The Private Museum in Singapore, in collaboration with Richard Koh Fine Art, presents Natee Utarit’s “Altarpieces”, inspired by the altars of Christian churches.
The Thai artist merges the Western religious painting tradition with his Asian, Buddhist interpretation of the world around us, contemporary life and the contemporary art world, as well as the view of God and belief.
The Western, Christian world filtered through Asia and Buddhism
“Optimism is Ridiculous: The Altarpieces”, co-presented by Kuala Lumpur-based gallery Richard Koh Fine Art, debuted at Ayala Museum, in Makati, Metro Manila in February 2017, travelling to the National Gallery of Indonesia in October 2017, and finally opening at Singapore’s The Private Museum during Singapore Art Week in January 2018.
Featuring seven large-scale, allegorical paintings from Thai artist Natee Utarit’s 2012 series “Optimism is Ridiculous: The Altarpieces”, the exhibition “responds to contemporary landscapes and human conditions through the roots of his Buddhist beliefs and the lens of history”, as Mr Daniel Teo, Founding Director of The Private Museum, writes in the catalogue foreword. He continues:
The body of work showcases the Thai painter’s brilliant use of visual concoctions, seamlessly juxtaposing symbolic icons of Western and Thai cultures, Christian and Buddhist religions into powerful visual imageries; metaphorical depictions of universal human experiences such as life, death, desires, power, tragedy and suffering.
As Natee Utarit (b. 1970, Bangkok) himself reveals in his statement, “The Altarpieces” take inspiration from the paintings that have traditionally adorned the altars of Christian churches throughout history. In Western history, altarpieces represented religious beliefs, Christian legends and related myths, reflecting the sanctity of Christian rituals and visualising the key tenets of the Christian faith.
Through the series, Utarit offers his own personal interpretation of the world and its various beliefs that appear in the Western world, filtered through his Asian and Buddhist perspectives, providing an alternative to the longstanding and widespread hold of Western thinking. In his statement in the exhibition catalogue, Utarit writes:
These paintings represent a view of God, the world around us, and the contemporary events, filtered through my own Buddhist beliefs. They, therefore, show traces of religious thinking on core issues like death, injustice, and human suffering. And while there are similarities with a number of Western conceptions, like memento mori, which are meant to remind us of certain elemental truths, different perspectives on the causes and means of eliminating suffering ensure that these are only surface similarities. […] Through a range of differing subject matter, all of the works are meant as an examination of my beliefs and my attitude towards the notion of god and goodness in today’s world. They also pose questions about the nature of human identity in a world where the lines separating different ideas and sets of beliefs have all but vanished.
From the Biblical to the Political
As Tan Boon Hui, Director of New York’s Asia Society Museum, writes in the catalogue texts on Utarit’s exhibited works, the artist studied at Silpakorn University, an institution founded by an Italian artist of the Florentine academic school, who inevitably “bequeathed a deeply felt empathy and resonance with the visual idioms and allegorical concerns of European painting”, aspects which are tangible in Utarit’s own oeuvre.
The works from “The Altarpieces” series on show share titles that reference bliblical or classical history with an ironic tone that references the contemporary world, such as When Adam Delved and Eve Span, Who Was Then the Gentleman? or The Private Expectation of God and the Common Reason of Investment.
His sardonic criticism of contemporary society and culture, with particular reference to Thai politics and society, was already present in his 2010 series “Illustration of the Crisis”, which gained him critical and commercial acclaim. His latest series sees a darkening of tone in its execution and presentation, with a heightened critical look at history, especially in relation to art, and its imperialist perspectives in the art world. While in the “Crisis” series Utarit predominantly used playful visual symbols such as toys (rubber ducks and plastic soldiers), in “The Altarpieces” the artist turns to more morbid imagery, like taxidermied animals and skeletons. As Tan Boon Hui writes, Utarit indeed believes that optimism is ridiculous:
From a neon-soaked imitation of life to a residue or detritus of a previous life lived elsewhere, the shift from the toy to the stuffed animal or skeleton marks the increasing somberness in his works. Indeed the mood of the current work embodies Natee’s own description of himself as a ‘conservative pessimist’.
A Critical Look at the Contemporary Art World
When Adam Delved and Eve Span, Who Was Then the Gentleman? is a primary example of the artist’s appropriation of the polyptych altarpiece structure. Composed of seven connected panels, the work draws its title from the famous opening lines of a sermon delivered by the renegade English priest John Ball who instigated the peasant revolt of 1381. The priest spoke to the disenfranchised lower classes who at the time felt subjugated and suppressed by the ruling social order. Ball spoke of the absence of subjugation at the beginning of the world, when Adam and Eve were created, and of the need and desire for ‘purity’ or freedom from the ruling classes. The priest was a “true individualist”, as Tan exposes, not being associated with any formal religious order at the time. Utarit, taking inspiration from Ball’s sermon, draws a parallel with the art world, representing the system being ‘revolted’ against as the art industry and its unequal relationships.
