RANDOM THOUGHTS ON MONTIEN BOONMA AND THE ARCHIVAL APPROACH TO HIS LIFE AND WORK

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by Chetana Nagavajara

           Silpakorn has its detractors. Their usual diatribe goes like this: “Silpakorn has not created a respectable school of art, it has produced only a mafia.” Though not a product of Silpakorn myself. I do feel a certain sense of loyalty, having taught there for decades. My way of countering their criticism is very simple indeed. I just conjure up one name “Montien Boonma”, and that would silence some of them, but the adamant ones would not give up: “He was an exception to the rule”. Such repartees can go on for hours on end and will get you nowhere. There is a truism that one might occasionally call to mind: an artist is partly what he is and partly what he owes to others. You may pick fault with the current exhibition [Montien Boonma]: Unbuilt / Rare Works, but one thing you have to concede is that the organizers and curators have achieved the level of objectivity and impartiality that transcends partisanship. If they err on the side of positive evaluation of Montien, they try their best to buttress their judgement with evidence. They may not succeed all the time, but their good faith cannot bedismissed too easily.

            Montien is difficult stuff for the uninitiated. The materiality of his work does not transmit messages that can be grasped at the material level. It speaks for something else, at a deeper level of consciousness, and that something is vested with an inwardness that one does not encounter in everyday life – or for that matter, in traditional forms. Its associations are multifarious and multi-layered. To appreciate fully a work of his like, say, “Nature’s Breath” (which is not mentioned at the present exhibition but was brought up during the panel discussion on May 9, 2013.), you have to be acquainted with Western art history of the medieval period, with the building process of Gothic cathedrals. Montien was in no way intent on exhibiting his immense knowledge that spans East and West, but he imbibed all kinds of experience that came his way. Having had the privilege to be French-trained – and he unfailingly admitted his debt to his French experience – he may have taken to heart the French dictum, “Je sème à tout vent”. (I sow whichever way the wind blows.) And what about his philosophical bent? Why did he try to emulate those French master-builders of the Middle Ages who built on stone without mortar. This is a question of philosophical attitude and not merely a matter of craftsmanship, as John Clark was trying to point out during the panel discussion. I have discoursed at some length on these difficult issues because I want to emphasize that the general public needs help – from art critics, from art historians and from curators.

            The curators assembled for the current exhibition have tried to be helpful, judging not only from the exhibition at the Jim Thomson Art Center, but also from the panel discussion which was very well attended. But the amassing and transmitting of mere facts about Montien’s life overwhelmed the unitiated public; and once you concentrate on biographical data, the end of the road is unavoidably hero worship. The biographical data should have been more succinctly interpreted and should have served to throw light on Montien creative work.

            And this is where the archival approach has helped to diversify the factual hegemony. Whoever originally thought of the desirability of building up Thai artists’ archives must be congratulated. At this exhibition, Gregory Galligan has established beyond doubt that archival materials do help us to arrive at a better understanding of the man and his work. This is just the beginning of a long process that requires utmost dedication and scholarly/scientific prowess. Let us not overlook the pioneering work of those small sons and daughters of big fathers. Those who have not been to see Chang Sae Tang’s archive should do so immediately. The same applies to Angkarn Kalayanaphong’s estate: his children are doing their best in the direction of archival preservation. Yet, preservation is only the first step. Systematization is perhaps more of a science than an art. (The place to visit is the German Literary Archive [das Deutsche Literaturarchiv] in Marbach-am-Neckar, north of Stuttgart, the city with which Montien was associated.) But the most important part of the process is the usefulness and the actual use of archival materials by scholars and art lovers. I can’t help digressing a little in this connection. I myself have benefited a great deal from archival materials in my research: my book Brecht and France (Bern 1994) was the fruit of archival research in the Bertolt Brecht Archive in former East Berlin.

            And I shall have to digress a little further on scholarly culture and tradition. We Thai did think differently when it came to matters of origin or genesis. Buddhists are not concerned where we came from; Nirvana is the ultimate goal; the rest is impermanence. This way of thinking does not favour preservation. Buddha would not have approved of the preservation of his relics, nor the creation of his sacred image. Archival preservation is, strictly speaking, a worldly, non-Buddhist affair. But it can be defended on grounds of an accumulation of knowledge and furtherance of wisdom. Rama III, with the Stone Inscriptions of Wat Pho, was a revolutionary of sorts, for his project was conceived as the bedrock of a learning and civilized society, whereby the monarch acted as a broker (an antecedent of the curator?) who preserved and systematized what belonged to the people in order to give it back to the people. But you must not fail to notice one thing, namely that most of those stone inscriptions – except for the medicinal prescriptions – record finished products or end results and not the process. Some master builders or master craftsmen in the past even destroyed their tools after the completion of the work. The archival project of today cannot dispense with the description and analysis of the process. The Montien Boonma exhibition is a case in point.

            In this respect, the curators of the exhibition [Montien Boonma]: Unbuilt/Rare Works are combating Thai traditional thinking. What they have to prove – and they have succeeded in proving only partially – is that the archival methods help you to appreciate the works better. In this sense, the concept of “Unbuilt/Rare Works” militates against its own raison d’être. The “Rare Works”, incidentally, do not belong in the same category as the “Unbuilt Works” that appear only as sketches or drawings which have never been realized in the form of actual works of art. They must appeal, or in other words, they can only survive, on the basis of their own merits. Are we talking here of “artistic merits” in spite of the fact that the passage from thinking to creating has not yet been completed? Or should we look for “intellectual” or “imaginative” merits? The curators are not clear on this issue. I personally see the beauty of Montien’s thinking, and shall never deny the aesthetic appeal in them. But the aesthetic pleasure derived from them is not the same as that which emanates from Montien’s finished works. I know I am being unfair to the curators; but I can’t help thinking that it would have been more gainful to exhibit more of Montien’s sketches of his finished works. For example, I would have loved to be a witness to his thinking process that led to a great work like “Nature’s Breath”. Are there archival materials that bear directly on this?

