Creative Thailand

Montien Atelier : Art space brings late artist back to life

The two-story house and studio of late artist Montien Boonma in Ngarmwongwarn neighborhood has been refurbished and recently opened to the public as 408 Art Space. Downstairs is a café called Early Bird Gets Coffee, while the second floor, called Montient Atelier (atelier is French for studio), is dedicated to the display of the artist’s works throughout his life. 


Credit by : https://www.facebook.com/MontienAtelier

Some young readers may not know this, but Montien Boonma was a key figure in Thai contemporary art around two decades ago (same generation as the author). Let me give you a short background of the renowned artist below.


Credit by : https://www.facebook.com/MontienAtelier

Montien Boonma was a graduate of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, Silpakorn University. He then received a scholarship to study in Italy and France, later returning to Bangkok to continue his master’s degree at the same faculty at Silpakorn. He was one of the most prominent artists in 1970s, alongside Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Sutee Kunavichayanont, Manit Sriwanichpoom, and Apinan Poshyanand – a group of artists who had had overseas experience and came back to Thailand with new creative ideas. Montien was a lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University, the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Chulalongkorn University (briefly), and the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts at his alma mater until his death in 2000.

Many view his works as influenced by Buddhist minimalism, as a number of his works revolved around Buddhist teachings and an individual's interior domains. However, looking back at his time, neotraditionalism or Buddhist-immersed contemporary art was indeed gaining ground. His use of art to convey political messages, his use of new materials to create art (such as soil, herbs, and egg yolk), and his creation of installations that took up the entire space of a gallery instead of just the wall of the exhibition room as was more common, all set his works apart significantly from those of other artists of his time (in the same way Araya’s video art in which she was talking to corpses set her apart from others). His works ranged from painting, printmaking, sculpture to large-scale installations. Major works included Sala of Mind (1994), Lotus Sound (1989), and Melting Void: Molds for the Minds (1996), the latter of which was on display, alongside Araya’s work, in Thai Pavillion at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005 – five years after the artist passed – under the exhibition titled Those Dying Wishing to Stay, Those Living Wishing to Leave.

The idea to open the art studio started with the need to reorganize the collection of artworks that had been left at the house since 2000. These artworks are on display in an exhibition on the second floor of the house, welcoming any art students wishing to learn how the artist worked and anyone interested in Montien’s works so they could once again start a conversation about the brilliant artist.

The team behind this initiative consisted of Somsuda Piamsamrit, curator at Jim Thompson House; Abhisit Nongbua, one of Montien’s closest students; and Jumphong Boonma, the late artist’s only son. With funding received from Ver Gallery, together they rearranged some 25% of all of his works (numbering some 3,000) in a timeline that shows each period of his works, which was very nicely done. The timeline started from his days as a student and was followed by the period after his graduation from University, when he co-founded White Group, an experimental society that encouraged the use of water color in abstract art, with his fellow students in 1982. The next period is after his return to Thailand from France and started focusing on sculpture and installations.  A major milestone was the exhibition called Stories from the Farm (1987), in which the artist used materials that were readily available locally (while he was living in Chiang Mai) to create art, representing the impacts of industrialization that was rapidly transforming life in the countryside.  A key turning point was when Montien's wife (Chancham Boonma) was diagnosed with breast cancer. Mental states and Buddhist philosophy were visibly reflected in his art afterwards, and it was these works that people primarily remember him by. 

 With the presentation of selected works in a timeline, viewers are able to capture how an artist works much better than reading a whole book. Those who have seen Montien’s art before may already be familiar with works dealing with the subject of death, painting of a monk’s alms bowl, metal stupa, and lung sculpture (you will most likely go “Oh, I know this one” when you see it). But there are also other works that have been put on display for the first time here, such as a group of works he produced immediately after graduation from Silpakorn, Object (1984), a print of fruit cut in half with metal inside (??) which represents Western culture (as an unknown matter) penetrating Thai society at the time.  Another interesting group of works was from 1998-1999 when Montien was a resident in Stuttgart, Germany. Most notable was probably Sky Map – Star Map, where he explored the locations of churches throughout the city and marked them on the map, before turning them into a map of stars. This work subsequently led to a set of metal sculptures called Zodiac House.

All in all, the exhibition shows the making of major works in each period, telling visitors their background stories with sketches, drawings, and accompanying texts. In addition to demonstrating how the artist developed ideas for each of his project, another amazing thing about the exhibition is that the drawings are like the manual for the creation of each work. This means that if we follow these instructions, then there is a real possibility that we will see major works such as House of Hope, 1997, a large-scale installation that was once shown at the 51st Venice Biennale once again in Bangkok.

In terms of space management, I have to say the team has done an excellent job. The display cases have been modified from ready-made cabinets, and on them works that are not too large are placed, separated by the period of production. The text accompanying each work is hidden in the drawer underneath, and visitors can pull it out to read, which is an awesome idea and should be adopted in other places too because it doesn’t take up any space on the wall. Instead of wasting the wall on these texts (which are sometimes bigger than the work), the wall will have room to display more works. Another highlight is the cabinet where sketchbooks are kept, which display tens of them with a new page turned every day. Also worth mentioning is the library zone that collects all important documents, including personal letters and books on Montien Boonma’s life and his works.

The greatest contribution that the studio has made is, undeniably, to the study of art, as Montien Atelier has prepared digital information that interested persons can readily use. Montien Atelier is therefore an interesting model, as it will serve as an example that smaller art institutions can take their own initiative without having to beg for public funding. The studio’s management and display of works in a small area will also inspire the emergence of similar galleries in the future. While we cannot be 100% sure that this model will be widely adopted, what we can be sure of is the other 75% of Montien’s works are waiting for their turn to be put on display for us in the years to come.


Montien Atelier is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 12.00-19.00 hours (Early Bird Gets Coffee is open from 09.00-21.00 daily, except Saturday). It is definitely worth a visit. Don’t worry if you never heard of Montien Boonma before, as the exhibition has done a great job of telling his story through his works.

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