There was a recent thread about fine art based on the Pali canon. Quite coincidentally, I was recently reminded of Montien Boonma's work. Boonma was a Thai artist whose contemporary paintings, sculptures and installations have been exhibited here in Australia. I had the chance to view his work in 2002 at the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane. It was at the same exhibition that I first saw Nam June Paik's TV Buddha, which remains to this day my favourite contemporary art/video installation. I probably didn't recognise it then but looking back, I'd say that the encounter with Boonma's and Paik's works was when I felt the first stirrings in my heart that would lead me to the Dhamma in the following two years.
Anyway, Boonma was someone who was deeply acquainted with dukkha. He lost his wife to breast cancer in 1994 and succumbed to brain tumor himself in 2000. He was influenced by the teachings of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa and Ajahn Chah. You can read about his Buddhist-influenced artworks:
http://sites.asiasociety.org/arts/boonma/artworks.html" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
http://www.visualarts.qld.gov.au/conten ... ien_Boonma" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
I was reading the exhibition catalogue and what really fascinates me about his work is the recurring motif of the question mark (?). Apparently, Boonma covered the walls of his wife’s hospital room with question marks. These marks represented the unknown, surprise, discovery and hope. Montien Boonma saw faith as a never-ending cycle of questions and answers, with answers only creating more questions.
You can see the use of the question mark in the links above. In some of his other works, he juxtaposed the question mark with the exclamation mark. So you get a motif that looks something like that: ?!?!?!?!?!?!?! In the English language ?! is called an interrobang, an informal punctuation mark that expresses surprise. But here's what Boonma says in relation to Buddhist meditation (extract from catalogue):
I find Boonma's life story and the story he tells with his artwork very inspiring and insightful. I hope you find something of value in them too.When a momentary cessation of egoism occurs through meditation, the mind becomes intensely sensitive to perceptions; the alert mind constantly questions and apprehends reality and the present moment. In this context, Boonma explained his repeated use of question marks and exclamation points:
"The question mark is the symbol of the unknown realizable through meditation. The spiral shape of the question mark represents the movement from the outer to the inner (and vice versa) achieved by concentration. When we grasp the unknown, we feel it but cannot express it. The exclamation mark is a symbol of this feeling of realization."
What did Boonma mean by "when we grasp the unknown"? To him, the question mark (?) represents what we do not know, which is the obstacle. When realization occurs, the exclamation mark (!), a mark of surprise, expresses a kind of hope, a not-knowing, a sense of discovery. As Boonma explained, "I perceived a gap between these two ... the question and the response these ... two are never ending. A response can turn into the subsequent question. It's like our mind." For Boonma the form of the question mark (?) signals something to be answered. It also signifies the spiral or circle between the eyebrows that represents the Buddha's superhuman nature.