The monk and the butterfly

I tore the monks robe into dozens of long orange coloured ribbons.  The sound of one robe being ripped.  I am sure he didn’t mind.  The robe had been abandoned after all, when I found it the other day as I was sheltering from the rain.  The naturally coloured robe which once belonged to a local monk will now go through its own reincarnation and start life again as one of my butterflies. 

The ripping sound of the robe, being transformed into weaving strips, signalled its end as a chrysalis for the monk and its transformation into a butterfly. Without change there can be no growth.

Finding the right material for my sculptural work is alway a challenge and often I am happy to let the material find me.  This also has a a practical aspect, as I am reliant on participants to supply their own material.  The resulting work usually reflects the cultural environment that I am working in.  So finding a monks robe to make a butterfly is perfect.  There is also a strong spiritual connection to butterflies in many cultures.  In Thailand the word for butterfly is ผีเสื้อ /phǐi sɨ̂a/, which translates as ghost shirt. Given the nature of the butterfly as quiet, colourful and often translucent creature that goes through a radical transformation from a grub to a flying creature, it is no wonder that supernatural attributions have been associated with this wonderful being. 


The art of communication and the communication of art

Art is often able  to communicate on a level that language cannot; the language of music, colour and form.The artists  ideas can be expressed in a way that is deeply personal for both, the artist and the viewer. My art making process is just as important as the outcome.  The making of the art will also dictate the final outcome of the work, which is often different to what I set out to do.  This is not to say that I am not sure what I am doing, it is merely a reflection, an organic approach I take with my art making.  Just like a composer or a writer, each new step in the creation connects  me to the next level towards the final outcome.  

If art is a form of communication, then my current work takes communication as an art form.  This expression of art happens in a multi layered way.  The simple act of communicating my collaborative project to participants opens up a dialogue in art making.  It questions the notion of what art is or can be. This in itself can be experienced as art;  a work that exists as an idea. As I am working with people that often don’t speak english and I have no or little knowledge of their language, communication also happens in a more abstract way.  Hand and facial gestures and small words being translated by someone. The concept of the work then takes on an individual form for each participant;, he/she will interpret my idea in their own way. When this happens in a collaborative work, such as the Thai butterfly project, the communication process has become as much a part of the work as the final expression of the form. 

On another level, there is the conversation that I have with myself about the work.  Each day I take long walks, exploring my new environment. These walks are also part of my art.  As I walk I think, I observe and I process my work.  I am also exposed to the daily rhythm of village life, which connects me strongly to the local people I work with.  

Conversing and traversing is my art!


Catching time

Every morning I wander over to the collection of little huts that make up my neighbour’s home; the Lahu basket weavers.  A shy, friendly smile and a ‘Sawadee kap’ establishes my welcome and I start my photography work. I am not sure what they make of me but I am fascinated by their work and how they live. I know I am intruding on their space with my camera, so try and be as quick and as polite about it as possible.


Today two of their three children were also at home, helping with the basket making.  I have a good rapport with the man of the house, he makes me feel welcome and we use the international language of face pulling and hand waving.  I spend no more than 20 minutes at a time taking photos and I make sure they get to see the raw shots on the camera.  This makes the encounter more like a game. Having taken a few photos I bid farewell and hope that I managed to have all the settings right on the cameras. 


I am not only interested in documenting  their craft, I am also looking to capture the more intimate fleeting moments of shared humanity.    Like a butterfly that briefly shows you her colours, a flash of  beauty, and is then gone again.  I love that about photography; it allows me to catch a moment that is gone the instant I press the button. Trying to capture time is one of the most exhilarating things to do.


‘What we perceive as present is the vivid fringe of memory tinged with anticipation.’

Alfred North Whitehead (English mathematician and philosopher)


The name Lahu comes from La meaning tiger and Hu raise. Thus Lahu means literally translated people raising tigers. Burmese and Thai people call them Muser.

The ethnicity of the Lahu people is that they are a minority group which originated in Tibet and are now located in China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Some migrated to America and France. In Thailand about 120.000 Lahu people live; the third biggest hill tribe group. They are located in Northern Thailand of the provinces Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hongson, Tak, Kampheng pet and Lampang.





A day at the temples


The place was swarming with independent travellers all doing the same thing. Like oversized beetles scrambling for a last meal, the backpackers seemed to have taken over the old part of the city.


