Friday, July 8, 2011

" Hell Within "

Brian Curtin 

How do we imagine hell, as a place?

In fact, our views of hell are typically not of a place but a space defined by the horrors occurring, though skewed perspective and disproportionate scale is an architectonic
feature. Moreover, a sense of descent is usually evident. Anthropomorphic and biomorphic forms move, turn and twist in terms of an urgent force of transformation.

The extremities of bodies grab, kick, embrace and resist frantically. Power is brutal and explicitly rendered in view of its opposite. Inversions occur: corporeal interiors become exterior; the end of life appears as the beginning of some form of existence; and perceptions of ‘low’ and ‘high’ are subverted. The hybrid as grotesque is pervasive, and the spectacular and sensational all-encompassing.

    Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Touching of An Ignorance 5, Woodcut,100 x 200 cm,2008
Kriangkrai Kongkhanun creates large woodcut prints that inquire into the conditions of living by imaging outer limits. Broadly speaking, the unruly and the excessive constitute these nether reaches but, specifically, Kriangkrai delineates rabid creatures with snapping mouths and arresting eyes. These creatures symbolize our own extreme states – anger, frustration, maliciousness, fear etc. – and, as in the dichotomy of heaven/hell, stand counter to our capacity for compassion, serenity, rationalism and respect. 

Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Spiritual Disease 8,
Woodcut,200 x 100 cm,2009

Like many artists in Thailand, Kriangkrai is influenced by Theravada Buddhism, where spiritual practice aims at breaking away from samsara or the endless cycles of life and death within the Thribumi. The artist cites Thribumi or Three Worlds: a cosmological and hierarchical worldview, dating from the Sukhothai period of Thailand in the 14th century, in which humans live in the midst of the Realm of Sensation. Vivid descriptions of deities, devils and hellish animals provide a rich source for Kriangkrai in terms of how these creatures are so creatively rendered and understood as effecting, as well as representing, the world we live in. Most importantly, they give shape to the analogous rather than the scientific. 

Kriangkrai’s prints recall the diffuse compositions of cosmological maps. While hierarchies are operative, purported minor details prove just as compelling as a central focus. His works are aggressive engagements with unpalatable aspects of how we understand ourselves, from the casual to the profound. We ultimately learn to recognize that we are the source of the evil we often believe is Other.

Dr. Brian Curtin is an Irish-born art critic and curator based in Bangkok.


Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Spiritual Disease 5, Woodcut,200 x 100 cm,2009

Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Spiritual Disease 7, Woodcut,200 x 100 cm,2009

" Images of Evil "

Axel Feuss

Despite major differences between Christianity and Buddhist ethics, their perception of the world and philosophy of life, obvious parallels also exist. Both religions point the way towards deliverance from selfishness, spiritual blindness and from succumbing to worldly desires. In both cases, religious experience and inner transformation offer a practical path to salvation. Not only intrinsic moral values but also an all-embracing call for goodness, joy, compassion and love are mutual fundamental traits. The yearning for discipline, justice, morality and an ethical conduct in Buddhist teachings is likewise a fundamental component of Christian thought. The image of evil is also similar. Both religions recognise demons and Hell where, after death, sinners are mercilessly tormented by the inhabitants of the Underworld for their shortcomings on Earth. 

One of the greatest masterpieces of traditional Thai literature, King Lithai’s Traibhumikatha (The Three Worlds), written in the mid 14th century, describes the three different realms of Hell in the First World where the torment to which sinners are subjected serves to purify them and rid them of their shortcomings. In Buddhism, salvation comes ultimately to everyone whereas in Christianity, the fires of Hell burn for all eternity. Thai Buddhists are generally familiar with the imagery in Traibhumikatha from temple murals. Even today, young artists studying traditional Thai painting at art colleges still draw on the imagery found in ancient Buddhist art and its myths, fables and tales, weaving it into a highly decorative and narrative fabric of people, animals and unknown creatures which are equally fascinating to a foreigner’s eyes.  

