NAVIN RAWANCHAIKUL’s House of Hope, 2013, with Khun Yai, Montien Boonma’s mother-in-law, at her home in Bangkok, 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Dearest Montien: A Tribute to Montien Boonma

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Introduction: Why Montien Boonma now?

The late Montien Boonma (1953–2000) is one of Thailand’s best-known artists. Working through sculpture and installation to portray the country’s shift from its previous agrarian economy and culture toward industrialization, his practice brought a fresh perspective to modern Thai art. Montien’s sociopolitical, and later spiritual, approach combined local content with readymade materials to explore such different subject matters as Buddhist teachings and human experience. 

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a boom in globalization and multiculturalism resulted in Western curators turning to “the periphery.” Acclaim for Montien’s early works led to his first solo exhibition outside Thailand, organized by the Japan Foundation and held at the ASEAN Cultural Center in Tokyo and Mitsubishi-Jisho Atrium, Fukuoka, in 1991. Soon Montien’s works were included in major international shows across the Asia-Pacific area and beyond, yet he was often unable to travel to these events after his wife, the artist Chancham Boonma, fell ill in the early 1990s, finally passing away in 1994. Five years after his own death in 2000, Montien was chosen to represent Thailand at the 51st Venice Biennale. 

Montien was also an influential teacher and, although originally from Bangkok, was among the pioneers of Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. His determination to communicate the shift from modernism to postmodernism in the Western art world inspired colleagues as well as students. Among the latter was Navin Rawanchaikul, a Thai-Indian artist who started at the Faculty in 1989. Although he did not study under Montien, Navin became his disciple and was later to assist him on several projects. 

MONTIEN BOONMA (left) and NAVIN RAWANCHAIKUL (right) installing Lotus Sound, 1990, at the first Asia Pacific Triennial, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1993. Courtesy Navin Rawanchaikul. 

In Chiang Mai, Navin helped Montien set up works to be photographed for his catalogs, while also driving and transporting the works. The two became close, and Montien introduced Navin to Alfred Pawlin, owner of Bangkok’s Visual Dhamma Gallery, who later organized the show “Social Contract: New Art from Chiang Mai” (1993) for Montien and his students. Montien was also a driving force behind the successful Chiang Mai Social Installation, a collective project by lecturers, students and artists in public spaces around the city in the early 1990s. This project helped Navin to launch his own career with his first public art project, The Journey (1992), for which he asked audiences to donate everyday objects. 

As Montien’s assistant, Navin traveled to the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 1993. In early 1994, with Montien’s wife increasingly unwell, Navin went alone to the Adelaide Festival. After her death a few months later, Montien moved back to Bangkok and continued to work hard, while Navin developed his traveling Taxi Gallery, which launched in 1995. The previous year, Navin had participated in the 4th Asian Art Show at the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan; two years later he relocated to Fukuoka following his marriage to a Japanese curator. 

Montien’s death in 2000 at the height of his career was a shock and a great loss to his friend and to the art community across Thailand, which recognized and honored Navin’s role as his protégé and the deep rapport between the two. After the initial rush of posthumous solo exhibitions in the United States and Asia, few shows were organized in Montien’s memory until the Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok, hosted an archival-based exhibition in 2013 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his birth. Navin wrote one letter to Montien for display in this show, and another for “Spiritual Ties,” an exhibition at Chulalongkorn University’s Art Center in Bangkok that same year, curated by Somporn Rodboon, which brought together Montien’s students from Chiang Mai to pay homage to their teacher. 

Navin’s first letter relates how he won the Silpathorn Award from Thailand’s Ministry of Culture in 2010, saying that he would like to dedicate the award to Montien, while the second letter, Dearest Montien (2013), is reprinted here. In the letter, Navin asks Montien’s permission to make a pair of paintings and a video, having recently visited the home of Montien’s mother-in-law in Bangkok, where Montien’s wife stayed during her final days, and where his son now lives. 

Filling Montien in on what has happened since his death, Navin’s letters describe the local contemporary art scene in its social, political and economic contexts over the last two decades and also pay homage to Montien and his will to collaborate with his beloved wife. The letters subtly illuminate Navin’s attitudes toward the role of the institution and that of cultural policies, which he critiques constructively, and reflect the love and gratitude of an artist and individual to his mentor, teacher and colleague. A rare gesture in the competitive art world, Navin’s sentiments bring home the spiritual aspect of Montien’s works and provide proof that Montien’s legacy still lives. 

