White Wat

Image of Wat Rong Khun

I was caught completely off guard by Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. Brainchild of contemporary visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it is beyond a doubt one of the most singular architectural efforts I have ever seen, ancient or modern. It was like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, if Clark Kent were a psychedelic warrior and devout Buddhist. Uniformly stark white to symbolize the Buddha’s purity, this was a shocking departure from the typical Technicolor temples I’d encountered thus far. It’s hard to process the mad tangle of ornate tendrils, from the spire and the nested gables of the roof all the way down to the foundation. I’ve seen freezing rain encase the entire city of Olympia in Washington State, where crazy icicles protruded in impossible direction from pretty much every surface. It was kind of like that.

Visitors must first cross a long slender bridge to reach the doors of the main temple structure. Guarding the head of the bridge, a pair of fierce demons raise fantastic weapons, poised to strike down the those who would dare confront them. They had a slick, contemporary feel, like we’d stepped into a black and white manga comic. As we ascended the stairs to mount the bridge, we passed between two pits bristling with hundreds of tortured white hands groping blindly heavenward. The intent was to remind the faithful that one must rise out of this sea of suffering in order to approach enlightenment. Very creepy, very effective.

Image of hand sculptures at Wat Rong Khun

If the lead-up to the chapel was unconventional, then the murals on its back wall was practically beyond the pale. As you step through the doorway, you are confronted with a large, more-or-less traditional Buddha set against a tableau of serene monks and heavenly pagodas. It’s impressive and definitely exhibits Kositpipat’s style, but at first glance it is nothing out fo the ordinary. It’s when you turn around that the fun begins.

Opposite the representation of classical Nirvana is a depiction of pop culture hell. Instead of fearsome birds of diabolical origin, there are Angry Birds from Rovio. Instead of the prince of darkness, you get the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. This wall is crowded with references to Western icons, fictional and real, “evil” and “good”, from Batman to Keanu Reeves. These characters are set against a world in turmoil, earth in flames as seen from space. As you begin to take in more and more of the bigger picture, you finally notice the huge demonic face encompassing it all, with two haunted eyes staring you down. These eyes contain shadowy faces that are easily identifiable: George W. Bush in one, and Osama bin Laden in the other. The symbolism of the murals was explained to me. Inside the temple, the faithful seekers of truth are enjoined to turn their backs on the false heroes and endless phantoms of news and entertainment. I’m not sure Kositpipat is reaching the average Thai Buddhist here, but he certainly pushed my buttons.

The two opposing murals, transcendence versus insipid bullshit, are separated by nothing. Or rather, the two side walls are incomplete, mostly blank. Scaffolding and sketches indicate that work had clearly begun, but no one was working that day. This is where the great secret will be unveiled, the path from the back wall to the front, the way to redemption from earthly illusion and bondage. It occurs to me that maybe this is an installation piece symbolizing “work in progress”, a postmodern ellipses in place of traditional exposition. Oh Kositpipat, I hope this was on purpose.

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