I am in Chiang Mai, the ancient Lanna kingdom capital and I have joined the tourist trail. The city has an understandable attraction for tourists, less crowded and polluted than Bangkok, it boasts some 300 temples and many can be visited by simply walking or biking the moated city.  Getting to Chiang Mai from Doi Saket is an easy exercise, just hop on one of the many converted pick up trucks that now function as mini buses and they will take you straight to the centre of town.  It’s not only a very economical way to travel it’s also a lot of fun as I got a ring side view of the local traffic.   I went straight for the biggest and oldest temple in the city, I figured that would give me the best insight into the architectural and the cultural language of Chiang Mai. Both Wat Jedee Luang and Wat Chiang Mun are within easy walking distance from each other.  At Wat Chiang Mun is a tiny crystal Buddha called Pra Seh-Taang Kamaneeee. It is thought to have the power to bring rain.  That power seems to work to this day! 


I left the city that evening with a shopping bag full of new Thai style trousers and an understanding why so many people come to Chinag Mai and quite a few never leave.




The real thing!

The real thing

The monsoonal rain dropped in like an old friend.  We both knew the routine, and after a short familiar exchange, in which I shared a shelter with a family of cats and the rain made it’s seasonal point, I continued along the sparkling, steaming road. My destination was the famed Wat Phratha Doi Saket temple.  Built in 1112, this Wat is named after the Thai word, “Senket”, and a Pali term, “PhraKesaDatu” which means the hair relic of the Lord Buddha.  I feel lucky that such an important cultural centre is within walking distance of my studio.  Mind you, walking in the tropics makes every step count twice. But I am determined to not only walk to the temple, but also climb the steps that lead up to it.  Eventually I reached the town, where an exhausted looking Coke sign proclaimed, ‘This is the real thing.’  Reassured, I continued along my track to the buddhist temple.

I am in front of the serpent framed steps and begin making my way up the road to enlightenment. Not easy work.  It was late afternoon and most of the visitors had already left the Wat.  The shopkeepers were busy keeping their shops safe for the night and the monks were cleaning up.  I could not have picked a better time to visit. The monsoonal downpour had transformed the Wat into a glittering jewel;  a photographers delight, with reflections everywhere.  I almost had a spring in my step on the way home.  This will not be the only time that I will be visiting this beautiful place.


Sunday butterfly

The blue rice was served along side the read and the white rice. The food was as colourful as the butterfly that the children had created this morning. In an effort to keep all of my options open, my sunday was spend at the local church,  where with the help of a bunch of enthusiastic children we created another butterfly. I am starting to gain an insight what this project may be able to communicate.  In the spirit  of the philosophy by Joseph Beuys, that art has the potential to transform  society, this project saves as a platform for a cultural exchange. Through the use of simple storytelling and the local material we are able to create something that is both familiar yet new.  The ‘thing’ is both the object, the process and the experience.  The sunday butterfly is a light and fragile looking sculpture, like a fleeting friendship made on a sunday morning.


Rain drops on lotus

She had me on the floor and there was no escaping her,  she kneaded and stretched my muscles  like a pizza dough and then twisted my limbs into a party pretzel.  Just moments before, I was happily walking along the road enjoying the daily street theatre of food sellers, darting motorbike and the local dogs acting tough in front of me.  I entered  the Thai massage place with some apprehension, this was going to be a first for me.  It only took  fife minutes of massaging and I was already converted.  I left the place feeling lighter and taller.  I know I’ll be back!

Stepping outside, I was once again cloaked by the monsoon rain like a well worn shirt and I made my way home.  Near my studio are three little lakes that are filled with the most stunning lotus flowers, each one floats in the lake like a small tropical island. There is nothing more peaceful than walking through a tropical landscape in the warm rain and there is nothing more beautiful than observing rain drops on lotus leaves. 


The Thailand diary.

Port Macquarie to Doi Saket
I just did’t wanted to play tourist!  After a long day and night traveling, with very little sleep, Bangkok greeted me with a suffocating hug.  The air was hot, humid, noisy and hard to breathe. The moment I stepped outside the Hotel, I became another walking business opportunity.   There was nothing much I could do, the train to Chiang Mai wasn’t  leaving till the evening.  So I moved with the throng of tourists towards the nearest attraction within walking distance of the main railway station, to see the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit. I am glad that I did, as I was confronted, and comforted, by the world’s largest solid golden Buddha. I asked for a safe and prosperous time in Thailand. 


Clearly many tuk-tuk drivers had made the same request, as I was leaving the temple I became a possible solution for a little prosperity.  But this time I had to disappoint them, I was in no mood for a shopping-sight-seeing tour. Instead I amused my self by watching the sightseers, an occupational habit when you’re a photographer!

