Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Motherland Visit, Part 5: Creation and Inspirations vs. Collections and Preservations

“I strongly believe that the morality of the world population is deteriorating. And at the same time I cannot deny the advancement of science that is so valuable to mankind, incomparable in any era. We, Asians, believe that the scientific approach can bring knowledge to human beings. But it cannot elevate the spirit of man. It has only paved the way for materialists in their search for worldly happiness.


Sustainability and beauty have no boundary in age. This can be proven by the existence of art, paintings and architecture that were beautifully created by man as lasting treasures and have been handed down to us by our ancestors. Every piece of art is priceless. Some have become world treasures and adored by art lovers. They seem to have no nationality, no religion, no limit in time. Only art has bestowed the refreshing sprit on human beings up to the present day. Therefore, we should give more serious thought and interest to art.”

I am a lover and hater of museums.*

I love that thoughtfully curated spaces of art, science, culture and information exist. I love that they can provide a sense of context, history and awareness to cultural products. I love when they expose me to new, amazing things. I love how there are people with lots and lots of money who want to contribute to art.

I hate that we are so attached to the physical aspects of great works of beauty and innovation that we feel the need to remove it from its context, then put it back into “context” in a potentially sterile, white walled building all in the name of “preservation.” I hate how museums, as physical spaces, live in the reflected glory of the art they are merely housing. I hate how museums have become a substitute for interactive learning.

I generally love specialized exhibits in museums and I generally hate permanent collections. I love what’s inside museums – the creative – and I hate museums themselves – the preservative. I’m weird. I know.

Patrons of Thailand: The Viriyahbhun Family

It cannot be denied that the Viriyahbhun family has contributed greatly to both the creation and preservation of art in Thailand. They are also simultaneously responsible for two perfect examples of why I love and hate museums.

Quick background of the Viriyahbhun family:

They were old money millionaires. They had always been in the automotive industry and they owned the first, and for a while the only, Mercedes Benz dealership in Thailand. They were and are fiercely loyal to Thailand.

Built over the course of 10 years, and completed in 2004, this was my very first encounter with this museum. It is located in Samut Prakan, my father’s province, and very close to where we stayed. This museum was one of the last ones on the “Tour of Thailand.” I saw it from the freeway a bunch of times before I actually stepped foot on the grounds, and from jump, it was an awesome sight to behold.

Here are the important physical details:

The main attraction of the museum is massive, 3-headed elephant standing atop a domed, circular, columned building with a basement. It’s dimensions are 128’ x 39.5’ x 143’ (L x W x H). HUGE! The body weighs 150 tons, the heads weigh 100 tons total.
Model of the museum.

If you want to nerd out with me, I’ve scanned an excerpt from a book I bought that gives a narrative and some visuals about the building of the museum. Fun fact: In order to portray the elephant skin accurately, they used relatively small copper sheets that were put together by hand!
What is more impressive than the pure scale of this project? The thought, intention, and attention to detail are from some place larger than us. For example, this museum has been conceptualized as a model of our universe.

The basement, where the rare antique and valuable artifact collection of the Viriyahbhun family can be found, can be conceptualized as the base level of human desires. Though not described by the curators as such, to me the preservation of these items represents a desire to possess and narrate your “life” after death (e.g., living forever in a legacy through physical items that are pasted through the generations).

The domed, circular building has been purposefully likened to the Earth and decorated with an insane amount of thoughtfulness. First of all, the level of detail of the interior can keep you occupied for days. Between the meticulously hand-pounded tin pillars depicting different religions and the gigantic Ananda Fish (fabled Thai fish that lives under the earth, such that if it were to roll over there would be an devastating earthquake) strategically placed over structural support beams and columns
to the beautiful mosaics made only of broken porcelain bowls, cups, and spoons
to the German stained glass ceiling portraying the earth and the zodiac signs,
you can easily lose your mind – in a good way. Again, the theme of Earth comes shining as much through the natural light from the stained glass ceiling as it does through the symbolism of each aspect of the building.

Above the “Earth” is the 3-headed elephant itself. I certainly was at no vantage point to get the scale of the elephant, but these I could not help.
The elephant is a sacred animal in many cultures, especially south Asian countries. There are a number of excellent resources that explain the cultural symbolism of elephants, the most easily recalled being the Hindu deity of Ganesh. Erawan is just the Thai name of Airavata, the Hindu mythological white elephant with multiple heads who is most commonly associated with rain and water. I sort of have an affinity toward elephants, so you can imagine why I was drawn to this museum.

