Montien Boonma
temple of the mind
23 July – 10 October 2004

Introduction | Essay | Education

Montien Boonma, Temple of the mind: Sala for the mind 1995 
Montien Boonma Temple of the mind: sala for the mind 1995 wood, brass bells, medicinal herbs Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

An architecture of the senses
Montien Boonma’s installation in context

Rounding a corner at Islands, an exhibition of installations at the National Gallery of Australia in 1996, I caught a whiff of herbs. There was no definite scent, or at least not one I could identify, although the musty smell reminded me of traditional herbal pharmacies in Hong Kong, where I spent time as a child, and in other parts of Asia. But here was something different. Montien Boonma’s herb-infused terracotta-coloured wooden boxes, stacked in the shape of a stupa and with brass bells suspended inside, sought to stimulate almost all the senses: smell, hearing, touch, and sight. Although the version installed in Australia was too narrow to enter (there are photographs of a person inside the installation at other venues), the herbal aroma in the room created a cloying atmosphere, akin to the sanctuary of a Buddhist temple.

Boonma’s Temple of the mind: Sala for the mind 1995, a fantastical building, turns upon sacred Thai architecture along with a curious confusion of the senses.1 You can smell the herbs, visually take in the height of the tower, touch the boxes, and imagine the sound of bells. The architecture itself is equally layered and complicated. The tower is made of methodically stacked yet roughly-hewn wooden boxes; each box, daubed with herbs, is painted a different shade of brown, ranging from the red of terracotta to the near-black of dark chocolate. Together, they resemble handmade mud bricks. The 18 copper-coloured bells suspended inside the installation are also smothered with herbs. Muted in appearance yet oddly statuesque, like the crumbling stone stupas piercing the skyline in so many Thai cities — especially Chiang Mai — Boonma’s modest enclosure provides a mesmeric and haunting space for reflection and meditation. Or is it a Thai Tower of Babel, an ivory tower, a control tower, a skyscraper of the mind? And what’s it all for, this architecture of the senses that seems to define Boonma’s installations? Relief, is my provisional answer — a desire to provide a space of consolidation, escape, even alleviation from the pain and the stress of modern life. But most of all, they give us relief in the sense of ‘replenishment’.

Sala means temple or house in Thai, suggesting that Boonma’s edifices are temples both of the mind and for the mind. They are as much about thinking as they are about believing. They are also a kind of theatre, in which ideas are acted, sung, played and mimed. This complexity, reflects the myriad oppositions underlying Boonma’s work: for example, prosaic oppositions between interior and exterior, longing and belonging, life and death, reality and totality. The opposition between interior and exterior is inherent in many of Boonma’s structures: they frequently require viewers to step inside or around them. The opposition between longing and belonging reflects both an immersion in Buddhism and a desire for a modern reunion between art and religion; because Buddhism has been the state religion in Thailand for more than 13 centuries, religious iconography dominated Thai art history until modern times. The opposition between life and death reflects events in the artist’s life following the shattering diagnosis of his wife’s terminal illness in 1991.

Boonma’s works present us with a catalogue, even a cabinet, of sensual signs. Smell is the most common. Herbs — soft-stemmed plants used for medicine, among other things — have played an important role in Boonma’s work since 1995. Symbolising healing, religious devotion, and sacred space, they also cleverly entice viewers with their smell. For example, installations such as House of hope 1996–1997, which contained black balls made from medicinal herbs; Perfume painting 1997, a circular painting infused with herbs; and Nature’s breath: Arokhayasala 1995, a tower made from perforated metal blocks filled with herbs, all immerse viewers in a sensual and spiritual space. The connection is apposite: herbs and healing practices have a long association with Buddhism and with the Buddhist monks who frequently cared for those who were ill. In fact, monk–physicians used their skills to spread the dharma as they travelled from India to China in the fourth century CE. There are even specific Buddhas and bodhisattvas of healing, and scriptures on them are still in circulation today. In Mahayana teachings, an important aspect of healing is the conversion of suffering into an aspiration for enlightenment; the Lotus Sutra equates healers with teachers of the law.

