New York

Montien Boonma

Deitch Projects

Smell is thought to be our most associative sense—an instant trigger of memories, a conduit for delivering nuanced and complex meaning directly to our animal selves. But even in installation-based art, the richly evocative power of smell is usually ignored. Montien Boonma’s recent show, a sculptural environment whose main ingredients were medicinal herbs from the traditional Asian pharmacopoeia, was a pungent exception. Employing metaphors of cleansing and curing, Boonma’s installation proposed to offer sensory sanctuary, a kind of aromatherapy for the visually overstimulated. Exceptional, too, was the fact that, by appealing so directly to sensuous experience, Boonma was able to engage a critically minded art public in an unironic commentary on spiritual health.

The installation, called House of Hope, 1997, announced its presence before one entered the gallery. A palpable scent hung in the air; sharp, musty, penetrating, a pleasurable tickle high up in the delicate nose-hairs. Inside, the piece did not immediately foreground its botanical content. Running in a wide frieze around the gallery was an abstract mural in soft, saturated earth tones of ocher, siena, dark red, and dusty green, with here and there a bright patch of burnt orange or a startling vibrant blue. In the center of the space stood a red, altarlike wooden platform with stairs. Suspended from the ceiling above this structure hung many strands of large, black-brown beads, which curtained the steps and obscured a 360-degree view of the mural. When the olfactory and visual data caught up with each other, it became clear that the walls were painted with pigments made from ground herbs, and the hanging beads coarsely molded from herbs as well.

Lured by the material’s ambient bouquet, viewers walked close to the mural and stood with their noses to the wall, like penitents at prayer. The impastoed layers of pigment crazed in intricate patterns, flaking in places to reveal plaster subtly stained by the overlaid paste. But if the muted yet opulent color and encircling physical presence invoke devotional spaces, the actual “house of hope” (and the focal point of the installation) was the strange center island consisting of some 500,000 beads and 440 small wooden stools. As a container for a calming, regenerative energy, the shrine seemed simplistic in its construction, and gave a somewhat cluttered feel to the room. The mural, however, achieved an elegant synergy between the mysterious healing properties of visual beauty and the unfamiliar but convincing powers ascribed to the fragrant herbs.

Although rooted explicitly in Thai Buddhist tradition, Boonma’s work called to mind a dizzying roster of comparisons, from Pompeiian frescoes and the Rothko Chapel to other contemporary work involving smell—Rirkrit Tiravanija’s performance-meals of pad thai, certainly, but also Janine Antoni’s cubes of lard and chocolate and Wolfgang Laib’s beeswax panels. Other art with medicinal references suggested itself too—Roxy Paine’s collages of controlled substances and Tom Friedman’s sculpted Play-Doh pills, just to cite examples recently on view. Setting off so many resonances with a project so self-contained is an impressive feat. Even more impressive is that Boonma created a space that attains the aura of a sanctuary in the secular, polymorphous space of an art gallery. We may not emerge from the House of Hope renouncing the material world as an illusion, but it does help us look at art afresh, and that is quite something.

Frances Richard