MONTRI TOEMSOMBATCannibal, 2007, color photograph, 30 × 30 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Nirvana / Paradise: Reality / Illusion

Montri Toemsombat

Kathmandu Gallery

Montri Toemsombat is known for performance and gallery installations that take a meditative, questioning look at art and life. Here, in his first effort at conceptual photography, he turns toward graphic social critique. “Nirvana/Paradise: Reality/Illusion” uses Christian and Buddhist iconography to mock society’s failure to embrace the ideals underlying world religions. However, Montri’s entertaining touch kept the show from descending into didacticism.

Half of the show is comprised of 11 small portraits in which Montri employed costumes and props to cast himself as religious and historical figures, including Jesus Christ, Buddha, Marie Antoinette and the Mona Lisa. Surreal yet not too studied, the photos convey Montri’s vision of a world mired in delusion. In Cannibal (2007), he imitates a Buddha figure posed in the vitarka mudra, a posture signifying discussion and reasoning. But red paint, splattered like blood on his hands and clothes, evokes violence, perhaps alluding to the recent politics in Thailand and elsewhere that seems to favor confrontation instead of dialogue.

In each photograph, Montri is the central figure, perched on urban rooftops in France and Thailand, faintly recalling the composition of space in Renaissance paintings, although his Jesus is askew to the lens and his Mona Lisa is off-center. In another work, Satellite #1 (2007), he poses like Christ on the cross, holding aloft metal grilles as if he were a human TV antenna. The image seems to mock religious faith of the unthinking sort. Montri tore his eyes out of all the photos, distancing the works from self-portraiture.

Faces from the portraits reappear inside lockets strung on a long chain necklace in the second half of the show, “Lockets to Paradise” (2007). Here, Montri chides the worship of talismans that is part of populist Buddhism, while implying that the spiritual quest begins and ends within the self.

Serendipitously, the show’s opening coincided with a large ceremony at Wat Kaek, a Hindu temple popular to Buddhists and Hindus alike across the street from the gallery, in which Buddhist monks blessed a freshly minted batch of Jatukham Ramathep amulets. These objects have become the focus of a collecting craze in Thailand since the emergence of political instability in early 2006. Irrational faith in the protective powers of these amulets, and a booming commercial market in their trade, have drawn criticism from some Buddhist clergy as well as from Montri’s show. The coincidence of art and reality reminds that Montri’s work tracks a live pulse.