The Dark and the Light Side of Thai Art

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

Heaven on earth: Created by artist Chalermchai, Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, is a celebration of Buddhist thought

The 500 sculptured concrete arms that rise beneath the bridge, seemingly seeking emancipation from a bottomless pit, create an arresting image of anguish and desperation — just as Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat intended. "To reach heaven, you need to pass suffering," the 54-year-old says in his trademark booming voice. Nirvana in this case is Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple, a spectacular, ornately carved building painted white to symbolize purity. Part of a project that Chalermchai started in 1997, the compelling ubosot, or assembly hall, is one of the three main structures at the sprawling White Temple complex (tel: (66) 5367 3579), a 6.4-acre (2.6 hectare) site in his native Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. When devout Buddhist Chalermchai's project is complete — with the help of 67 disciples, he hopes it'll be done by 2070 — he will have created nine equally intricate buildings, including a crematorium, each one teaching grand lessons in morality. "Every human has to see this," he says. "This is my way, and a good way, to give back to the world."

The artist, revered both for his feisty personality (he admits to occasionally having an "abusive tongue") and provocative contemporary Buddhist art, still wakes at 2 a.m. to meditate and then scrutinize the stucco motifs by flashlight. He writes in his book Creating Buddhist Art for the Land, "I love and am attached to my project like all parents who want to see the success of their children. That's why I suffer every time when things don't come out as I've expected. This is the dharma principle that I hold to be my mentor these days. As I build, I also practice dharma." (See for city guides, stories and advice.)

A 30-minute drive from heaven, you can find hell. Black House is so named because the 40 huts that make up the work are mostly painted in artist Thawan Duchanee's favorite hue, which is often associated with the diabolical. The huts are dedicated to promoting contemporary art, whether it comes in the form of an immaculately composed rock garden, an elaborately carved door evocative of a temple, or vast sculptures. The bushy-bearded artist says he wants to breathe life into the otherwise inanimate structures. "The Black House evokes the past Thai civilization in a contemporary manner," says Thawan. "I try to bring the spirit, heart and soul in their life [into the pieces]." His 33-year-old project is a poetic work in progress: he has plans for another five houses, to be completed within three years.

As well as being a repository of museum-worthy art — including Thawan's own — from all over the world, Black House, tel: (66-8) 9767 4444, is also a shrine to the artist's collection of animal skins and bones. Dismissing the myths surrounding his bizarre collection — thought by many to be mysterious — if not ghoulish, the controversial 70-year-old, who professes to be nonreligious, maintains that "they mean nothing. They are for study, to help me with anatomy, form and function." Is Black House the flipside of the virtuous White Temple, or is that reading too much into their close proximity? Thawan is noncommittal: "Why do people say this is hell? Like the John Lennon song, there's no heaven above and no hell below."

See TIME's Global Adviser for exotic, beautiful and interesting getaways.

Got an awful travel gripe? The Avenger may be able to sort it out for you. Click here to tell us your problem.