Making Merit, Making Art

Making Merit, Making Art: A Thai Temple in Wimbledon

Sandra Cate
Copyright Date: 2003
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  • Book Info
    Making Merit, Making Art
    Book Description:

    Sandra Cate's pioneering ethnography of art-making at Wat Buddhapadipa, a Thai Buddhist temple in Wimbledon, England, explores contemporary art at the crossroads of identity, authority, and value. Between 1984 and 1992, twenty-six young Thai artists painted a series of temple murals that continue to attract worshippers and tourists from around the world. Their work, both celebrated and controversial, depicts stories from the Buddha's lives in otherworldly landscapes punctuated with sly references to this-worldly politics and popular culture. Schooled in international art trends, the artists reverse an Orientalist narrative of the Asian Other, telling their own stories to diverse audiences and subsuming Western spaces into a Buddhist worldview. In her investigation of temple murals as social portraiture, Cate looks at the ongoing dialectic between the "real" and the "imaginary" as mural painters depict visual and moral hierarchies of sentient beings. As they manipulate indigenous notions of sacred space and the creative process, the Wat Buddhapadipa muralists generate complex, expansive visions of social place and identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6345-6
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Notes on Transliteration
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. chapter one Finding a Place
    (pp. 1-16)

    The Thai Airways International airplane, sailing away into an open sky, strikes a discordant note in Panya’s scene of theDefeat of Maraat Wat Buddhapadipa, the Thai temple in Wimbledon, England (Cover photo). It appears in a scene populated otherwise by demons andyaks(giants) who migrated with monks and storytellers into Siamese folklore from ancient Indian mythology centuries before.¹ One of the monks at Wat Buddhapadipa interpreted the airplane as a modern replacement for a boat, the symbolic vehicle that carries practitioners of the Dhamma toward nirvana.² To Thai worshipers and viewers unfamiliar with Thai temple murals and...

  6. chapter two Long-Distance Merit-Making
    (pp. 17-42)

    Khun Sawet Piamphongsant and I were sitting at our usual meeting place, on the balcony of his house overlooking the Chao Phraya River, one morning in early December of 1994 when he explained to me about making merit(tham bun). At our first meeting in 1992, we had sat in the formal dining room downstairs. Since then, when I visited him at his home I would walk through the kitchen, remove my shoes at the bottom of the highly polished stairs, climb to the second floor, pass the locked glass cases filled with his extensive collection of Thai and Chinese...

  7. chapter three Thai Art and the Authority of the Past
    (pp. 43-70)

    Temple murals—primary sites of Thai painting for centuries—connect the past with the present in visually prominent and socially significant ways. The terms that measure the social value of mural painting beyond its continuation of familiar visual forms have proliferated as well, as Thai artists have engaged with stylistic currents moving from directions both East and West, as murals have expanded into new public spaces, and as artists have adapted mural painting styles to canvas paintings and graphic reproduction. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, emerging state institutions interpreted temple murals at different moments as relics of the “past,”...

  8. chapter four From Buddhist Stories to Modern Art
    (pp. 71-94)

    During one of my visits to Wat Buddhapadipa, three young English visitors seemed anxious to understand the “position” of Margaret Thatcher in the temple’s murals. They believed her location in Chalermchai’s scene of the Three Worlds to be a bit high.² I noted that Thatcher was, after all, prime minister at the time the murals were painted, from 1984–1992. Sitting in front of a cottage, she serenely overlooks “hell” (Plate 31). One fellow immediately responded with a question, “Why had the artists not painted Thatcherinhell?” Another Englishman, a longtime temple supporter and devout Buddhist who stood with...

  9. chapter five “Going Outside” and the Experience of Modernity
    (pp. 95-122)

    When he finished painting the murals at Wat Buddhapadipa, in 1987, Chalermchai returned to Bangkok to find people demanding,

    Why did you do that for all thefarang?Why didn’t you do it in Thailand? I said, “If I do it in Thailand I can do nothing. I can’t finish the mural painting in Bangkok, because [too many people] criticize, many conservative people, many monks. [There are] many, many problems. That is a hard, very hard, hard, hard life.”

    While mentioning forces in Thailand that might have posed insurmountable obstacles to the type of temple murals they envisioned as “modern,”...

  10. chapter six Art, Identity, and Performance
    (pp. 123-146)

    In mass media interviews and fund-raising publicity about the mural-painting project at Wat Buddhapadipa, Panya and Chalermchai frequently represented themselves to the Thai public as the reincarnations of two nineteenth-century muralists and monks, Khru Khongpae and Khru Thongyu.¹ In the catalog essay accompanying the British Council exhibition of their initial mural sketches, Panya is quoted as saying, “Chalermchai will paint as Tong Yoo [sic], the universe and heavens behind the Buddha. I will paint as Kong Paat [sic], with strength and emotion in front of the Buddha, His battle with Mara (Evil) before he reached enlightenment” (Mead 1984). Claiming this...

  11. Color plates
    (pp. None)
  12. chapter seven Tourists and Templegoers, Religion and Art
    (pp. 147-162)

    The passport control officer at Heathrow was friendly, an auspicious sign. I had written “Wat Buddhapadipa, Wimbledon,” as my place of residence on the arrival card. He knew Wat Buddhapadipa, as he lived in the area and often cycled past. Although he had not seen the murals, he thought the place “quite impressive.” He wished me the best of luck.

    As I walked up the hill from the train station past the open space of Wimbledon Commons, leaves on the trees, in full autumnal color, shimmered in the bright sun. The air carried that light touch of chill that signaled...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 163-194)
  14. Glossary of Thai Words
    (pp. 195-196)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-208)
  16. Index
    (pp. 209-218)