            When all is said and done, we must admit that the curators have proved to be extremely conscientious in raising issues that should account for the greatness of the artist. There is no more need to deal with his purely technical ability: it is Montien the thinker who should captivate our attention. He thinks, therefore he creates. How do archival materials serve to strengthen this credo? That he was deeply immersed in Buddhism does not require any substantiation. But his interest in Western thinking is worth investigating. The name Edmund Husserl and his phenomenology came up, but was not discussed further. Jean-Paul Sartre fared better with his concept of “analogon”, as mentioned by Gregory Galligan in his contribution, “Seeing Obliquely: Montien Boonma’s Unbuilt Project after the Perforated Wall of Wat Bowonniwet Vihara”. Galligan pursued Sartre’s idea and the work of a Sartre scholar, Maryvonne Saison, and examined the annotations by Montien of parts of Saison’s book which he had photocopied. (Catalogue, pp. 82-83) This is the kind of work that testifies to the value of archival research. We need more such work, which is definitely painstaking, for it does not suffice to know Montien and his work, but the scholar who adopts the “archival approach” must familiarize himself/herself with the content of Montien’s reading too. To exhibit books from Montien’s library in this exhibition is just the beginning of great scholarly pursuit that has to be undertaken in the future. (In my case, I spent only a few weeks to study Brecht’s annotations and marginal markings of French literature [either in the original or in German translation], but it took me many  months to relate them to the content of those books in his library, in spite of the fact that I myself am a scholar of French literature too.) I am sure that in the case of Montien, archival studies will help us to know Montien the thinker and Montien the artist better than we do now. This exhibition must not be judged by its actual countenance, but by its potential to call forth further “research”. Does Silpakorn know that it has produced an artist of international stature who can set dozens of scholars to work on him and his work for years and years to come. What are Silpakorn’s own Departments of Art History and Art Theory doing?

            Are there concepts of high and low in archival studies? Should we rate Saison’s book Imaginaire/imaginable: Parcours philosophique à travers le théâtre et la médicine mentale higher than Montien’s term paper in French, “Le Temps et l’image”, (Catalogue, pp. 122-132)  which was probably submitted to his professor Claude Viseaux or Jean-Louis Boissier around 1988. It need not be so. The paper speaks well for the French institution in which Montien was enrolled as well as for Montien himself. It proves beyond any doubt that a French art academy does not require of its students only skills and craftsmanship, but also intellectual capacity of a high order. And our Montien responded well to this challenge, having to struggle perhaps with the difficulty of expressing himself in French, although his French (which may have already been edited by a colleague) was adequate and clear.

            What can we glean from this student essay in terms of its implications for Montien’s own creativity? We certainly cannot afford to underestimate its semiotic value. I would like to pinpoint just one minute detail. In his conclusion, Montien wrote the following:

L’image photo et l’image de la peinture sont les représentations d’une réalité préexistante. Elles sont des “nouvelles réalités”, beaucoup plus larges   que la réalité(Original)  (Cataloque, p. 131)

 The image of photography and the image of painting both consist of representation of pre-existent realities. [In addition] they consist of “new realities” wider than reality [itself]… (emphasis added) (Cataloque, p. 116)

I must say that the English translation is trying to be too explicit. The words within the 2 brackets are superfluous. But what is more problematic is the word “wider” which is supposed to correspond to the original French “plus large”, the original itself being problematic too. The professor circled the world “larges”, as if to send a signal to his foreign student that your French is not clear enough. In the very wrestling with a foreign word which should correspond exactly to what he had in mind, Montien was unintentionally positing his own aesthetic standpoint. “Large” here is more than a spatial description. We have to go back to Montien’s own works in order to discover the meaning of “large”. I shall have to revert to the term “materiality” which I used at the beginning of this review. A work of art exists through its materiality, but the artist aspires to use that materiality to communicate something of greater, deeper and “larger” significance. That one word “large” is a reaffirmation of the importance of artistic creativity. The “new realities” incorporated in works of art are “larger” than “pre-existent realities”. Unlike the French professor, I have no difficulty in grasping what Montien was after, as soon as I start thinking in Thai. “Large”, in Thai, can be “big” (Yai) as well as “great” (Ying Yai). This modest man named Montien Boonma is, deep down, vested with philosophic and artistic ambition. His way of thinking could lead to an apotheosis of the arts!

            I seem to have struck an even more serious note than our very conscientious curators. So allow me to conclude in a lighter vein. I began with Silpakorn and shall end with Silpakorn. Having taught Western languages at Silpakorn for decades until my retirement, I do realize that we, teachers of foreign languages, have not been very successful. The exhibits that contain Montien’s various kinds of description in English show that his English was defective, (but still far superior to that of our Mistress of Government House!) Does it really matter, for these are mostly instructions for the setting up of installations? His works speak in a universal language that can communicate with the public worldwide.

            All in all, this exhibition, especially its exploration of the archival approach, means more than what it says. It promises greater things to come.

  12 July 2013        

 

 


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