While observing a figurative artwork, we do not merely identify its subjects but we tend to draw a series of associations based on our knowledge and experiences. For instance, in the representations of Roman Charity, a theme painted by numerous artists including Mattia Preti and Rubens, our eye recognizes immediately an elderly man and a young woman. The fact that the elderly man places his mouth on the young woman’s breast could lead to an erotic interpretation, in which the subjects are seen as a prostitute and her client. However, our familiarity with the myth allows us to identify Cimon, who is imprisoned and condemned to death by starvation, while he is secretly nourished by his daughter. We understand the true significance of the image thanks to the interplay between what we see and what we know.
If we were to limit ourselves to perceiving what we see and recognize in a work in a literal fashion, our interpretation would be ahistorical.
The whole question refers also to style, which contributes to placing the work within the historical period in which it was created, independently of the historical period to which the represented subject belongs.
These considerations have had an impact on the artistic expression of Thai artist Natee Utarit, who uses figures, figurations, narratives, metaphors and styles from different historical periods. Although the iconographic sources and original narratives in his works are clear, in his previous pictorial cycles, in which he turns to European art between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Utarit links his content to the repercussions of European colonialism in Southeast Asia.
Interested in the ways in which the Western world exerted its influence on Southeast Asia, both in terms of lifestyle and art, Utarit directs his attention to the history of his own country, the only nation in the area to have avoided Western colonization. Despite having preserved its political independence, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Thai society began to be influenced by political and commercial relationships with Great Britain, as well as by the introduction of Western educational and legislative systems.
The exhibition Dèjà Vu, in the Renaissance Cloister of the Church of Santa Caterina a Formiello, the exhibition venue for Naples’ Made in Cloister Foundation, enacts Buddha’s imaginary voyage to Naples. The artist brings to life a hybrid place and time in which the Greco-Roman culture and that of Buddhist Asia in the two centuries following the death of Buddha converge and interact, in a relationship of constructive interchange.
While for nearly fifteen years Utarit focused on how the West exerted its influence on both the lifestyle and art of Southeast Asia, in this exhibition he strives to emphasize the common aspects among different cultures.
“According to the version of history that was taught to us, people from other cultures were enemies or rivals,” he explains, “we think our culture was created exclusively by our ancestors. We have never been courageous enough to accept that our customs and traditions might have been influenced or molded by other cultural powers”.
This view is epitomized by two white papier-mâché statues entitled Déjà Vu—also the title of the exhibition—which are modelled after the Roman copy of the Doryphoros of Polykleitos housed in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, as well as by the statue of the walking Buddha created around the mid-twentieth century by Florentine-born sculptor and naturalized Thai citizen Corrado Feroci.
Utarit explains that, while observing the Roman copies of Greek statues in the rooms of the National Archeological Museum in Naples, he was able to detect in them something familiar to him.
The Roman copy of the Doryphoros of Polykleitos was particularly evocative of images of the walking Buddha, which he was so accustomed to seeing. It was this very affinity between the Greco-Roman sculptures and Thai religious statuary that brought him to envision Buddha embarking on a trip to Naples.
Utarit is able to highlight the similarities between Doryphoros and the walking Buddha, while at the same time making small but significant modifications. He removes the lotus flower-shaped halo that sits atop Buddha’s head in the majority of Thai, Cambodian and Laotian representations, while leaving his traditional hair bun unchanged. At the same time, he inverts Doryphoros’ contrapposto stance and gives his hand the mudra pose, a sacred and spiritual symbolic gesture.
The two figures appear to approach each other, as they exchange an augural gesture. Thanks to these changes that impact the symbolic representation, Utarit makes the cultural distinction among the statues less apparent.
Leela is a recurrent pose in Buddhist art from Thailand, in which Buddha steps forward with his right foot, as his right hand swings and his left hand projects outward. With the palm of his hand exposed, and the tips of his index finger and thumb touching, Buddha and Doryphoros exhibit a spiritual, as well as formal, syntony. For Utarit, the figure of the walking Buddha represents the perfect balance between an idealized and a realistic view of the body, which is also seen in Classic Greek statuary.
All components of the Déjà Vu exhibit contribute to highlighting the points of convergence between Western and Eastern cultures, in a time and space transcending reality.
The Doryphoros is an example of the application of theoretical principles to define the idea of beauty and was considered an iconographic model both in Roman and Renaissance art.
The aesthetic canons of Greco-Roman statuary also had an impact on sacred art in Asia. In fact, the earliest representations of Buddha in human form present various elements derived from Greek and Roman art and are the product of the encounter with Hellenistic culture.
Although the Dèjà Vu exhibition is composed of several works, it is intended to be a unified environment that includes the Renaissance architecture of the Cloister, with its portico, columns and open central space where the two white papier mâché statues, whose title shares its name with the exhibition, confront each another. The arrangement of the works and their interaction make the exhibition space a meditative place in which the traces of Buddha’s path are made further evident by his footprints, which are symbolically illustrated in two Pompeian-style mosaics entitled Buddha is Here. At the center of the soles of Buddha’s feet, Utarit includes a Dharmachakra, the Wheel of Dharma, portrayed with eight spokes (there are also versions with twelve, sixteen and twenty-four spokes). Furthermore, he substitutes the eight spokes of the wheel with eight ionic columns, whose capitals share similarities with the spokes of Dharmachakras from Central and Northern Thailand and Laos between the seventh and eleventh centuries AD, in the historical period known as Dvaravati (Thawaarawadii in Thai). The similarities between the capitals of the Ionic columns and the extremities of the spokes in the Wheel of Dharma, just as the Pompeian style found in the mosaics, contribute to emphasizing the cultural dialogue that comes to fruition in this exhibition. In addition to the works that have been mentioned, the project Déjà Vu features a large triptych entitled Reclining Buddha with Volcano, as well as a polyptych comprised of five canvases entitled House of Buddha.
Reclining Buddha with Volcano depicts a golden Buddha laying beneath a portico in a Renaissance-style square, with Mount Vesuvius towering in the background—a naturalistic element that symbolizes the city of Naples. The portico and town square allude to the version of The Ideal City (circa 1477), housed in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, a famous painting on canvas by an unidentified Renaissance painter from central Italy. There are three versions of the work, all sharing the Renaissance desire to pursue a utopian ideal of a city on a human scale, designed according to a geometric and rational plan that also takes historical stratification into account . Utarit appropriates the version housed in Berlin due to the similarities between the colonnade in the foreground and the architecture that surrounds the laying Buddha in many Thai temples. The representation refers to Buddha’s final days on earth before reaching Nirvana.
Also seeking to reconnect the narrative to the present are six large canvases entitled House of Buddha. Just as anonymous hands leave writing on walls, Utarit uses spray paint to write verses on his canvases, both in Italian and English, from the Dhammapada, a Buddhist canon collecting what are thought to be words actually spoken by Gautama Buddha. The writing is gray on a gray background, as well as gray is the string used to embroider the façade of the Naples Academy copied from a small eighteenth-century etching that was found folded up in a travel guide from the year 1758. [iv] The six canvases, which are displayed slightly spaced out throughout the portico of the Cloister, are the physical representation of the stratification of different cultures over time. The eighteenth-century illustration of the museum embroidered across the six canvases carries with it both the structure’s past and present stories; built in the 17th century, before becoming the site of the current Archeological Museum, it was first the Real Palazzo degli Studi and later the Real Museo Borbonico.
Fragile and precious by nature, embroidery was practiced for centuries for the benefit of nobility and upper class. Utarit entrusts the creation of his embroidery to new Chinese manufacturing machines, making the technique less austere and more popular. The noble message in Buddha’s verses, written in the same way as writings found on walls—often expressing vulgar messages—creates a short circuit between “high culture” and “low culture”.
Both Doryphoros of Polykleitos and The Ideal City, as well as the seventeenth-century façade of the Naples Academy—today the site of the Archeological Museum—express an idealized concept of beauty and harmony, based on precise proportions and geometric equilibrium. This is not to say that in his work Utarit follows a notion of beauty based on the concepts of taste, proportions and harmony—concepts that have disappeared for modern and contemporary artists. If we are able to identify in his works the sense of proportion and harmony among figures found in paintings from the past it is not because Utarit intends to bring back artistic concepts that have faded with Modernism. By expanding his view to include a broad spectrum of both past and present events, his art carries with it both typical expressions of classicism as well as expressions of popular culture, as testified by references to color spray wall writings in his polyptych House of Buddha. The overabundance of visual stimulation and the overlapping of styles from different eras contribute to defining the meaning of the work: while they embody their original time period, they are also a projection of themselves in the present.