I stand in a huge room staring at the head and hide of a large alligator that is laid across a table and wonder what I’ve gotten myself into but it’s not just the full alligator, it’s also the snake-skin and chairs made of buffalo horns, or skulls, or hides, or all of the above and the many other skins I’ve passed. I knew these items would play prominently at the Baan Dam but everything is just so very “dark” and the room is so large.
We’d entered the enormous black building, reminiscent of a temple with its steep roof, to access the Baan Dam, or Black House, property dotted with 40 other buildings that stood watch over the animals bones and skins that elaborate decorated them. Those bones and skins monopolized the grounds, lining some of the buildings and dominating most of the tables, set out as if some ghoulish feast. The place was creepy and yet earthy with its horses feeding in the green grass and bright windowed buildings. It seemed to speak of the cycle of life and death.
Overall, it was spooky though and I attempted to keep it all at arm’s length, fearful if I peered too close, some dark spirit might follow me home from Chiang Rai. The entry of the main room was devoid of furniture and people which made me feel like I was trespassing. Unlike the White Temple, there were only a few others that entered with us. The building felt like it was in transition and more furniture would be coming or still leaving.
About twenty feet in, the furniture appeared though and was quite macabre. An unusual chair sat to the left with only a normal seat, the rest of the structure comprised of buffalo horns for the legs, arm rest, and chair back which rose up from the chair, 2 buffalo and 1 deer skull high, ending with a set of antlers. An intricate woodcarving framed the chair reminding this was an artist’s house but left me still unsure how to interpret it.
The house was the creation of Thai National artist Thawan Duchanee and some have said it is his answer to hell, if the White Temple (by his student) is heaven. A quote from the artist doesn’t acknowledge this and question why people see hell:
“Why do people say this is hell? Like the John Lennon song, there’s no heaven above and no hell below.”
Instead he claimed his focus was breathing life into inanimate objects. His grounds were filled with unique contemporary art structures unusual in their shape and decorations. I was first introduced to his artwork at the Bangkok Museum of Modern Art and struck by his primal images and use of antlers and other animal parts to create pieces of art. I took a picture of a quote from him that put it into context:
“I am a painter – I need something to sharpen my imagination. I have skull, carcasses of carnivores, herbivores with single hooves or double hooves so that I can study their anatomy and use them for guidance. I need to see fang, tusk, claws, talon, skin of carnivores because the sense of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound sharpen my imagination. Without these my imagination cannot soar to a supernatural state or something beyond. It is as if I have boat, I can cross the river. I have no need to carry the boat once I have arrive on the other shore. I give the boat to others who want to cross. Therefore I never consider these belongings as having a value. I use them as tools for my work, as inspirations.” – 2004
Then it made sense, ‘oh, this is just a tool of his to create’, to see it on such a grand scale at Black House though, was a different story. The skins and bones of animals felt a constant reminder of death and made me uneasy. The continual tables decorated with animal hides or skins struck me as so strange and nefarious.
The buildings were beautifully designed but each peek in a window showed more bones or skins as if looking at a beautiful person with an ugly soul. To see live animals in this dark place initially bewildered me. There were horses grazing on the grass and sets of cages containing a beautiful owl, snake, and a bird that said hello in Thai when not shrilling loudly. The cages made sense, animals trapped, but the ducks and the swans that swam freely in a neighboring pond didn’t. These live animals were reassuring though, as if a canary in a mine, if these animals were thriving then surely this dark place was nothing to worry about.
We spent an hour working our way through the property, peering into the unusual buildings and seeing the confusing mix of beauty and horror. The modern art buildings were so peculiar and the drums on display so interesting but again I dared not engage too deeply, still fearful of the place.
Our visit ended with James showing off a group of school boys who had trapped beetles and tied rope to their horns. Again, slightly ghoulish but somehow balanced with their friendly smiles and pride in having their collection admired. It seemed fitting on these most unusual grounds by the incredible eccentric artist that breathed life into inanimate objects…even if I thought the life was that of a zombie.
Visitor tips –
- About an hour is needed to stroll through the grounds.
- The grounds are large but mostly shaded and refreshments were sold at the back of the property.
- Toilets are across from the Black House by the gallery.
- Open daily from 9-5 PM and closed from 12-1 for a lunch hour.
- Price is free.
- Located in Chiang Rai Province.
Web resources –
- Link to the artist’s page – http://www.thawan-duchanee.com/index-eng.htm
- Post about the recent passing of the artist – http://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/learning-from-news/430436/national-artist-thawan-duchanee-dies
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