Montien Boonma (1953-2000) is undoubtedly the most important Thai artist of his generation and one of the great innovators in contemporary Asian art. Revered in Thailand and recognised internationally, he was honoured by the 2003 retrospective exhibition Montien Boonma; Temple of the Mind at the Asia Society, New York, which toured to the National Gallery of Australia in 2004.
Montien Boonma ‘Lotus sound’
Montien first showed his work in Australia in the 1990 Biennale of Sydney, where it made a great impression, and he made firm friends with Australian artists who had begun working and teaching in Thailand. Soon Montien became a key link between the Thai and Australian art worlds: late in 1990 I visited him in Chiang Mai, where he taught sculpture in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and he hosted many Australian artists and curators in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, always seeking to explore our common interests. These connections soon blossomed: Montien showed with Vichoke Mukdamanee and Kamol Phaosavasdi, and Australians Joan Grounds and Noelene Lucas, in the collaborative exhibition Thai-Australian Cultural Space in Thailand in 1993, at the National Art Gallery, Bangkok and Chiang Inn Plaza in Chiang Mai, and in 1994 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. This was only the first of many Thai-Australian exchanges over the years.
Montien Boonma ‘Salas for the mind’
Montien Boonma ‘Trio’
Montien had a long and fruitful relationship with the Queensland Art Gallery. When ‘The 1st Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT1) was staged in 1993, Montien came to install his exquisite Lotus sound 1992, which you can see above; it entered the Gallery’s Collection that year. Like so much of Montien’s work, Lotus sound was inspired by Thai life and culture: its customs, rhythms, materials, textures and, especially, its staunch Buddhist belief. Here the lotus signifies purity and recalls the Buddha; the Salas for the mind shown in ‘The 4th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT4) 2002, two years after Montien’s death, are spaces for personal meditation; as for the vessels, look at this Buddhist proverb: ‘The lives of sentient beings are like clay pots destined to break sooner or later.’
Montien was a lovely man: warm, generous, perennially amused, a devout Buddhist, supportive teacher and devoted husband and father. Montien Boonma’s many friends included his fellow-countryman, the late Peera Ditbunjong, whose family gave many of Montien’s works to the Gallery in 2005.
Julie Ewington is former Curatorial Manager, Australian Art, QAGOMA