The sinologist Raoul Birnbaum classifies the links between healing and Buddhism in a number of ways, the three most significant of which are the cure of disease through healing agents such as herbs and foods, surgery and other physical means; the identification of spiritual causes of and cures for disease; and, finally, the healing process as a metaphor for spiritual growth, with Buddha, the ‘King of Medicines’ seen as the Supreme Physician. In addition to herbal healing as a form of spiritual enlightenment, teachings on impermanence were said to be one of the lessons given to Shakyamuni (the first incarnation of the Buddha) to those who were terminally ill. Birnbaum states: ‘In most of the incidents where Shakyamuni took the role of healer (either as teacher or miraculous physician), the experience of disease or injury served as a catalytic factor leading to new insight and — in some cases — to Liberation.’2

In 1992 Boonma discovered the writings of Luang Poh–Cha Suphatto, a respected monk from Wat Nong Phong in Ubolrachathanee in northeastern Thailand. The monk’s teachings opened Boonma’s mind to the possibility of using art to create calm, contemplative environments and spaces for meditation. Boonma’s Lotus sound 1992 is an expression of silence. This installation is made of dark, glazed terracotta bells balanced in alternating rows to form a semicircle against the gallery wall. The terracotta bells form a shield, preventing access to gold lotus petals attached delicately to the wall, but this shield is neither monumental nor permanent, since the bells are balanced one atop another: the slightest movement could send them tumbling down. Boonma’s use of bells as a barrier is as much about a visualisation of silence as it is about the creation of an intimate if ultimately secular space for reflection and contemplation. Nonetheless, a religious allusion is achieved through the curvature of the bells, which are oddly reminiscent of Dvaravati-style stupas (1st–14th century) or the classic Sukhothai pagoda (Thai chedi: 13th–14th century).

Montien Boonma Perfume painting 1997 herbs on paper, herb essence on wood Collection of Jean-Michel Beurdeley and Eric Booth, Bangkok
Perfume painting 1997 Collection of Jean-Michel Beurdeley and Eric Booth, Bangkok more detail

The gold lotus petals attached to the wall are the other important feature of Lotus sound. The symbolism of plants in Buddhist mythology and teachings is complex and multi-layered, and the lotus is of unique importance. The flower has direct associations with the Buddha’s physiognomy (it is said that his foreskin was a lotus, and that lotuses sprang up beneath his feet wherever he walked), and is often used to symbolise purity: the lotus blooms out of the mire but is not itself muddied. Lotus buds and flowers accompany statues of the Buddha in temples in Thailand, frequently smothered in gold leaf to reflect their preciousness and symbolic value. Boonma has gilded the lotus petals in Lotus sound to reflect this history, but in so doing creates a palpable tension between the permanent (gold) and the impermanent (flower petals). It is no surprise to find that an awareness of this tension is at the heart of all Buddhist teachings.

Sala of the mind 1995 was another of Boonma’s installations involving sound. The work consisted of four metal sculptures, each resembling a tower constructed from three concentric black metal circular tubes tapering towards the top. Supported by three spindly legs, and the height of an average person, the towers were designed to enable a single viewer to step inside the structure, from which he or she could look out through small slits in the shape of question marks cut from the metallic tubes. Meanwhile, a voice repeated the end of a prayer or chant, creating once again the impression of being inside an enclosed, contemplative space. But why the question mark, which has been a feature of other works by Boonma, such as The prayer for Abhisot (quiet listening) 1994? According to Boonma, ‘The question mark is the symbol for the unknown realisable through meditation. The spiral shape of the question represents the movement from the outer to the inner (and vice versa) achieved through concentration.’3 Through repetition, Boonma transforms the question mark from a grammatical symbol into a device for meditation. Another interesting parallel can be drawn between Boonma’s question marks and forehead marks (urna) of the Buddha: there are distinct similarities between the curlicue style of the urna based on the syllable ‘Om’ and Boonma’s question marks.

Boonma’s artworks rarely offer a simple two-dimensional viewing experience. We only ever get a glimpse or partial view, a piece or fragment of the whole that is being presented to us. This was especially so with Sala of the mind, which, having invited viewers to step inside a black metal structure, only allowed a view of the world outside through question marks. Taking this fragmentation of vision to its limit, Room 1994 was a work that almost completely shut out the outside world.4 This installation conceived for the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (Adelaide Festival), consisted of a series of seven wooden structures placed in a clearing framed by large pine trees at the Adelaide Botanical Gardens. Each structure was composed of a small platform upon which an enclosure of horizontal slats rested on four legs. The height of each enclosure alternated between the structures, variously enabling viewers to stand, sit, or lie down — poses dominant in sculptures of the Buddha. The interiors of the structure were sheathed with black cloth printed with gold question and exclamation marks, while the sky was just visible through the top of the works. Here, Boonma created individual temples for inward meditation within a natural environment. The sense of interiority in Room is intrinsically linked to the notion of solitude, of which Octavio Paz writes, ‘Solitude — the very condition of our lives — appears to us as a purgation, at the conclusion of which our anguish and instability will vanish. At the exit from the labyrinth of solitude we will find reunion (which is repose and happiness), and plenitude, and harmony with the world.’5 According to Paz, solitude is the experience of life itself. One could say that Boonma’s consistent creation of spaces for individual contemplation is informed by such an idea.

