In Chiang Rai we visited one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever experienced anywhere. The Baandam Museum – พิพิธภัณฑ์บ้านดำ – บ้าน (baan) meaning “house” and ดำ (dam) meaning “black” – is actually (also) the residence of National Artist Thawan Duchanee. And what a residence it is!
Spoiler alert: When I visited here I had no preconceptions of what I was going to see. The experience was probably much stronger because of that. If you’d prefer an experience unfettered by knowledge, you may want to skip this blog.
Here’s a link to practical details about the museum (hours, location). There’s also a slideshow of images from the museum (with many more images than in the blog).
The front two buildings
The “museum” or “house” is actually a compound with over 40 buildings spread across a wide area. The house of the artist is one of the buildings, one of several not open to the public. The other buildings vary in degree of access: some are open and you can go into them; on others the doors are locked and fettered; others are closed but you can see into the windows; others are covered spaces easily visible and accessible.
(Click images to see a larger version.)
At the entry there are two beautiful buildings: a smaller one in front with a larger one behind, both reminiscent of (echoing? based on?) temples or of buildings you’d see on a temple ground. At this point, I though that these two buildings were the entire museum.
Smaller building in front
Wood carving on the small building
From the very start, encountering the front building, the eye is arrested by details: glorious and detailed wood carvings flanking and on the doors and above the lintel; statues in front; crushed rock enclosing the base of the building; triangular wooden carvings of nagas supporting the upper sides, just as they do at most temples in Thailand.
The front building’s carved door
Detail of front door carving
To the left is the entryway to the smaller, frontmost building: a carved door with a fanciful scrollwork of leaves and branches above the door.
To the right we see the carving on the door itself up close: an array of courtiers or celestial beings.
This frontmost building is not open to the public.
The second building, from the outside, could be a viharn, an assembly hall for the laity at a temple, which usually houses the principal Buddha image. It’s plainer on the outside (by comparison to the first building) and has some lovely wooden carvings on the facade. The lower portion is all natural wood.
As you enter the building, the interior is mostly dark, lit only by light through the doors and windows. It is a vast, open space with beams, filled with objects everywhere you look. The architecture of the building may resemble a Thai Buddhist temple but the interior of a temple was never arrayed like this room.
Here’s some of what I saw.
Columns of wood carvings
Close up of a carved Garuda
Carved wooden pillars in groups.
(Do click on the pictures to see a larger version with more detail.)
The long table
Hornbill head surrounded by feathers
A long table laid with two long snake skins and statues, the table surrounded by large black chairs with legs made from buffalo horns.
A hornbill head mounted in the middle of a circle of peacock feathers.
This building is just the beginning of Thawan Duchanee’s world.
Exit the back door to the rest of the compound. There are at least 40 other buildings, each one compelling attention in a different way. There are: many temple-like bulidings; open air structures (salas); circular white buildings (which echo certain temple structures as well); a building like a giant whale; an open building with huge drums; skulls lining a building’s perimeter.
Rock garden in front of a building
Although there was a great deal of black, there was also quite a bit of natural wood in the buildings, with salas and a few white buildings acting as a counterpoint. Very little feels modern here. Rather than plastic or shiny metal (with an exception or two), there is wood (lots of wood), stone and clay tile – materials that call to mind the world of nature.
One of the most striking features for me were the stones. Many buildings are preceded by areas with crushed stone of various sizes, often with other large stones, reminiscent of a Zen rock garden.
Wooden carving, scrollwork
And everywhere there are the wooden carvings: lovely, detailed depictions of nagas, devas and courtly figures with exuberant scrollworks of leaves and branches.
With all the differing structures and the differing features there is still a coherency to the compound, the indication of a single vastly creative mind at work, a mind fascinated with natural objects: bones, skulls, snake skins, horns, wood, shells, crocodile skins, rocks and stones.
It was fascinating to wonder through the compound, a bit dreamlike and almost outside of normal time and space – going from structure to structure, first caught by an entire building, then focusing in on a whole carving, then captivated by a detail and then drawn into a further detail.
