient to reach, for motorists and pedestrians alike.

Back in 1997, a year after it opened on Royal City Avenue, Tadu got the chance to house a huge exhibition called "Normal and Nature". This was an unusual show, not only because it was the first display of calligraphy installations ever held here, but also because it featured the work of highly regarded local conceptual artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert. To date this has been the most successful solo exhibition for both the gallery and the artist himself. So, when Kamin came knocking on Tadu's door to propose another one-man show on a similar scale to the one a decade before, the idea was welcomed as another project to salute the gallery's decade-and-a-bit in existence.

Entitled "Sitting (Money) 2004-06" - "Nang (Ngern) 2547-49" being the Thai-language equivalent - the show comprises no less than 365 small sculptures moulded from papier-mache - specifically from the pulp of Thai banknotes which have reached the end of their useful life. All are of the same figure in a seated position but displaying a variety of gestures. To the uninitiated they may look far from beautiful - childish, even. However, for Thais in general and especially those acquainted with Buddhist art, it is not difficult to interpret these stat-uettes as figurative imitations of Thai and Southeast Asian styles of portraying the Lord Buddha. Many of the figures closely resemble conventional images of the Buddha. Others, however, are more creative in interpretation and some so casual that they look more like toys than religious objects.

So why did Kamin use old banknotes as his primary material and why did he decide to present his ideas in such a way? The answer can be drawn from the modern lifestyle of many of the artist's contemporaries. It would be very unusual for a Thai person to go through a whole day without handling money in some form, but it would be quite commonplace if that same person had not venerated a Buddhist statue or other religious object during the course of the same day. For decades - some would say for more than a century - now, money has been the new "god" in this self-proclaimed Buddhist kingdom. Despite his strong Buddhist beliefs, as an artist (and ordinary consumer) Kamin must also participate in activities involving money on a day-to-day basis. So it is interesting for him on explore how people can practice dharma - the teachings of the Lord Buddha - while living in a capitalist, money-oriented system like ours. Hence this new batch of work.

The idea of transforming banknotes into sculpture, and particularly into figures representing the historical Buddha, is nothing new. Thai people have been doing that for at least a decade, often enclosing the notes in resin. Many household altars still house such unconventional religious images due to supplicants' desire to become wealthier. For "Sitting (Money)", Kamin has simply combined this modern "tradition" with the long-standing practice in Laos of carving Buddha figurines from wood.

He created one figure every day over a one-year period to reflect what he had experienced, thought, encountered, etc. during that particular day. So, viewing this series of objects is a bit like being given access to his personal diary. Moreover, for each figure he composed a short caption. For example, for an exhibit he calls 10-11-47, a rectangular block with an aperture in the shape of a sitting Buddha image seen in profile, Kamin wrote, "Being empty, then you can see." So this piece could be interpreted as a visual and verbal reference to the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

Nor is this a new gimmick for Kamin, either. This Silpakorn University graduate, who has more than a passing interest in Buddhist philosophy, has used this device before in other media: painting, photography and calligraphy to create two-dimensional works; installation, woodcarving and moulding for 3D pieces. He has employed human shapes or figures to parody conventional attitudes to Buddha images in previous installation series of his, including "Normal and Nature" (1997), "Anijang Thukkang Anata" (1999), "The Ordinary Man Is a Buddha; Passion Is Bodhi; the Wisdom of Enlightenment" (2001) and "The Buddha Said If You See Dharma, You Will See Me" (2002 ).

While other artists might be chary about treading this path, Kamin is not afraid because he interprets his art as an effort to juxtapose what the Buddha encountered or experienced during the practice of dharma with what laymen do. At the very least, we can appreciate his success in conveying the idea that the original material used for this exhibition was once a precious item. So, viewing Kamin's series of statuettes can lead us to an understanding of the transient nature of money. Here, he is essentially mocking the modern "religion" of materialism and capitalism.

The "new" Tadu venue (the gallery actually relocated some three years back) can be a little problematic at times due to its "L" shape and low ceiling. Somehow, though, Kamin's exhibition perfectly suits this quirky space. All his pieces have been placed on long shelves running around the walls of the gallery, putting them at approximately chest-high level. This layout has the effect of plunging the visitor into an environment where he/she is physically surrounded by the sculptures, and spiritually encompassed by the realm of the artist's contemplative processes.

'Sitting (Money) 2004-06' will continue at Tadu Contemporary Art until February 24. The gallery is on the 7th floor of the Barcelona Motor Building, Thiam Ruam Mit Road (near the Thailand Cultural Centre). It is open daily, except on Sundays and public holidays, from 9am to 6pm. On January 27, there will be an afternoon seminar there about Kamin and his exhibition. For more information, visit or phone 02-645-2461 or 02-645-2473.