Chôt Kanlayânamit draws a connection between sacred architecture and Buddhist thought in Thailand. Kanlayânamit identifies the principles of quietude, lightness, and levitation as being foremost in both disciplines.6 Boonma’s structures reflect such qualities in their placement, materials, and structure. The architectural presence of Boonma’s rooms, in Room, echoes the verticality of the surrounding trees, while each was designed to accommodate no more than a single person at one time. The central structure was the tallest and most complex, resembling a pagoda where the relics of monks and the ashes of others are kept. The slatted structures, made of light untreated pine wood and mostly open to the air, also provided a fantastic space of immersion or shelter for meditation — a space, it is worth recalling, in which viewers cannot see anything but the sky. Such structures abound in Boonma’s practice, although the installation is remarkable for the beauty of the sculptural units as much as for its canny use of architecture to allow another kind of vision to emerge.

Boonma’s installations are almost invariably participatory: you need to get inside them to understand them. An example is Arokhayasala: Temple of the mind 1995–6, a work shown in New York as part of the Traditions/Tensions exhibition at the Asia Society in 1996.7 This work consisted of a tower made from packing boxes painted with herbs. Inside some of the boxes were human lungs cast in aluminium, each dusted with a mix of rare and valuable pigments, spices, and herbs such as sea-holly, sickle pod, knotgrass, Indian long-pepper, citronella grass, black pepper, rose-coloured leadwort, turmeric, and many others. The substances were also scattered across the floor. The constrictive aromatic structure was similar to that of Temple of the mind: Sala for the mind, although Arokhayasala replaces the bells with a part of the human anatomy. This work is much more about the body than Boonma’s other works, with the artist introducing dried-out, discoloured, and seemingly preserved lungs, as a metaphor for human mortality, into a temple-like structure. Lungs could also be said to be a metaphor for the link between the inside and the outside of the body, since the lungs take in air. Lungs are also linked to meditation, inasmuch as the practice of meditation is defined by the breath establishing a link between mind and body.

Boonma’s early work Stupa 1990 makes a similarly evocative reference to the body. Cement casts of the area inside the clenched fist, taken from many people, formed distorted and misshapen balls linked to one another by metal rods to form a pyramidal shape reminiscent of a Buddhist stupa. While revolutionary movements — most notably the Black Power Movement of the united States — have employed the clenched fists as a symbol of freedom, the use here of clenched fists as a sculptural mould is less about political freedom than it is about the creation of an imaginary community linked through architecture. One could describe Stupa as a network of touch, in fact, with each individual mould representing an imprint of an individual person’s fingers and hand — the identity of that person. By utilising the imprint made by a clenched fist, moreover, Boonma was able to evoke the presence of the human body, its scale and surroundings, without direct representation. It is in this sense that Boonma’s installations might well be considered architectural, gently stimulating all of our senses in an effort to immerse viewers in mystical structures that are profound, alluring, and subtly transforming.

Melissa Chiu is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Asia Society and Museum, New York. This is an abridged version of her essay in the exhibition catalogue Apinan Poshyananda (ed) Montien Boonma: Temple of the mind New York: Asia Society, 2003, available from the Gallery shop.

1 For a detailed discussion of this work, see Michael Desmond, ‘Montien Boonma: Temple of the mind: Sala for the mind’, in Islands: contemporary installations from Australia, Asia, Europe and America [Exhibition catalogue], Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1996, p.31–34.
2 Raoul Birnbaum, The healing Buddha, Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 1979, p.12.
3 Albert Paravi Wongchirachai, ‘Montien Boonma: grief, Buddhism and the cosmos’, Art AsiaPacific , vol. 2, no. 3, 1995, p.74–81.
4 An account of Room in the context of Buddhist practices can be found in Somporn Rodpoon, Montien Boonma, Adelaide installations [exhibition catalogue] Adelaide
5 Octavio Paz The labyrinth of solitude, New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1985, p.196.
6 Chôt Kanlayânamit, Sathâpattayakam baê Thai Doêm, cited in Hiram W Woodward, The sacred sculpture of Thailand [exhibition catalogue], Baltimore: The Walters Art Gallery, 1982.
7 Other works that have featured lungs include Nature’s breath: Arokhayasala 1995 where they are shown suspended inside from the centre of the tower.