London and Bangkok-based artist Tuck Muntarbhorn is a force of nature. At all times, his persona, vision, and creative output seek a visualisation of a world free from prejudice and labels, and a genuine meeting with a true self. His work carries the light he constantly aspires to, as he envisions a type of elevation that transcends cultural conditions and social schemes. Tuck's coming exhibition, Transparent Bodies, speaks to his oeuvre: luminous and deep, borderless and rich, eluding immediacy and aiming for infinity.
Elena Stanciu: I know you are active both in London and Bangkok – how do you experience the cultural difference between these two places with respect to your points of inspiration and reception of your art?
Tuck Muntarbhorn: I am active in both London and Bangkok but first of all, I am active in being myself. Being myself or living with the understanding of who I am serves as the foundation of my life, uncoloured by cultural experiences.
The difference between London and Bangkok for me is that I feel London is closer to being a universal city than Bangkok and is hence my place of choice to exhibit my art. Despite the individualistic culture, I feel the people of London try their best to celebrate similarities, as opposed to differences, and not only do I feel completely accepted in this city as an “Asian,” “gay male,” or “spiritual artist,” but I felt for the first time that I am loved for being myself and hence hold the power to transcend such labels and simply be known as “Tuck.” In Bangkok, I find it harder to transcend such labels and in conversations with Bangkokians, who view me through the lens of the past, ignorance and/or cultural conditioning.
From Transparent Bodies, 2017 series.
ES: Spirituality in the western world is arguably not in the forefront of preoccupations – how do you engage with the spiritual and the abstract amid a world led by materiality and the immediate?
TM: Throughout my life, I have grown to understand that the essence of living a spiritual life is to understand that “I am enough,” and I try my best to live my life and make art from this understanding. It is not to understand that “I am a good Hindu,” “I am a good Christian,” “I am a good Muslim,” “I am a good Buddhist” and so on, or to understand that “I am rich,” “I am successful,” “I am popular on social media,” or even “I am enlightened.” It is to simply to understand that “I am enough.” Once we understand this, we are relieved from the desire for happiness both in objective experience and within ourselves; the seeking ends and we are fully content as we are. I understand that most religions of the world originate from this understanding of Truth but this understanding has been dulled, misunderstood, and miscommunicated across thousands of years and has been replaced by “religious organisations” that people subscribe to.
ES: You work with the belief that “the highest function of an artist is to make the experience of beauty – nature’s eternity – manifest.” How do understand beauty, in our contemporary world of shifting meanings and alternative forms of beauty? Is there an absolute to beauty we could ever touch?
TM: I see the experience of beauty as the experience of nature’s eternity – the force that causes stars to gleam at night, volcanoes to erupt, birds to soar, and the birth of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey - isn’t it all so beautiful? I am humbled to have been birthed by the same force as everyone and everything that is noted above.
I understand that I am a child of nature’s eternity and if she’s beautiful, I am capable of sharing and understanding Her beauty. By understanding and embracing what nature’s eternity intended for us (“I am enough”), one is so close to the absolute.
From Transparent Bodies, 2017 series.
ES: Tell me a little about your plans for your Transparent Bodies exhibition. What role will it play in your artistic career?
TM: Set to take place in London in 2018, Transparent Bodies will mark my first seminal exhibition that depicts my spiritual understanding of Buddhism, in particular Theravāda Buddhism. The photographs in this show are abstractions of sacred and historical sites in Thailand and Myanmar. Since many of the works were photographed in my home country, it serves as a great starting point to both honour my birthplace and upbringing before exhibiting works that are photographed in other countries. My hope is that the exhibition will gain tremendous support from collectors whose purchases will help me invest in the Tuck Muntarbhorn Studio and Meditation Space in London – London’s first meditation space for photographic contemplation.
ES: What role does the notion of transparency play in your practice: what drew you to this? Is transparency a medium, an object, or a goal in your art?
TM: I was drawn to the notion of transparency via my spiritual teacher, Rupert Spira, who wrote a book called The Transparency of Things, which intends to help us look clearly and simply at the nature of experience, without any attempt to change it. It was also later that his brother, Andrew Spira (a former curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum) who wrote a text about my practice, described my works as “transparent bodies of light.” As my work is an expression of my understanding of spirituality, my work brings forth the understanding that we are a transparent part of nature’s eternity – not opaque entities that exist separately from nature’s eternity.
ES: How do you integrate the sacred in your work as an artist? What is your take on the meeting between the sacred and the profane in our world today?
TM: The search for happiness in external objects or within ourselves ends with the understanding that “I am enough” – this is what we traditionally call “enlightenment.” Profanation can perhaps be a term used to describe those who understand that “I am not enough,” but this can equally be used to describe those who subscribe to orthodox religions and are committed to practices which reinforce this false understanding.
The meeting point between the sacred and the profane is exactly this – the point where one understands that “I am enough” is a statement generating in truth.
From Transparent Bodies, 2017 series.
ES: Do you feel there are any limits, borders in your practice? How do move past these?
TM: There are no limits in the nature of my practice apart from a financial one (as all artists go through at some point in their careers). Photographing nature’s eternity and her wisdom has no limits. The only limit is access to funds that will allow me to realise my full vision. I do consider my art to have similar goals to that of the “northern Romantics” and the idea of a chapel in the modern world that conveys a universal spiritual experience (a dream that originated with the Romantics) is a dream of mine. One may be posed with the question, what traditional church would accept Caspar Friedrich's Teschen Altar or hang Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross? It is this same question that I face with my art, and there may come a time when my works are housed in a chapel that provides an authentic and universal spiritual experience in our contemporary world governed by the false understanding that “I am not enough.”
ES: What should we expect from you in the future?
TM: You can expect me to do what I love to do most – exploring and photographing sacred and historical sites around the world to bring forth my spiritual understanding of the world to the public. You can expect the works to be housed at the Tuck Muntarbhorn Studio and Meditation Space in London, which I’m currently crowdfunding for here and will be open to the public in April 2018.
For more information about the artist, please visit: tuckmuntarbhorn.com
Words: Elena Stanciu
Cover Image: Tuck Muntarbhorn standing in front of 0992-11 (2017) at Stillness Speaks, Tuck Muntarbhorn's first solo exhibition in Istanbul, 2017