Gridthiya Gaweewong

MANIT SRIWANICHPOOM, Montien Boonma, 1995, gelatin silver print, 50.8 × 41 cm. Taken at The Art Centre, Chulalongkorn University with Montien Boonma standing with his installation Sala of Mind, 1995. Courtesy the artist and Gridthiya Gaweewong. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Dearest Ajarn Montien,

Greetings from Japan! It has been almost three years since I last wrote to you. Today I would like to consult with you about a project that has something to do with your family. As always, I trust that you will once again guide me along the right path. 

Yesterday I met Mr. Masahiro Ushiroshoji, the former Chief Curator at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Do you remember him? He is one of my mentors and we were neighbors when I first settled in Japan almost 20 years ago. At that time my wife and I lived in a co-ophousing project called Murozumi Danchi: the type of community with lots of apartment buildings that represents the urbanization of Japanese society. I found that the place was filled with lots of elderly people living alone and, after years of wandering around, in early 1998 I came up with an idea for a video work that gives them a voice. The result was a public exhibition in front of a supermarket located in the center of the community. It was held at the beginning of spring so we celebrated the show with a picnic under some Sakura trees. At the picnic I remember those elderly collaborators sang a traditional song of spring about the beauty of blossom and its short life. A much-loved cultural icon in Japan, Sakura is a reminder of our humanity—our mortality. The flowers that bloom today are soon dead and falling, but there is still a beauty in the cycle. Recalling this reminds me of how you once said that you like the way the Japanese think the beauty of pottery lies in its fragility. With such awareness of impermanence, I can understand why you were satisfied when your towers of ceramic bells and bowls collapsed and smashed into pieces. 

Over lunch with Ushiroshoji-san we talked about you a lot and he was happy to receive a copy of an old photo of you both. Taken at the opening of the “New Art from Southeast Asia” show in Japan back in 1992, I found it at the Jim Thompson Art Center. They had borrowed it from your house when preparing a commemorative exhibition on the occasion of your would-be 60th birthday. Put together by our dear friend Jeab and her team, it is a unique show featuring unseen sketches and archival materials recently found at your house. It is still on view and I am glad that I went to the opening-day symposium. Everyone who attended said it felt like your birthday party!

I was still a student but that year meant a lot to me. It was the time when I became your assistant and you kindly brought me and some of my fellow students to Bangkok for our debut show under the label of “New Art from Chiang Mai.” The first Chiang Mai Social Installation, in which we used temples and cemeteries as exhibition sites, was also launched. I vaguely remember joining my friends to install your work in a pond at Wat Umong temple—a set of terra-cotta alms bowls that sank into the water after a few days of floating. I know you often used alms bowls as metaphors for the mind, or what you used to call mind practice, but I did not discover their meaning until recently, when I got a chance to carry one myself during a spell as a monk. During this time I often thought about you and felt we were connected again.  

I would also like to share with you that I recently got a chance to visit your mother-in-law, whom I know you were close to. She is 88 now but still in good shape and as elegant as I remember her. She could not remember me at first, but when I told her my name she knew immediately who I was. We had a great time talking about the old days and found it funny that I still remember her home phone number. This is because back when you moved from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to look after your sick wife she was our main means of communication. As things turned out, I did not get a chance to meet her in person until shortly before you departed, but 13 years on I was glad to see her again. It brought memories flooding back. 

Production still from NAVIN RAWANCHAIKUL’s House of Hope, 2013, showing Montien Boonma’s family photos. Courtesy the artist and Estate of Montien Boonma. 

Production still from NAVIN RAWANCHAIKUL’s House of Hope, 2013, showing a piano performance by Mimi (Supawan Tayarachakul). Courtesy the artist. 

My revisiting your house also led to a chance discovery. Before leaving, a friend who came along asked me to look at the wall above the piano in the living room. She said there is a blank canvas frame there. At first I thought it was part of the wall but, looking behind that partition, I could see a wood stretcher. Then, I was even more stunned to learn that this frame was prepared by you for your son Bank to use in the future. That evening I couldn’t stop thinking about that blank canvas and how it might be able to help me reconnect your great spirit with your family and the house you all lived in together. 

A few days later I got a chance to meet Bank and asked him about it. While I respect that this empty canvas is for his use, I proposed to him that he let me share his legacy by creating a dialogue between your work and mine. As a father of a young child, I feel that it is somehow relevant to my own life. I am also reminded about my relationship with my own dad and would like to share my experiences with him. Bank has accepted my proposal but asked me to tell you about it, so let me explain further. 

