Two Artists: Contrasting Visions ~ Yin-Yang in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Wide angle view of the white temple: Wat Rong Khun set in waters an gardens.

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

In Thailand, architecture – especially temple architecture – is the highest form of art. The architect’s ability to combine beauty of form with functional utility; to plant a building in the ground and send it soaring to the heavens – is respected and revered.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that two recognised Thai visual artists, Mr Chalermchai Kositpipat and Mr Thawan Duchanee, both born in Chiang Mai province, would turn to large architectural projects as expressions of their respective Buddhist philosophies.

Born over ten years apart, both men studied at Silpakorn University, Thailand’s premier visual arts school, before heading overseas to further their studies and their careers. Both are award-winning, recognised, national artists. Both have been controversial: the murals Chalermchai was commissioned to paint in Wat Buddhapadipa in London were criticised for being too contemporary and “not Thai”; Thawan’s paintings, which combine Buddha images with grotesque and erotic human figures comprised of animals or insects, have been called “immoral”.

The buildings designed and built by these men are both within range of Chiang Rai, and one day in late October, we were able to visit both.

Koi fish in a pond with reflections of Wat Rong Khun in the water.

Koi Pond Reflections ~ Wat Rong Khun. The pond represents the Ocean of Sitandon.

Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น), known as the White Temple, was started in 1998 by Mr Chalermchai Kositpipat on the site of the original Wat Rong Khun in his family’s village. Traditionally, temples are golden, but Chalermchai wanted his temple to be white to represent Buddha’s purity. The work is ongoing, and he believes it will take 60-70 years to finish.

Head from Hell

Head from Hell, Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

Sculpture of of a white skeletal head raised by a multitude of white hands

Hands of Hell

Portrait: Thai man in white cap and sunglasses holding a microphone.

Security detail.

Ornate white fence either side of a bridge to a white Buddhist wat: Wat Rong Khun

The bridge to the Wat symbolises the transition from life to the land of the Buddha.

Elaborate white gables of a Thai wat against a blue sky.

White-Icing Gables ~ Wat Rong Khun

White Buddha statue against a blue sky

Buddha like a Cloud

Two multi-tiered white pagodas in a garden.

White Pavilions

Thai wat-style building in gold

And this is just the toilet block!

But, as much as there are similarities between their work and world views, there are contrasts between the two artists.

Even the weather changed to overcast and rain as we entered the domain of National Artist Mr Thawan Duchanee, the Baandam Museum, north of the city. Aptly named the “Black House” (บ้านดำ), the artist’s residencial complex includes a huge Lanna-style vihara, held up by pillars carved like totem poles and filled with dark wooden long tables and the skins of animals.

Round ornately-carved pillars, animal skins hanging from the beams.

Pillars and Skin: Baandam, Chiang Rai

Snout of an animal carved into a wooden pillar.

Ornately carved animal snout on the pillars.

Black pillars in a long hall: snakeskin on a long table.

Snakeskin on a table in the black vihara.

White seated Buddha sculpture in a black hall.

Buddha in the Black Vihara

Black Lanna-style buildings amongst trees.

Two of the forty galleries on the Baandam Museum grounds.

Two bronze door-handles with a lock and chain.

Open by appointment...

Old weathered wooden Thai buddha images

Old wooden Buddhas in the sala

Animal horns line an outdoor sala filled with wheels and drums.

Animal horns, wheels and drums.

Thai man with hammer and chisel carving the designs in a pillar.

Craftsman at work on a pillar.

Portrait: Thai boy on a mobile phone.

Talking to Mum while Dad works on his carving.

Moss-covered stone gargoyle

Gargoyle in the Garden

Golden Thai pots in a window reflecting trees

Reflected Thai Treasures

Text: Equilibrium! As different as these masterworks are, they both represent the artistic visions of their creators: two men who have devoted their lives to the integration of buddhist philosophy into their buildings and artworks.

Truly a balancing act.

  • gabe - December 10, 2011 - 12:48 am

    It was an amazing day, five Wats in one day and all with great contrasts especially these two. Sweet.ReplyCancel

  • Signe Westerberg - December 12, 2011 - 4:00 am

    what amazing workmanship, the detail and the dedication just wonderful…thanks as always for sharing with us.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - December 14, 2011 - 4:51 am

      Thanks to my Two Trusties! Yes, the love and craftsmanship that goes into these unique buildings is amazing. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • […] between temples as we walked around Chiang Rai, visiting five complexes on foot, and another by car (Wat Rong Khun, which I’ve talked about before), essentially in the space of a day. This little provincial city has the odd church and mosque as […]ReplyCancel

  • Michael LaPalme - May 7, 2014 - 10:46 pm

    Very beautiful set of images Ursula of a very unique place. It is a shame the temple was damaged so badly during the earthquake last Monday.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - May 7, 2014 - 10:53 pm

      Thanks, Michael – I certainly hope it can be repaired. It’s a true labour of love.ReplyCancel

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