Jakarta. While Christian altarpieces are normally picturebooks of the faith, depicting religious symbols, figures and stories, Thai artist Natee Utarit uses them to criticize and satirize Western modes of thinking.
In an exhibition at Jakarta's National Gallery, Utarit presents seven out of 12 works from his "The Altarpieces" series, after previously showing them in Manila.
The artworks comprise oil-on-canvas paintings forming a diptych, triptych and polyptych, composed and arranged like classical religious paintings, each in an elaborate frame. They took him four years to complete.
Utarit offers an appropriative approach, an interpretation of the world and a critique of Western beliefs, both informed by his own Asian, Buddhist perspective. He does not criticize the religion, but the notions and behaviors related to Western modernism, capitalism and imperialism.
"The concept of this exhibition is the connection of Western religious paintings, the conflict between East and West, and daily life scenes after the colonial era. I try to present Buddhist values under the layers of Western style," he told the Jakarta Globe on Oct. 3.
"Nescientia," for instance, features a standing Buddha statue in a pose the Thais call "Pang Perd Lok," referring to an episode where he opened the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell to allow the living comprehend the reality of existence.
People gather at his feet, as if around the crucified Christ. A person next to the Buddha statue seems to be an auction bidder holding a paddle with the number 1205 on it. Are the prostrating people worshiping Buddha or the artwork?
In the left panel of the triptych stands a sculpture of Apollo Belvedere that is known to embody the ideals of beauty and classical art. The statue is next in line to be auctioned.
Utarit seems to be suggesting that, although art has a long history as a medium for religious purposes, people's responses to it have changed. The concepts of truth conveyed by artworks have lost their relevance in today's commercialized world.
Another interesting take is "In the Name of God." The triptych shows unequal power relations between Europe and Asia.
Blending the colonial times with the present, the work clearly portrays a socio-economic gap, with Europeans depicted as a colonial official, a rich landowner, and a tourist enjoying an elephant ride, while Asians are doing menial labor.
Utarit again plays with religious themes in "The Annunciation," where he replaces the Virgin Mary with Buddha. The news of Christ's impending birth is replaced by Buddha's divine revelation.
The painting's companion, "The Silent Gateway," portrays three receding pathways leading to unknown destinations. The work is simpler than the other six paintings, yet it is the most spiritual one — posing a question whether we know which path leads to heaven and which to hell.
Utarit said that although his works convey the values of Buddhism, they are universal and can be understood by people of all faiths. He expects them to appeal especially to Southeast Asians.
However, visitors should be aware that the Jakarta exhibition does present the complete series.
Works like "Allegory of the Beginning and Acceptance" is showcased without its companion, "Allegory of the End and Resistance." The two are supposed to portray Adam and Eve before and after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, symbolizing moral decline. The latter shows what happens when people no longer recognize the absolute order of the universe and pursue commercial, earthly success.
"The Altarpieces" is part of a larger series titled "Optimism is Ridiculous."
The artist said the title reflects his own worldview. The negative outlook lurks behind his works, even if some of them seem to show hope.
"I call myself a good old pessimist. I see the world from a pessimist's perspective. Each work contains many layers, but somehow all show pessimism," he said.
After its run in Jakarta, the exhibition will travel to Singapore and Milan.
The works can be seen at the National Gallery until Oct. 17.