Montien Boonma interview: Reaching beyond tradition (1991)

Alfred Pawlin
artdesigncafé - art | 1 November 2009
This interview was previously published in Asian Art News, Nov/Dec 1991, pp. 29-31.

Alfred Pawlin: A German art historian has written that you seem to be trying to escape from established art genres. Would you agree with this?

Montien Boonma: It is not that simple. I am not so much concerned with the new image or style in my work but more about how I can transmit or express the images and the ideas in my work. They should be clear, concrete. And they should be in accordance with my original idea. I never think my work should be more advanced that that of other artists. But I do think artists should know what is going on in the art world in particular and the world in general. If we understand the situation of the world today then everything we talk about and think about will help us to create concrete, real things. I think, at times, that I am actually more interested in the life of contemporary people than I am in the views of contemporary art.

Alfred Pawlin: Do you see your interest in people over contemporary art views as a yardstick for contemporary art?

Montien Boonma: In some ways, yes. My work is about real situations in my society, my personal problems, and the situation of life today. Since I live in the present world, I am inspired by it and draw inspiration from my true environment. Today, almost every place has technology, international news and information and easy access to it. So I think more on a world and life perspective than simply art-specific.

Alfred Pawlin: Where does technology fit into your ideas and art?

Montien Boonma: New technologies support mankind and constantly point him in new directions. We once had fire to cook by, but now have microwaves for that. But even though we’ve moved from primitive to high-tech forms, we are still concerned mainly with cooking. The development from primitive to high-tech looks complicated, and many times it is, but there are still the same basic needs. I think man has lost his direction because he is overly concerned with his own activities, mainly in technology. I am quite worried about man’s direction in technology, and this is all reflected in my work.

Alfred Pawlin: So you are really trying to simplify your art?

Montien Boonma: I don’t want my work to appear too complicated. I prefer to create in a rather simple way. I use glue, soil and charcoal. Simple materials and a simple technique which should express my idea. I am not aiming at a new style or a new image. I am trying to express my concern for contemporary life in my society. If I can do that then my work can have an impact in a number of ways because I am not thinking only about the art form. If we understand the problems we face, then we can go further than formal art and perhaps find solutions.

My way is not to study in order to find something that no one else has done before, but rather to contribute solutions that will have an impact outside of the world of art, too. So I don’t work in a continuous manner because my work doesn’t move only in one direction. When I am working on Pagodas, I don’t want this style to become permanent. It is only one theme I am concerned with. I will try to use some other material to apply in another way because I do not want to become associated with only one style.

Alfred Pawlin: You say you prefer your work not to look too complicated. So you use junk and scrap material and everyday utensils in your creations. Do you have any desire to work with more expensive materials and media?

Montien Boonma: At the moment, I’m very satisfied with simple materials for my work. These materials are easy to find in my surroundings. They aren’t of great value. Quite cheap, really. But I feel that it is important that they are part of my environment.

If someone, however, offered a large budget for a project then I would have to think about that specific project. But for now, I am really quite comfortable with my materials.

For me personally, an artist has to understand his situation and how to analyze it. And this also includes his economic and social circumstances, in fact, everything that constitutes his life. If artists really understand their specific situation then they can use it to create. From that I’d really like to work on projects like Village Life, Workers at a Construction Site, and Taxi drivers in the City.

Alfred Pawlin: Metamorphosis is a word that is used in some of your titles. Critics have often used it when writing about you and your work. What does it mean for you?

Montien Boonma: It means an image transformed into another image in which you can see both the former character and the change. I think that this was part of the ideology used earlier by traditional Thai artists. You find it in the Kinnaree, a mythological figure, which is half-human, half-bird. The two aspects are clearly joined together. And the Kinnaree can be seen as a monster, but also an angel.

In my work I use cattle hide in combination with a torch, agricultural tools, and the pipes of a motorcycle. I try to achieve a new form out of two contradictory elements or materials. The transformation of rural life into urban life is also an inspiration. I am fascinated by the edge, the borderline, the boundary between two realities. I try to express this in my work.

Alfred Pawlin: Buddhism is the religion of Thailand. It is a deep-rooted part of every aspect of the culture. How important is Buddhist symbolism to your work?

