Sunday, 22 November 2015

A portrait of the artist as madman

This piece originally ran in a recent edition of Fah Thai, the Bangkok Airways magazine and one of the spiffy publications of the INK group.

Chalermchai Kositpipat is crazy like a fox. What does the fox say? “I am simply a painter … a small unit in human society, hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet earth.”

     That is Chalermchai in Thai National Artist humblebrag mode. But the creator of Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple in Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai, is prone to more bombastic and bizarre soundbites.

insta-art © Jason Gagliardi
  “A living treasure”, “world masterpiece” and “a must see for every human being” is how the self-styled “creator of food for the soul of all humanity” describes his work, begun in 1997 and so far costing a reported THB 40 million, all funded by the artist. It is his meisterwerk and magnificent obsession, a visual epic poem and a hubristic shrine to his own talent, draped in ancient allegories and limned with pop culture references.

    Lanna Rococo meets Buddhist Disneyland on Ritalin might best sum up the style, all white plaster and shards of glass and curlicues upon flourishes, like a wedding cake dreamed by Dali and left to melt in the Siamese sun. Visitors run a gamut of gods and monsters, cross a bridge over hell, depicted by 500 outstretched arms, and enter the red and gold ubosoth, an inner sanctum where the struggle between good and evil gets a Warholian makeover:

George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden glitter in a demon’s eyes as Doraemon watches the Twin Towers burn. Spiderman, Superman, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, The Terminator, Kung Fu Panda, Ronald McDonald and Hello Kitty are there, dodging space ships and ancient ogres.

       Chalermchai uses western pop culture to highlight the delusion of desire and to poke the glazed eye of rigid tradition. Thailand’s most successful living artist has seen his paintings fetch over THB 500,000 at auction, and counts among his collectors HM King Bhumibol Adulydej.

      A serial talk show guest, the artist made a recent appearance on left-field lifestyle program The Toilet Show, little knowing he would soon be starring in a toilet show all of his own. It began with his ban on Chinese tourists at the White Temple, announced to journalists along with a rap sheet of Chinese potty atrocities.  The headlines plopped into the public domain and splashed around the world. WeChat whizzed the straight poop to every last Chinese with a smartphone. It was a gut-punch to national pride, a strain on bilateral relations and threatened to put the skids on the torrent of free-spending Chinese tourists – the one thing propping up Thailand’s moribund economy.

       Chalermchai, possibly persuaded by the powers that be, rescinded his ban later that day. But “Waterclosetgate” was off and running, a gift to the press that kept giving. The original furore was fading when the artist made another statement, announcing plans to build separate toilets for Chinese tourists, branding Thailand's northern near-neighbours as bathroom barbarians at the gate for the second time in a month.

     His latest flash-bang exploded earlier this month when he took aim at a photoshoot at the temple involving a stunning Chinese model and a traditional white gown. To a layman, the images were gorgeous. To the artist, it was Lair of the White Worm. “She looks like a mother of a white snake,” he raged. “Ugly! So ugly.”

    Thailand’s tourism industry is on tenterhooks, wondering what will anger the National Artist next. Some ascribe his volatility to the shock of seeing his life’s work reduced to rubble in the May 2014 Chiang Rai earthquake, and the strain of recreating his masterpiece. He may also have been thrown off balance by the death of Thawan Duchanee, yin to his yang, the fellow National Artist who created Chiang Rai’s other artistic masterpiece, ‘Baan Dum’ or the ‘Black House’.

     Chalermchai now sits atop of the Thailand art world without anyone of similar stature to keep him honest. He sees himself as a misunderstood genius. Others dismiss him as an attention-seeking diva who almost single-handedly scuppered the biggest tourism boom in Thailand’s history, and a rabid nationalist with an agenda to push through his art.

     Ironically, the immortality he sought to achieve by bringing his own personal Xanadu into being has been achieved instead thanks to the viral nature of the internet, a public tantrum or two, and his accusation that the world’s new superpower and oldest civilization has failed to master toilet training.


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