New York has its MOMA, but Bangkok has its MOCA
ot all the art-lovers in Bangkok have been to see and experience the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which is easily the largest and most comprehensive repository for contemporary Thai art in the city. The reason is, for the most part, its distant location—in the north end of the city near the Don Mueang airport. But after my recent trip there (by the convenient bus No. 13/29, to Kasetsart University) it’s my hope that the museum will become frequented by a lot more people.
MOCA is the brainchild of DTAC telecom magnate Boonchai Bencharongkul, and this magnificent museum is a delirious labour of love for an industrialist who once dreamt of becoming a painter but became an art-collector instead. The space houses more than 800 pieces from his art-collection, including paintings, photographs, and sculptures. And it’s been said that he has several thousand more artworks in storage, which could possibly be displayed on a rotating basis in the future.
The billionaire bought the land several years back for B200,000, and spent at least B600,000 constructing this one-of-a-kind art zone (and each of the works on display could cost anywhere from a million baht upwards). The striking design of the milk-white building includes diamond-shaped openings on the walls, a large reflecting pool outside, and full marble “jasmine buds”—which some liken to an explosion of buxom breasts—drooping over the reflective surface of the water.
The pieces are both diverse and meaningful, but also ripe with conjecture. Where else would you find arresting side-by-side images of Heaven and Hell, Buddhist monks and nubile nudes, Hitler and Gandhi, or Obama and Mao? This duality is part of the exciting, multi-layered dimensions of this five-floor museum. But at heart it is totally the vision of one man, with a broad outlook, diverse tastes, and an irresistible sense of humour. There are not too many museums in the country with this tripartite combination. As Boonchai himself has stated, he wanted to “share both wisdom and entertainment, to the audiences!”
And so the museum, with its dazzling sense of space and light, takes visitors on a rollercoaster ride of “wisdom and entertainment”. However, Boonchai admits that the current highly unstable political period is “the worst period for Thai art, due to lack of support”. His museum, on the other hand, is proof of the ample support for Thai art, as well as a totally independent outlook and openness of vision—which is why this is a must-see venue.
The first two faces that one encounters, upon entering the museum, are diversely different from each other. The first is Corrado Feroci, the Italian ‘Achan’ who became Prof Silpa Bhirasri (1892-1962), and is described as the “father of Thai art”. The second is the ‘Achan’ of surrealism Salvador Dali, who entices all the viewers to take a selfie with him. This is the starting-point for many selfies ahead.
The surprises continue on the 1st floor of the museum. The first figure you encounter is Adolf Hitler(!), and just behind him is the pacifist Gandhi. Nearby—side by side—stands a bewildering mixture of notable names: Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Winston Churchill, and Saddam Hussein. That’s when you realize that they are fiberglass Hum Lakorn Lek puppets, showcased under the quizzical title Body Mind Peaceful.
At the other end of the huge room are the first images of a Buddhist theme, including the marvellous Nirvana and Three Kingdoms by Chiang Mai’s own Thongchai Srisukprasert. There are also bronze sculptures, a striking mixed media panel called Abacus, and a big red panel by National Artist Kamol Tassananchalee (which was the first artwork purchased by the owner of the museum).
These eclectic styles and subjects are what one witnesses on every floor of this unique building. And while Boonchai felt that Buddhism was intrinsic to Thailand, he also believed that it was a religion that had many surrealist overtones. That’s why one encounters so many divergent representations of Buddhism. Images of a serene Heaven and swirling Hell are often juxtaposed side by side, as with the work of National Artist Preecha Thaothang.
Another highlight of the museum is its marvellous collection of female nudes, from the ornate Devi series—from nubile contemporary belles, to wrinkled old crones.
The subjects of the paintings are as limitless as the artists, and range from Preecha Pun Klum’s Glamorous Night in Bangkok, to Hem Wechakorn’s exclusive paintings of the classic Thai tale Kuhn Chang Kuhn Phaen. The mediums, meanwhile, encompass everything, from oil on canvas to oil on metal, pencil and crayon on canvas, tempera on sa-paper, acrylic on wood with gold leaf, and ink and brush drawings.
There are at least 100 paintings of the owner’s favourite painter, the world-famous Thawan Duchanee from Chiang Rai. Similarly, another section is devoted to Chiang Rai’s other famed painter, Chalermchai Kositpipat (creator of the illustrious Marble Temple). The latter’s traditional and satirical images of Buddhism are well worth a look. Special spaces are also reserved for Chalood Nimsamer and Paitun Muangsomboon, two much-revered Thai artists.
The museum also boasts of many gigantic images, including the largest painting created by Vorasan Supasat—which has a 3-dimensional visage—and the mega artwork entitled Milky Way Gateway by famed artist Alongkorn Lauwathana. Possibly the most striking work in the museum is the one in the last room, entitled Three Kingdoms, which the owner himself commissioned. It’s a gigantic triptych by Chalermchai Kositpipat, showing the three worlds—Heaven, Earth, and Hell.
On a different note, a painting that interests all viewers is the one of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, entitled The Travelling of King Rama IX, which captures the King’s famed travel procession around the country in 1963. On a personal note, the museum displays a small, lovely portrait of actress Bongkoj Khongmalai, Boonchai’s latest wife.
While MOCA displays the works of almost all the Kingdom’s top National Artists, there are also works by painters trained abroad, self-taught artistes, bright young talents like Weerasak Sassadee (with the most striking nude), as well as female artists such as Lumphu Kansanoa. Many of them have had solo shows around the world, some are based abroad, and others are professors in top art universities. The artists also hail from every part of the country—Surin, Chanataburi, Singburi, Pattani, etc.
MOCA is, indeed, the repository of the ‘Who’s Who’ of the Thai art world, and should be visited by anyone interested to view the boundless variety of art this country has to offer. The 5th floor, by contrast, is devoted to ‘international’ art, but it’s almost more of a name-dropping section.
The museum has a few rotating exhibitions and an auditorium for art-talks. Most of their visitors come by word-of-mouth publicity, or through travel websites like Trip Advisor. It is truly a jewel in Bangkok’s artistic crown. And it’s said that the owner visits the museum every month, to check if all the conditions for his artworks are in order—temperature, humidity, and even security—so who knows, you may bump into Thailand’s greatest art patron.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Bangkok
499/50 Vibhavadi Rangsit Rd. | Open: Tue-Sun, 10am-6pm
Tel: 02 953 1005 | Admission: B180; Students: B80; Children: Free