Montien Boonma: Being born in Thailand, a Thai, then Buddhist philosophy is already part of my cultural heritage. Personally, I have great respect for religious values, not only Buddhist, but in essence most of the world’s religions.

When I use pagodas or stupas in my work, the material makes me think of the activities of early Buddhism and its teachings. In one work, I use soil pigment as a symbol of Jesus and Christian thought. Jesus is supposed to have come from Heaven to live among the common people, so soil or sand can symbolize spiritual values. The candles in my paintings can also be interpreted in that way. I think the spiritual element helps man to concentrate on his own mind.

Alfred Pawlin: When you studied painting in Bangkok, in the 1970s, did you know much about [the media of art]?

Montien Boonma: First, I only wanted to work in painting and sculpture. Mostly, however, I concentrated on painting. At that time, there was really only information available on painting. Students, then, considered painting more important than sculpture and graphic arts. As a student, I really wanted to become a painter, but later on I became concerned with "the value of art" and wanted to explore something beyond painting and sculpture. I wanted to present a new form, but I had no idea what the end result would be.

Alfred Pawlin: How did this evolution come about?

Montien Boonma: It took a long time because information on art in Thailand was scarce. The most advanced news was from the USA. Gradually, though, more information became available and my own broader experience helped me to find another way to create.

Alfred Pawlin: Now you are no longer isolated. You have worked and studied in Paris. You have exhibited at the likes of the 8th Biennale in Sydney and the Vienna Art Festival, as well as in Tokyo, recently. You have also attracted the attention of a number of international curators. Are the international exhibitions and the attention you get from them important to your artistic and personal development?

Montien Boonma: For an artist it is very important to learn the opinions of people from other countries. Shows in foreign countries give you a better knowledge of the position of your work. Mostly, though, foreign exhibitions help you to reach a much wider audience.

Reflecting on people’s opinions has helped me to get a clearer image of my own position and for my work to make a stronger impact. It has also worked as an inspiration to future activity as well as helping me to discover ways so people can understand my work more easily.

Alfred Pawlin: Reaction to much contemporary art in Thailand has been unfavourable at times. How do you feel your work has been treated through your exhibitions?

Montien Boonma: I’ve read the comments of the people who have attended. From their remarks I sense that people have understood my work quite well and have been able to communicate with it. This is perhaps mostly because people in Thailand know the materials that I use and have had some experience with them. But if you asked them if my work had any value, they wouldn’t say. If you asked them if they considered my work as works of art, then they also wouldn’t say.

In Thailand, only certain forms are regarded as art. The main criteria are the quality of beauty, fine and elegant motifs, oil paintings and bronze sculptures in the Western style.

These make a work a form of art. So my work might not be considered a valuable form of art in Thailand. But it communicates well.

To me it is like eating a plant and calling it a vegetable without realizing that it is a medicine as well. Everybody is concerned with form, but not everyone is concerned with substance. The image is fixed on Western criteria, so painting and sculpture have to be formal.

Alfred Pawlin: What about future projects?

Montien Boonma: I do not know exactly but I’d like to use photographs with the theme of people in the village. But I don’t like to speculate on work because I live day by day and don’t want my future to be linked with the business world. That is not my way. I might know a way, but perhaps another way might open up. So I don’t plan too much for the future.

Alfred Pawlin: Do you think you have inspired other Thai artists?

Montien Boonma: Yes, I hope so. Some artists have realised that the way I have gone makes us all open to more energy and experience.

Alfred Pawlin: Thai art is one part of the art of Asia. What do you think about contemporary art in Asia?

Montien Boonma: Asian artists have to communicate between their countries more and more. I think that the new generation in particular will have to change its ideas, to share more of the experiences and learn more about each other. Maybe this will help Asian contemporary ar to become more solid and to have a greater influence on the international art world.

I think we need a few international exhibitions in Asia curated by Asian art critics since they will understand our activities better than Western art critics.

I think also every country needs more contemporary art museums. These institutions have a very important role and position to support artists from all Asian countries.

Montien Boonma’s work [was] at Visual Dhamma Gallery, Bangkok, 21 December 1991 to 5 February 1992. It [was] also seen, in February 1992, at the environmental project Arte Amazonas at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.