Art Exhibition " Spiritual Disease" by Kriangkrai Kongkhanu at Number 1 Gallery,2010.

In contemporary western art, pictures of demons, fantastic creatures, Hell and the Underworld are seldom to be found. Paintings of the Late Gothic period and the Renaissance immediately spring to the minds of those familiar with European art, however – Mathias Gruenewald, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and his son, the ‘Hell Brueghel’ – as well as Symbolist painting in the second half of the 19th century, Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Moreau, Redon, Böcklin and Klinger. Today, monsters and demons and the fantastic worlds they populate are largely to be found in the world of the comic and animation film. 

Kriangkrai Kongkhanun, who studied at art schools in Thailand as well as in Italy, visiting the most important art museums in the West on a trip to Europe, makes a daring attempt to forge a link between the Buddhist symbolism found in traditional pictures and the western imagery of the Renaissance and the 19th century. The Buddhist codex of ethics conditions his life philosophy and way of thinking. The point of departure for Kriangkrai’s art is, however, the knowledge that negative human traits, such as anger, hatred and selfishness, namely evil properties, are so closely woven into human life that they always resurface from the subconscious. 

Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Hell,Etching,2001

Images of evil concealed within the subconscious form the predominant theme in Kriangkrai’s art. In etchings made in 2001, images of the smallest of primeval creatures and amorphous coloured forms and shapes mutated into images of demons. Insect-like creatures filled his imaginary world of Purgatory. The following year, he switched to woodcuts as this technique gave him greater possibilities for expression for his depiction of creatures from the realm of shadows. They should give the viewer an idea of what awaits sinners in Hell. Ancient illustrations for Traibhumikatha, the book of Heaven and Hell, and the pictorial symbolism of Buddhist mural painting provided the inspiration for Kriangkrai’s interpretation of evil and Hell. In European art history, depictions of the temptation of St. Anthony and his being tormented by the Devil and demons by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1505/10) and Matthias Gruenewald (c. 1515), for example, are close to Kriangkrai’s world of thought. Gustave Doré’s steel engraving for Inferno of 1861, to illustrate Dante Alighieri’s journey in the Divine Comedy through Hell in the afterlife, drew the artist into a close pictorial relation with his own vision of Hell as understood in Buddhism.

Kriangkrai’s series of woodcuts ‘Touching of An Ignorance’ of 2009 once again refers to the eternal desires that arise out of the subconscious and that mankind cannot resist despite his striving for good. From a correctly dressed individual in a suit and tie, they develop into a four-headed monster with countless eyes and faces, holding the mask of evil up to the winged chimera. In the series ‘Spiritual Disease’ four related pictures in each case with different winged demons, insects with human heads, fantastic reptiles, carnivorous plants with snarling jaws and wondrous flowers and vegetation represent the scourge of the soul. The demons of the Underworld are not shown as realistically imaginable creatures but as the embodiment of evil. They are Hell on earth.

                        Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Touching of An Ignorance 3, Woodcut,200 x 100 cm,2008

Despite all art-historical references, Kriangkrai’s imagery has a considerable strength of its own and reflects an unmistakable personal style. The little details, figures and structures cut into the wood are just as precisely executed as the larger shapes that dictate a picture’s overall composition. The interspersion of black and white, structured, monochromatic fields heightens the element of suspense, the pictorial surface being designed as a dramatically composed ornamental form comprising fascinating individual shapes. For this series of works the artist won a major award at the 55th National Art Exhibition in Bangkok and succeeded in beguiling not only experts in Thailand itself but western critics as well. Since 2003 his works have been shown at numerous exhibitions of graphic works in Europe and in South America, as well as in Japan and China. 

Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Spiritual Disease 1-4, Woodcut,200 x 400 cm,2009
The technique of pulling prints after rubbing the cut and inked woodblocks himself, enables the artist to remain in close contact with his materials. Other than in the case of most European artists who use heavy woodblocks and presses when printing, Kriangkrai works on large-format, thin wood veneers. He employs a technique similar to frottage, rubbing over the grain of wood and the surface structures of other natural materials. Max Ernst – the Master of Surrealism – saw such shapes as new and unknown worlds rising from the subconscious. And if we look at the pictorial elements favoured by the Surrealists and at Max Ernst’s invention of creatures from an unreal universe, then it is not far from there to Kriangkrai’s working methods and imagery. His woodcuts are a new and important contribution to the genre of fantasy painting. 

Dr. Axel Feuss
(Curator, Freelance Writer and Guest Lecturer in Art History at Silpakorn University.)

“Oceanic Wilderness ”

Steven Pettifor

A vast expanse of the planet’s surface, the world’s oceans are one of the last unexplored territories for man to unfurl and inevitably exploit. Since ancient times, the great blue seas have stirred the depths of the human imagination, invoking myths of the monstrous creatures like the Kraken, or more seductive mermaids and sirens. In Thailand’s rich spiritual and animistic iconography, the water dwelling Naga serpents are powerful protective deities.

A magnet for tourists, the foreboding reality of Thailand’s coastal waters is one of over fishing and increasing pollution from manmade detritus. Netted by negligent fisherman, the Irrawaddy dolphin is close to extinction and the graceful turtle fares little better in a bleak forecast for Asia’s aquatic species. 

Art Exhibition  "Oceanic Wilderness " by Kriangkrai Kongkhanun at Art HK 11

 Art Exhibition  "Oceanic Wilderness " by Kriangkrai Kongkhanun at Art HK 11

Continuing in his allegorical crusade to expose man’s spiritual malaise, previously manifested in the 2009 series Spiritual Disease, 31-year-old Kriangkrai Kongkhanun presents his latest prophetic woodblock prints. In Oceanic Wilderness, dorsal and tentacle entwine with pelagic and crustacean as they grapple with menacing anthropomorphic bestial forms. Unseen giants lurking beneath that cast analogies to our own personal demons, the artist also interweaves sperm and vaginal motifs in relation to consumption and reproduction.

The large-scale monochrome renderings are intricately carved rectilinear compositions that imply a journey of descent or ascent, depending on our interpretation. Evoking the symbolic decorative carvings featured in the architecture of Buddhist temples, the prints are infused with a contemporary countenance. Kriangkrai cleaves a cannibalistic devouring of souls in the relentless pursuit of individual aggrandisement. His hellish vision is symptomatic to much of Asia in its drive to develop and succeed.

Kriangkrai’s art maintains a firm tethering to his Buddhist heritage, with many Thai artists similarly pushing a morality conscious agenda. Invoking the surreal visions of Gothic painter Hieronymus Bosch, essentially his approach is struggle of good versus evil, that earthly desire and the ego negates spiritual enlightenment. Bound to the fundamentals of major world religions, this precept has pegged written and visual language for millennia.
Having attained a BFA in Printmaking (2003) from King Mongkut Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, in Bangkok, in 2006 Kriangkrai was awarded a scholarship by the Italian government to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, in Florence. His unique woodblock compositions have warranted inclusion in several international print expositions, biennials and triennials. Kriangkrai’s pertinent prints are proof of Thai art’s continuing proximity to craft traditions and techniques, and the contemporary currency instilled upon otherwise marginal forms.
Steven Pettifor, Steven is a British born art writer and curator based in Bangkok

Art Exhibition  "Oceanic Wilderness " by Kriangkrai Kongkhanun at Art HK 11

Art Exhibition  "Oceanic Wilderness " by Kriangkrai Kongkhanun at Art HK 11

Art Exhibition  "Oceanic Wilderness " by Kriangkrai Kongkhanun at Art HK 11

Kriangkrai Kongkhanun,Oceanic Wilderness 1,Woodcut,200x100 cm,2011