Installation view of “The Painting that is Painted with Poetry is Profoundly Beautiful” at Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, 2018. Courtesy Smart Museum of Art. 

The Painting That Is Painted With Poetry Is Profoundly Beautiful

Tang Chang

Also available in:  Chinese

Chills ran down my spine as I peered into the vitrine positioned toward the end of the late Tang Chang’s solo exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art, so beautifully and adeptly curated by Orianna Cacchione. On a faded sheet of paper was the word “gunman,” handwritten in English, and repeated in a pattern that resembles a monument. In the top right-hand corner, the word “democracy” appeared; at the bottom right was the date 1978. The Thai artist was referring to the suppression of the student protest against the return of Thanom Kittikachorn, an exiled military dictator, which had taken place two years earlier in Bangkok. That event, known as the October 1976 massacre, had led to the deaths of many at the hands of the Thai military. Yet, reading those words in the south of Chicago, I immediately thought of the recent and persistent shootings that have taken place in American schools. That a Thai artist—a self-described Buddhist, no less—would capture the mood of our violent times in such a poetic way was moving. 

There were several other poems shaped like the Democracy Monument. Kill was one of them, and Democracy of Dictatorship (both 1978), written in Thai, was another. Many of the words were barely legible, appearing like scribbles, but their repetition created drawings, interwoven lines and shapes. I begin this review by mentioning these poems, even though Chang was also a painter and the exhibition included many of his paintings, because after walking through the rooms that held them, I could barely distinguish the poems from the paintings and vice versa. The title that the curator chose for the exhibition made complete sense. Poetry comes first, and is the medium for the paintings. 

The exhibition at the Smart Museum is the first solo exhibition of Chang’s works outside of Thailand and the first to be held in the United States. Why was he so blatantly overlooked? Part of this oversight might be attributed to his somewhat outsider status within Thailand. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Chang did not study at Silpakorn University, the art school founded in 1943 by the Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci, later known as Silpa Bhirasri. Although part of Thailand’s larger national drive to modernize, the school tended to emphasize academic realism. Completely self-trained and experimenting with concrete poetry and abstraction, Chang fell outside of mainstream modern Thai art. 

Nevertheless, born in 1934 to a Chinese family in Bangkok, Chang produced a groundbreaking body of work in his 56 years that could easily be inserted into the pioneering international movements of his day. As the curator states in the show’s accompanying brochure, there is no evidence that Chang had any knowledge of Abstract Expressionism, Gutai, lyrical abstraction or concrete poetry, but his work shares affinities with the gestural energy of abstract painting. Eschewing paintbrushes, he mostly painted with his hands. Rather than looking to the abstract art movements of the 1950s and ’60s, however, one should point to his lifelong love of Chinese poetry and Buddhist philosophy as his sources of inspiration. A recluse, he looked to nature and the tradition of forest monks. Similarly, as Cacchione notes as well, his poems, when read aloud, take on the semblance of chants, with repeated mantras sounding like gongs. A few of his untitled abstract paintings from the ’60s were labeled “meditative abstractions” in the exhibition, and upon closer examination one can sense that they were created with the kind of “mindfulness” that one associates with meditation and repetitive movements, which pave the way for spontaneity. This Buddhist method of letting one’s inner energy burst out is called ekaggata, or single-minded concentration, and is embodied in the paintings. 

Chang’s unique vocabulary and method of painting with poetry and writing poetry with painting is a revelation. His show was the portrait of an artist who speaks less of his own history, and more of the timeless mind and creativity of the human soul. Exhibitions of work by modern artists from Southeast Asia are rare in Chicago, and we were fortunate that Cacchione was compelled to showcase such an inspiring artist who deserves a more prominent place in American museums. 

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