MONTIEN BOONMA, Melting Voids/Molds for the Mind, 1998, plaster, gold foils and herbs. Courtesy Numthong Gallery, Bangkok. 

Montien Boonma: Melting Void / Molds for the Mind


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Montien Boonma (1953–2000) was regarded as one of Asia’s most prolific and controversial artists during the emergence of the contemporary Asian art scene in the 1990s. Frequently tagged as a “Buddhist artist,” Boonma defied the canonical teachings of Buddhist art through his experimentation with ephemeral materials (ash, herbs, clay, wax) and artisanal techniques (lost-wax casting, molding and natural pigmentation). By making art a healing process to suppress grief and suffering, Boonma created installations that required viewers to concentrate intensely on their senses of touch, smell, sight and sound.

Boonma’s international reputation demanded constant travel and the production of works requiring skilled assistants. In 1998, he had planned a challenging project for a large-scale solo exhibition at Marsi Gallery, Suan Pakkad Palace, in Bangkok, which was inspired by the interiors of the famous temple Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai. The piece was to consist of walls covered in thick, aromatic layers of pigments of cinnabar and medicinal herbs, and gigantic plaster molds of the Buddha’s head and torso. Trying to capture the spirit of entering into the ambience of a temple, Boonma had wanted to simulate the process of prayer and meditation in front of Buddha images. In the realm of enlightenment, every step and movement becomes the symbolic consciousness of mindfulness. By transforming gallery space into an atmosphere infused with the aroma of herbs and saturated by permeating layers of red, Boonma had hoped to lure viewers into a reciprocal relationship with his artworks within the enclosure of a “sacred” installation.

Unpredictability as part of an encounter with an artwork was one of Boonma’s trademarks. In planning this show, he experienced the unexpected when he was informed by Marsi Gallery that the molds related to the Buddha images were deemed as inappropriate and too foreboding to be displayed. As a result, Boonma had to find an alternate gallery to exhibit the plaster sculptures.

“Melting Void” and “Melting Void / Molds for the Mind” opened at both Marsi Gallery and Numthong Gallery, respectively, on August 15, 1998. The latter consisted of preparatory sketches and three large plaster molds covered with metal mesh and casting tools balanced on long, sharp metal rods. Although Boonma’s original plan was altered, the intention to incorporate the traditional casting process of Buddha imagery as part of his installation remained unchanged.

This series of work marks the pivotal shift in both Boonma’s career and his philosophy of art as a process and as a means to an end. As symbols related to Buddhism, these plaster molds with rough exteriors were meant to be a participatory experience for viewers. Each mold is analogous to the progression of meditative postures of standing, sitting and lying down; movements toward mindfulness.

To fully appreciate “Melting Void / Molds for the Mind,” Boonma explained, viewers could interact according to their own desire and curiosity. Each action reflected consciousness of the mind: stooping inside the hollow interiors of the sculptures, viewers could discover the negative images of the Buddha’s face and torso. Tiny holes revealed astrological patterns related to the Buddhist lunar calendar and the holy days of Vishakha, Makha and Asanha. For Boonma, these plaster molds served as vehicles for the mind to shift into the voids of emptiness.

Boonma had experienced what it was like to enter inside a seated bronze Buddha in Kamakura, Japan, and wanted to emulate the sensation of peace and calmness he had found there. Boonma also cited the teaching of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a highly revered monk, that “everyone is Buddha,” meaning that rejection of the permanent ego can be reached through perseverance. By creating these “sacred” enclosures in the form of the Buddha for viewers to enter, one thus becomes part of the Buddha. He wrote in the exhibition brochure: “I am interested in creating works that make use of the limited spaces and site. These elements affect the physical conditions and the conceptual meaning of such specific spaces.”

Fascinated by enclosures and dark spaces, Boonma had previously created a series of structures inspired by wooden shacks and ancient sites for healing (arokhyasala) with stacks of cast-metal lungs pasted with medicinal herbs. In “Melting Void / Molds for the Mind,” Boonma’s intention was to redefine the process of bronze casting used in traditional Buddhist art. Buddhists believe that the making or commissioning of a Buddha image is an act of devotion—a means of making merit. Boonma began working with artisans in Bangkok and Nakhon Pathom who cast Buddha images, becoming fascinated with the casting apparatus and tools used in the lost-wax process that also involved Hindu-Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. By merging contemporary art, traditional casting processes and rituals, Boonma ventured into interdisciplinary realms of art, alchemy and faith. “I want the space inside the Buddha image to be a place of refuge for mindfulness of viewers who wish to be in condition of calmness and contentment,” he wrote.

Reception of both solo shows in 1998, which turned out to be his last in his homeland during his lifetime, was mixed, with critical acclaim, bewilderment and premonition. Respected and admired by his peers and students, Boonma’s exhibitions in 1998 paved new paths for emerging artists including Kamin Lertchaiprasert and Tawatchai Puntusawasdi. However, those with superstitious minds felt that Boonma’s “sacred” images were austere and ominous. Boonma’s reputation grew with speed, and soon there was demand for his work in São Paulo, Osaka, Geneva, Athens and New York. Late in 1998, he collapsed, as his health deteriorated. He died on August 17, 2000, leaving behind a legacy and an empty void in the Asian art scene.