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.
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.
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.
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.