Statue guarding the door
There are many temple motifs: nagas on buildings and doors, carvings of celestial beings, here and there a Buddha statue. There also is an erotic component, such as the statue with the stiff phallus guarding a white circular building or in the arrangement of a row of conch shells.
I’ve heard the opinion that the museum is very dark or even “creepy” (because of all the black and the bones, the skulls). I disagree. I found it incredibly life-affirming. The whole of life is arrayed here: the sublime and the earthy, heaven and hell. Always, the natural objects return you to this world.
Entering some of the buildings is like entering a shrine more than a museum. To enter one of the small, white circular buildings you first must pass the phallic guardian. The room is surrounded by chairs made from water buffalo horns resting on animal skins with an animal skin on the seat. Some chairs are interspersed with statues. The center of the room is filled with a huge alligator skin surrounded by hundreds of large shells.
Inside a small circular building
You tread softly here. There is a stillness that you hesitate to break. You are careful not to change the position of anything: everything is just where it belongs. Why the chairs? What kind of a assemblage would take place here?
Traditionally, round buildings such as this on temple grounds house depictions of Buddhist hell. Certainly, the Thais who visit the room have this context for what is inside. In such a building at a temple there might be statues or paintings depicting the horrors of hell and often a deva or spirit in a chair sitting in judgment: in (some) Buddhist cosmology when you die, you are sent to a place where your entire life is appraised. In this room there are animal elements (the horn, the animal skins), a strong element of the sea and water (the shells and alligator) and the chairs: perhaps they are an invitation to sit, to examine the totality of one’s life from a different, wider perspective.
Thawan Duchanee was born in Chiang Rai in September 1939, making him 74 years old. There’s a marvelous photograph of the artist here looking like a Taoist sage. He studied both in Thailand and Europe (at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam).
When he returned to Thailand, he became controversial. According to The Nation, “Thawan developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art to explore the darkness lurking within humanity.” (The Nation article on “The 40 Most Internationally Acclaimed Thais”.) The Black House was begun in 1976. He was named a National Artist in 2001.
A blog devoted to him explains his work like this:
He then began to explore and reexamine the insanity, degeneration, violence, eroticism, and death lurking in the heart of modern man as they are involved with religion. Mr. Thawan expressed these concepts with a startling technique utilizing a black tone, drawing from the wellspring of traditional Thai Buddhist art and Buddhist thought.”
– Quote from thawanduchanee.blogspot.com.
Some of his exhibits were so controversial that they were attacked.
Talking of his home and the museum, the artist said:
The Black House evokes the past Thai civilization in a contemporary manner. I try to bring the spirit, heart and soul in their life [into the pieces]. (From Time Magazine’s The Dark and the Light Side of Thai Art.)
The Black House Museum contains almost no paintings or drawings: it is composed of buildings, objects and sculptures. The whole compound is a three-dimensional work of art.
I’ve put together a slideshow that details some of my wanderings that day at the Baandam Museum. I hope that some of the numinous nature and sense of wonder comes through, some of the sense of wandering and discovering yet another unique vision. What the slides can not convey is the solidity of the objects, the visceral reaction to bone, shell and skin.
Details about the museum (hours, location) are found after the slideshow.
I’ll close with this quote from the artist, taken as printed (no punctuation or line breaks) from thawanduchanee.blogspot.com):
Do not seek for understanding, in the temple of mysterious Feel them my friends from heart to heart Do not ask the meaning of the stars in the constellation Smile of the baby in the cradle of mothers Sweet fragrance in the pollens of flowers It is the work of art !
my friends… In the deepest of my mystic mind, come closer to my spirit Listen to my heartbeat, without word
Slideshow of บ้านดำ (Black House)
Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.
Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.
Details About Black House
414 Moo 13 Nanglae
Muang, Chiang Rai, 57100 Thailand
Tel/Fax : (66) 53 – 776 – 333
Mobile: (66) 83 – 336 – 5333
Open Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed from noon to 1 p.m.)
Leave plenty of time to wander.
Here are two maps:
It is found 1.9 kilometers pas Chiang Rai University by turning left on Soi 13. After nearly half a kilometer turn left note a small soi and you’ll soon see it on the left.
Links to Other Sites
Written by Michael Babcock, April 2014