The Private Expectation of God and the Common Reason of Investment and Nescientia connect both the visual tradition of Christianity and of Buddhism, at the same time criticising the contemporary art world and the covetousness and greediness of man. While the Christian faith and written biblical history were transmitted to the lay person through visual narratives that recounted the life of Christ, Buddhist teachings on the life of Buddha were relayed in similar form through oral and visual tales such as mural paintings. Utarit’s two altarpieces, in the same guise, function as carriers of ‘teachings’ or ‘revelations’ of “the false religion of the contemporary art market”.
Tan explains that, in parallel with the painting tradition that inspired Utarit, the 12 pieces in “The Altarpieces” series
can be seen as cautionary tales and allegories of faith in art, at a more personal level, they are meditations on the artistic traditions that the artist has inherited and their complex roles in the commercialised art world today. Indeed the format immediately draws attention to the claims of art as a new religion of our times, with all its attendant fears and hopes. Considering his recent spectacular commercial and critical success, the altar series are also moody reflections of the artist’s ambivalence and unease about the commercial aspects of the art world. […] His work is the antithesis of pop art, in that it is not about surface but what lies beneath. It is not what is visible, but what cannot be seen.
The Death of Belief
The two diptychs Allegory of the Beginning and Acceptance and Allegory of the End and Resistance share the same subject: the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the question around belief itself. The two works, with Adam and Eve pictured in the left and in the right panel respectively, follow the pictorial tradition of the Fall of Adam and Eve of northern European painting, particularly from the 15th century onwards. The two biblical characters are standing in the Garden of Eden, with the Tree of Life between them.
In the first diptych, Adam and Eve are represented in skeletal form, almost indistinguishable from one another if not for pieces of paper pinned to the latticed arches bearing their names. The time depicted here is before the Fall, when all things were equal (including their form) and faith was apparently still alive, as expressed in the banners swirling around the two figures, onto which is written a line by Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
The second dyptich, although revealing skin and flesh of the two characters, bears a darker tone, and represents the time after the Fall of Adam and Eve. Their postures are not as puritanical as in the first work, where Adam and Eve cover their pubes with their hands, but are rather indicative of our present times, as are their physical appearances and the copy of The Financial Times in Adam’s hand. The unfurling banner also has changed, with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche that reads: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Tan expands:
Rather than implying that a physical God is dead, the line argues that when one is no longer able to recognise any absolute order in the universe, one also loses access to moral principles and begins a slide to nihilism.
Choosing a direction: Heaven or Hell?
In the penultimate work on show, The Silent Gateway, Utarit references both the Annunciation of Christianity, a moment of epiphany when the intent of the divine is made known to the world through the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, and the Buddhist equivalent, called by the Thai people Pang Perd Lok, the Buddha in a moment of divine revelation of the truth of existence. In this form, the Buddha is depicted with arms down and palms open, as visible in Nescientia, returning from the heavens and opening up the three worlds of Heaven, Earth and Hell to all living beings so that each could see and comprehend the reality of existence.
The Silent Gateway is a depiction of the three Buddhist worlds as three receding pathways to an unknown destination, devoid of any physical presence. Tan explains:
[…] this work is about the choices ie which path we will choose to walk towards at the present moment, how do we know which is the path to heaven and which is the road to hell?
A Need for Introspection
In times of deeply felt crisis all over the world, when migration flows are at their height, when political agendas are deeply affecting people and straining relations between countries, and commercial and consumeristic cultures have a quasi-religious status, Utarit returns to consider his personal Buddhist beliefs and what solutions they might offer to the current crisis of existence.
His conclusion, even though presented through a visual tradition that might seem to suggest otherwise, is that the solution to such crisis of existence that plagues the contemporary world cannot be found in an external force of divinity. The last work on show, aptly titled Instrospection, best encapsulates this message. All figures in the painting turn towards the centre, facing inwards, as if in a moment of introspection, searching for the answer within.
Adam and Even are here skeletal figures again, accompanied by supplicants, an angel, hooded Death with its scythe, a group of men playing music as if announcing something or someone and a putto as spectator. All of the characters are facing inwards, as if awaiting something. After all of the external challenges presented in the previous works on show, this particular triptych closes the narrative of the exhibition with a turn inwards, concluding the cycle with a need for introspection. A banner, such as those seen in the Adam and Eve works, cites a line from the first verse of the Dhammapada (quotations from the Buddha):
“All things are preceded by the mind, led by the mind, created by the mind.”
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
“Optimism is Ridiculous: The Altarpieces” by Natee Utarit is on view from 24 January to 11 March 2018 at The Private Museum, 51 Waterloo Street #02-06, Singapore 187969.
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