He didn’t look happy and I wasn’t pleased, ‘No tickets left for the sleeper train!’  With that sentence I was relegated to the next available overnight ‘seating up’ train.  So I joined the steady stream of enthusiastic backpackers, tired looking families, keen grey nomads and even some locals, and boarded the train to Chiang Mai.

A long uncomfortable twelve hours later I was met by Ong and Katharina at the station, and together we made the final leg of my journey to Doi Saket, the home of the ComPeung art space.  My reward for the three days travel from Australia, was a stunning looking two storey compressed earth building, my home and working space for the next four weeks.

The long march
I blame the lotus flowers!  By the time I reached my hut it was nearly dark, I had beaten nightfall, but only just.   I should have known better than trust my jet-lagged and tired mind to find my way around town.  It was a simple mistake, I should have turned left, instead I kept walking along the lake, admiring the stunning lotus flowers that were growing in abundance in the local waterway.  The path led me out of town, but I soon sensed I  was heading the wrong way.  Using a combination of instinct, watching the flow of traffic and being guided by the giant Buddha on the hill,  I managed to locate Doi Saket.  OK so it was more the golden glow on the hill than my sense of direction, but I was happy to take any guidance.  My little wander around the neighbourhood turned into a three hour hike where I not only got to know the local area better I also introduced myself to all the local dogs.
Day three and I am settling in to my new routine. I am also starting to make some progress on my project.  While I always arrive with some basic outline for the residency, it is only when I am in situe that I can get a real perspective of what the location can offer me for my work.  July is still part of the monsoon season and also an active breeding time for the local butterflies.  Northern Thailand has a vast butterfly population;  520 species have been recorded in the north around Chiang Mai.  Both the North and South of the country are ideal places to see butterflies. It is a popular place for entomologists to visit and there are actual Butterfly Tours.  Therefore part of my project will be the construction of a textile and bamboo butterfly sculpture.  I will be visiting the local buddhist monastery and the local church to participate in the art making. I always like to have a balance in my working approach!
I am really liking the solitude at this residency, which will change in two weeks time when a group of fifteen students from Japan will arrive.  Sleeping in my mud hut is just wonderful, even when the rain falls through the roof and wakes me up at night.  I also don’t mind sharing the bathroom with the odd snake, as long as we stay out of each other’s way.  
The butterfly dream 
They came bearing fruit, fabrics and smiles.  I am at the local school in Ban Mae Kaet, who have invited me to share the butterfly project with them.  Did you know that there are 520 different butterfly species in Northern Thailand?  By the end of the session,  the number had risen to 525 as the students listened to a couple of butterfly stories and wove five beautiful new creatures.  
When the weaving was done, I told them the story of the butterfly dream by the Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi.
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)
The students then created many colourful drawings of the butterfly dream, of themselves dreaming to be a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming being them. 
To finish off the session I was treated to many  enthusiastic editions of this fun butterfly song;
To hell with this ….
He should have known better than this; now he was paying the price for that beer and sausage.  His body was being cut in half, his eyes were infested with worms and what was left of his intestines were dangling from his open cut stomach!  Welcome to hell, Buddhist style. 
As a treat for working so hard on the butterfly project, the teacher invited me and the students to an excursion to the temple next to the school, complete with a theme park of heaven and hell.  Right now, we were in hell, gazing at towering grotesquely disfigured and partially dismembered, human figures, who were paying for their sins. If this really is hell, I’ll never touch another sausage! The kids loved it, mostly. There were a few who closed their eyes and ears as one of the animated features was put into action and the blood curdling screams  and gore just seemed a bit to real. This alternative to Disney Land, features sex, drugs and violence that makes Dante’s hell look like a nice holiday.  
We then wandered over to ‘heaven’ where it was all very peaceful; the sick were being cared for and there were many serene looking Buddha sculptures.  While I was taking in this peaceful scene and picturing myself being part of this in my afterlife, the students had all gone back to hell.  It was just more fun in that part of the park.
Visiting this animated sculptural park depicting heaven and hell  was one of the most surreal experiences I have had. There seems to be a few of these temple installations in Thailand, so if you are looking for a Wat of the heavenly and hellish kind, make sure you check them out.  Oh and easy on that meat …. just in case.
And so ends my first week in Thailand.  Next week I’ll visit the local monks to create another larger butterfly and begin a photo essay on the art of basket weaving with some local Hmong people.