I plan to create a painting with the same dimensions as your frame but nothing will be removed from the original wall. The painting would portray your family all together through traces of memory and photographs found at your house. In it, Bank’s grandma would sit in front of the piano, surrounded on both sides by loved ones from past and present. Bank would appear twice, both as a little boy and as giant as he is now! I have already shown a sketch of it to them. They like that I have included the two family dogs, Coke and Cake, and have also suggested that I add Kib-kab, the late dog that you and your wife adopted from Silpakorn University. Bank is searching for a photo of Kib-kab for me, as well as other dogs that were part of your family. 

I would also include Bank’s dinosaur toys and some souvenirs from your travels abroad that still decorate your house. Among these items there would also be a telescope that connects to the final stage of your life and work. Jeab told me that she took you out in a wheelchair to buy it for Bank as a birthday present. I was moved to learn that you hoped to use it with him to watch a lunar eclipse that was happening soon. That was less than a month before you departed, so we are wondering whether you got the chance to do it. It is a sad but beautiful tale that helps us to recall how thoughtful you were and how much you value family. In my painting of your family reunion, the lunar eclipse is seen against a starry sky, amid reflections of your question marks and exclamations. 

I will name this work after one of your masterpieces, House of Hope, and I have told Bank that I would love to do another after finishing this one. The end result will be a pair of similar paintings. One would be given to your family, and the other I would display at my new studio in Chiang Mai. Speaking of which, there is a long drama about this dream studio that has landed me in a sea of depression. I pray that the reconciliation of the two paintings at both our houses of hope will help me to reevaluate things before I continue in whatever life path is best. 

NAVIN RAWANCHAIKUL, House of Hope, 2013, video: 6 min. Collection of the Estate of Montien Boonma. Courtesy the artist.

Finally, to complete the project, I would like to request something from your late wife. At the exhibition at the Jim Thompson Art Center, I learned that one of your unrealized projects was an installation about your family that would accompany Chopin’s Funeral March. I was subsequently told that your wife used to play this tune on her piano and that you were very fond of it and even chose it for your funeral music. To pay homage to your love for each other, I would like to use this music to reconnect your family. We are still searching for the original “Piano Pieces for Children” scorebook that she used to play from but we have already found a lovely young girl who is willing to collaborate. Her name is Mimi. She was really inspired after I told her about you and why I would like to do this project. If you accept, she will come over to your place and perform the Funeral March on your wife’s piano. I know that this tune is a token of love, but I promise to do it with tenderness and respect. Bank and the rest of his family have accepted and his grandma has agreed to be filmed as well. 

I hope you will grant me permission to realize this project. Please be with us for the shooting next Sunday and come to visit the exhibition at Chulalongkorn Art Center, where I will present this work among pieces by your former student-cum-assistants from Chiang Mai. The show is being put together by Ajarn Somporn, your beloved teacher. 

I have told my wife all about this work and she would like to see the result. We are talking about going to Bangkok in mid-August during Japan’s Obon Festival, when people return to their hometowns and the spirits of ancestors are said to visit their homes. My daughter Mari has said she would prefer to go to her grandma’s place in Japan and join them in carving small horse and cow offerings out of cucumbers and eggplants. The Japanese believe the horses enable their ancestors to travel home quickly and the cows help them to return slowly. Let’s see if we can convince her to make those horses and cows in Bangkok traffic. Or maybe we should create a Taxi Gallery salad instead?

By the way, my wife has just reminded me to call Bank, as he phoned when I was out. I’m sure you’ll be proud to hear that, having followed his parents’ path, he graduated recently from your alma mater. He also seems to have his dad’s passion for Japanese culture, but a different side of it. Currently he is in Tokyo studying Japanese before fulfilling his dreams in anime world! Before I sign off, I would like to tell you that I recently visited the ruined pagoda near Chiang Mai city gate. I know that was the place where you found inspiration for the pagoda series you created when you lived in Chiang Mai, so in front of it I prayed for you and recalled how you believe in art and its power to engage with society and our roots. 

Thank you so much. I hope that your great spirit continues to guide me. To this day, I always say I am a proud student of Montien Boonma. Without you, I would never have made it this far (or ever written this long a letter!).

We all miss you!

Humble Regards,



NAVIN RAWANCHAIKUL, House of Hope, 2013, oil on canvas, 100 × 180 cm. Courtesy the artist.