These images reinforce what I said about the eye being glutted with a surfeit of loveliness in a Thai temple. There’s so much to see in every direction it seems impossible to take it all in. For that very reason after I visit a temple in Chiang Mai I know I’ve only scratched the surface, even if it’s the fifth visit. One could go back again and again and still discover something one hadn’t noticed earlier. Details as intricate as the first image in Row 1 deserve focused contemplation to capture all the composition and to appreciate fully the careful execution. The temples of the Old City are riotous in their ornamental exuberance. There are, to be sure, other temples outside the Old City where things are considerably less demanding on the attention and the absorptive faculties — Wat Umong, for example, is a haven of tranquillity in its ornamental scheme. But as Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” That’s precisely what keeps me going back to the temples of the Old City to be overwhelmed with loveliness. I wallow in it quite unapologetically.
The second image of Column 2 shows the Thai penchant for striking form. This group of figures sits atop a gable at great enough distance to make detail on the figures imperceptible. The aesthetic coup is achieved with form itself through the silhouette the figures cast against the sky. This image shows especially well the Thai penchant for elegance in form, I think. With color and texture removed from the equation, we have here a reduction to the bare essentials — line, light and shadow. To my mind, no color or texture is needed to enhance the effect, it’s perfect without any additions. This innate ability to achieve elegance and balance in form underlies everything one sees in Thai art, in my opinion. It’s what imparts a sense of repose and poise even to the most riotous decorative compositions one sees. Coming across sights like this gable group reminds me of the essentials and how fundamental they are to the entire aesthetic program. It’s good to see the bones laid bare once in a while to have your attention brought back to first principles.
The first image of Column 2 is again one of those instances where the composition threatens to explode off the pictorial space. I spent a long time trying to puzzle out all the details of the composition and how the elements relate to one another. This is one architectural detail among many hundreds of a single temple, something most people would likely notice only in passing. It just goes to show that a Thai temple should be treated like a plant in the hands of a botanist — no detail is too small, no element too subsidiary. Everything counts, everything is worthy of careful observation. Only through such attention to detail can one hope to apprehend the totality of the beast. I’m reminded of the laboratory practice of the great naturalist Louis Agassiz (Wikipedia page here) when dealing with new students. One such student, Samuel H. Scudder, recounted how he was taught to see the many details of a fish specimen through the school of hard knocks Agassiz used with his proteges (full text here):
“Oh, look at your fish!” he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned, and heard my new catalogue.
“That is good, that is good!” he repeated; “but that is not all; go on”; and so for three long days he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. “Look, look, look,” was his repeated injunction.
I have a similar feeling when looking at something like the work in the second image of Row 1. So much is going on and one’s attention is challenged on multiple levels to see both the detail and the coordination of all the elements in the total composition. Agassiz’ “look, look, look!” seems the only reasonable directive in the face of such intricacy. Fortunately, there’s no chance of the object of your contemplation going off due to the hot weather, so you can ogle as long as you like while remaining perfectly at your ease.
The second image in Column 2 (with Buddha in the center) shows the use of multiple media that occurs so frequently in temple ornamentation. Behind the carved figure with its leafy surround are tiny glass tiles that provide a color element to set off all the forms in the carving. Such pieces are usually seen from a distance, not up close, so the glass tiles provide only color rather than texture, as well. This is a happy invention, I find, because the color enhances the sculptural forms and lends a lightness, one might even say a cheeriness to the ensemble. I must confess, as well, that finding the Buddhas depicted throughout a temple to be uniformly jolly fellows brings another layer of delight to the viewing. Think of what you find in an Italian cathedral, for instance. Lurking somewhere in its vast recesses will be some alarming image depicting somebody being done to death, either Christ crucified or some saint meeting a bad end in some distressing manner — the image that comes to mind is a wonderful sculpture by Giacomo Serpotta in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo of St. Lawrence being roasted alive on his barbecue grill. The last thing you’ll find in a Thai temple is a depiction of Buddha being thrown on the barbie. There’s none of that dreadful business lurking about in a Thai temple, thank you very much. You just get Buddha smiles that seem to suggest, “Don’t worry, be happy.” What’s not to like about that?
Sculpture and Stucco Work
When you’re standing in front of Michelangelo’s David in Florence, no questions arise in your mind about just what constitutes sculpture, it’s stood there right in front you: sculptor + marble = sculpture, a very simple equation. In Thai temples, however, there’s no marble sculpture reducible to such self-evident elements. I’ll admit that at times I have no idea what I’m looking at, whether it be stone or sculptured stucco, or perhaps even treated metal. So I offer no in-depth analysis of the pieces shown here, that would be a recipe for fallacy without a shadow of doubt. I simply purvey the images and leave you sort things out for yourself if the spirit moves you.