Artist Sanitas Pradittasnee has visitors looking at one of Bangkok’s most sacred spaces in a new light.
Pradittasnee has become known in recent years for her wide-scale installations that incorporate the natural world into the frenzy of urban life. Her latest work, “Across the Universe and Beyond,” brings her vision to Bangkok’s legendary Wat Arun temple, which dates back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 1650s.
The artist has wrapped Wat Arun in walls made of transparent red acrylic, so visitors can see the colors projected onto the landmark and watch them shift along with the sun’s movement through the sky. She says she hopes to offer temple-goers a moment of tranquility and a chance to reflect on the impermanence of the universe.
“Across the Universe and Beyond” was unveiled earlier this year as part of the premiere of the Bangkok Art Biennale, which invited 75 artists—including international stars like Marina Abramovic and Huang Yong Ping—to create works that would be displayed at holy sites throughout the city.
Tricycle spoke with Pradittasnee about the installation, how she drew on the history of Wat Arun, and how the concept of impermanence influenced the project.
What would you like visitors to take away from your installation?
The installation is meant to create a space that allows visitors to slow down and spend more time with themselves so they can observe the changes that are happening. It is made of transparent red acrylic, so the light that comes through in the morning is different from what it looks like in the afternoon, and you get to see the color move with the changing of the sky.
I am also inviting people to compare what’s happening to the light of the outer world with what’s happening in their inner world. That is represented in the fact that the exhibition is not only for the people who are standing inside the inner room. There is also the outer area, where people can walk around, and they can both look inside and at the reflections of the temple grounds around them. In this way, visitors are encouraged to look at both worlds.
Tell us about the inspiration behind “Across the Universe and Beyond.” What message is this installation trying to convey?
I always start the process of planning an installation by researching the site to understand both its history and potential. I learned from my research that Wat Arun—which is also known as the Temple of Dawn—was planned according to the Tribhumi [three worlds] cosmology, a Buddhist creation myth written by the 14th-century King Lithai of the Sukhothai kingdom (1238–1583 CE). According to Tribhumi, the center of the universe is Mount Sumeru, which is represented by the main pagoda.
One of the Buddhist chants in the Tribhumi is the Lokavidu, which celebrates the enlightenment of the Buddha and translates to “knower of the cosmos.” Lokavidu refers to the Buddha’s enlightenment about the khandha-loka, or “the world of aggregates.” The Buddha’s teachings shift our focus to the inner world, or the self, instead of the outer world, and point out that both realms experience endless births and deaths.
Buddhist thinking and principles have always been very applicable and central to my work—like what the teachings say about impermanence and the connection between humans and nature. This exhibition is about the changes all around us. I’m comparing the changes in surrounding nature with the changes in the human body. How are we different from the khao mo [garden]? Ultimately, we come from nonliving matter and return to nonliving matter.
What is the significance of the khao mo?
A khao mo is striking because it is a replica mountain; an imitation of nature created in the living environment of humans. I have been interested in khao mo since 2013, when I did my previous installation “Khao Mo 2013, Mythical Escapism,” a modern take on khao mo that is constructed out of mirrored boxes that reflect the environment where they are placed.
The first khao mo was built in Thailand in the Ayutthaya period (1351–1767 CE). The khao mo at Wat Arun was originally built in the reign of King Rama II (1767–1824) at the Grand Palace and was relocated to the front of the temple to its north following the command of King Rama III (1788–1851).
In the cosmology that Thai Buddhist temple gardens represent, the khao mo is considered part of the Himmapan forest, which is where all living creatures repeat their cycle of birth and death. When looked at within the temple’s layout as a whole, the garden demonstrates a strong sense of order. This way of thinking about design is different from Japanese Buddhist gardens, for instance, where the beauty is in the lush landscape.
This installation is part of Bangkok’s first-ever Biennale. It’s been striking to see the images of various installations around many of the city’s ancient sites. What is it is like being part of this event? How do you think all of the exhibitions go together?
It has been an honor to be part of this event and to be able to put a contemporary art installation in this historic site. Working at the site is very challenging in terms of planning, but it also brings many new types of visitors to the temple, especially younger visitors, which is great to see.
I think there are strong stories connected to each of the historic sites (Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and Wat Prayoon) that are part of the Biennale, and each of the installations were responses to the specific sites. It is a interesting way for the viewer to interpret the work with the existing context.
The Bangkok Art Biennale ended in February 2019, but “Across the Universe and Beyond” remains up at Wat Arun and will be on display at least through this fall.
[This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.]