Visitors may enter into the hollow abdomen of the Erawan, or as I think of it, ascension into enlightenment. In order to ascend to the belly, you must climb a flight of narrow, spiral stairs (You’re actually climbing up one of the elephant's legs, don't worry there's an elevator in one of the other legs!) painted with other earthly creatures ascending with you. It is very calming for being such a small space. The belly has a rounded ceiling and walls with a beautiful mural of the universe at its height. The lighting is in shades of blue and yellow. Directly ahead is a walking Buddha image and a number of their antiques lining the walls. This space is very minimal and more like a temple rather than a museum.

While the external, physical structure of the building and the Erawan is impressive by it sheer size, it’s ultimately the internal architecture, the internal story as symbolized by painstakingly handcrafted works of art and the ascension into space, that sparks an internal feeling of calmness that is truly inspiring.

Last time I remember feeling like this was at Leigh McCloskey’s studio.

Another museum credited to the Viriyahbhun family, the Ancient City is also located in Samut Prakan and is literally, a tour through some of Thailand and SE Asia’s history. Originally conceived as a golf course with miniatures of significant Thai monuments as backdrops to the holes, this is now a 200-acre historical journey. An interactive map can be found here.

Of the 116 mini-monuments, there are a mix of scaled down replications, reconstructions from life, and creative representations. Here are some of my favorites:
Mini-Miniatures of the Ancient City

Sumeru Mountain
Mythological center of the world / universe with the Ananda fish.

Pavilion of the Enlightened
Physical manifestation of the idea that there are many paths to reach Nirvana in Mahayana Buddhism

As you can see, I was drawn to the creative representations. Again, the patented Viriyahbhun thought and planning was intact, (e.g., the shape of the Ancient City in the shape of Thailand and the attention to detail for all the replications, reconstructions, and representations), but something felt funny to me.

I couldn’t place my finger on it until I was loaded up in the golf cart (bicycles were available for rent as well, you could bring your car in for a fee), started driving around the massive grounds and finding myself staring a perfectly scaled down version of a culturally significant Thai monument… As I cocked my head, my eyes got wide and it all became clear…
I was in the unintentional Thai Disneyland... where anything could happen. And it still kind of creeps me out.

Again, while the intention of the Viriyahbhun family was positive, their execution is a perfect example of why museums bother me. It is an emphasis on collection and artificial preservation. In faking it, taking it out of historical context, placing replications of actual places next to creative representations of ideas, the Ancient City explicitly asks you to suspend reality to experience a sort of hyper reality, where it gets a little too real.**

The city itself is not ancient (building began in the 1960s) and in fact, neither are the “sites.” Since many of the monuments of which the Ancient City’s sites are based are physically rooted to a distant location, there is literally a removal of reverence and historical context. Plus, I can’t imagine that most people are inspired to visit the actual monument after seeing it in the Ancient City!

While not as blatant as
A.K.A. Wax Museum, but you have to love the Thai name

but the Ancient City comes eerily close.

It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

The Erawan Museum. The Ancient City. Both born of the Viriyahbhun’s desire to contribute to and preserve the Thai heritage, but both symbolizing two very different ideas.

Evidenced, even in their guidebook covers
one can imagine that the Erawan Museum is truly a product of the creative process and inspires. The whole structure is a work of art, not just a place to house precious artifacts. The Ancient City is literally a collection of artifacts removed from context and miniaturized with the intention of preservation. Obviously, I am biased towards the creative and inspiring, but again, I understand the very human desire for collection and preservation. Museums in all their incarnations will always be a part of my life and, while I may grumble, I am grateful for having been exposed to both the Erawan Museum and the Ancient City.

* Look, I’m trying to practice loving kindness and compassion and I know hate is a strong word. Dislike, feel uncomfortable or annoyed are perhaps more accurate descriptions of how I feel towards museums, but I need two easily understandable, equally valenced, polar-opposite meaning words. Cut me some slack.

** For an excellent essay in this very idea, please see Chapter 1 in Umberto Eco’s Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality.