Photo Essays

Reimagining Abandoned Buddhist Temples as Unconventional Art Spaces

Some Thai artists have pioneered a way to repurpose once-religious structures into life-long art projects that are sacred in their own right.

Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) in Chiang Rai, Thailand (all photos by the author)

CHIANG RAI, Thailand — In Thailand, it’s not uncommon to hear the chanting of the monks as you wake up on a Sunday morning, or to walk past a hoard of saffron-robed novices on your way to the market. Buddhism is a cultural undercurrent across the mountainous Southeast Asian nation. Thousands of temples define the country’s urban and rural landscapes, decorated with magnificent golden stupas and multi-tiered, pointed roofs. Almost ninety-five percent of the Thai population is Buddhist, but as the country becomes more metropolitan, fewer people choose to pursue a monastic lifestyle. With this slow, yet steady decline, some communities abandon their temples to merge with others nearby. Usually, these deserted temples remain dormant, decaying without government funding for their upkeep. But some Thai artists have pioneered a way to repurpose these once-religious structures into life-long art projects that are sacred in their own right.

Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The path to the main hall at Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple)

In the 1990s, Chalermchai Kositpipat purchased the crumbling Wat Rong Khun, located just outside of Chiang Rai, Thailand. So far, he has spent over one million dollars on its renovation, turning it into a glittering “White Temple.” Though it seems heavenly from afar, the path to its worship hall is decorated with hellish, disembodied hands. While Chalermchai is a devout Buddhist, his art is often criticized among Thai officials for its whimsical, tongue-in-cheek depiction of worship. Inside the White Temple, Chalermchai paints an apocalyptic landscape depicting characters like Pikachu, Harry Potter, and Kung Fu Panda. (Visitors are not allowed to photograph the White Temple mural. See selections of the painting here.) Opposite the mural is a Buddha statue, which visitors — including practicing monks — pray to. The juxtaposition of pop culture icons and deities isn’t groundbreaking, but the transformation of a formerly monastic site into a multi-million dollar, immersive sculpture is awe-inspiring in its innovation.

A stupa-style structure at the Ban Daam Museum (the Black House)

The White Temple is usually compared to the Ban Daam Museum (the Black House), a collection of forty black houses on an idyllic lawn. The museum was home to the celebrated artist Thawan Duchanee before he passed away in 2014. Though the Black House was never monastic,  its mixture of Buddhist motifs and macabre decor was an inspiration for Chalermchai, who was Thawan’s student. Even more noticeable is the link between the White Temple and the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten), which opened to the public in 2016. Like Chalermchai’s masterpiece, the Wat Rong Suea Ten is also a former temple, but the connection between these artworks is most evident in the paintings that line the prayer room, which boast intensely psychedelic, spiritual paintings and an abnormally massive Buddha.

Wat Rong Suea Ten (the Blue Temple) in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The ceiling of the main hall at Wat Rong Suea Ten (the Blue Temple) in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Over the last few decades, these “colored temples” have become Chiang Rai’s most popular attractions, which raises the question of what future lies for the “art temple” in Southeast Asia. Will the chance to renovate an old temple become a rite of passage for the region’s most famous artists, and will we see more “art temples” appear beyond Chiang Rai? With both the White and Blue Temples still under construction for the foreseeable future, these pioneering artworks will surely impact the relationship between contemporary Thai art and Buddhist culture for years to come.

Inside of the main hall at Wat Rong Suea Ten (the Blue Temple) in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The mouth of the naga statue at the Blue Temple
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