Jess Dare on the floral culture of Thailand
Learning to cast bronze bells using a four-thousand-year-old practice, threading hand-cut leaves in Pak Ret and studying ceramics at a family factory Ratchburi – Jess Dare’s Thailand residency took her on a journey of infinitely rich experiences.
It was a restful journey to Thailand after a gruelling solo exhibition and tour that first sparked the idea. Captivated by the country’s beautiful flower garlands draped over shrines and statues, Jess Dare began to research Phuang Malai: an ephemeral floral craft employing different patterns and flowers for different meanings and occasions.
After finding little information available in English, Jess applied for an Asialink artist residency to return to Thailand to study floral culture and to develop a response through her work. The result is a collection of contemporary neckpieces, now available at e.g.etal.
We asked Jess about her Thailand experiences and her new collection.
Why did Phuang Malai capture your attention?
Having grown up in Australia I was accustomed to seeing flowers as beautiful, whole things, arranged in vases in what Khun Sakul Intakul (Director of the Museum of Floral Culture) would describe as a “vase” culture. But in Thai floral art, flowers are deconstructed petal-by-petal and reconstructed in different formations, using individual petals as a raw material or design element in a sort of flower alchemy. I initially struggled pulling the flowers apart – it actually felt somehow cruel to tear apart orchids, a rare an expensive commodity in Australia.
Khun Sakul kept saying, “Speed and precision Jess Dare, don’t disappoint me.” Pulling apart an orchid to use only one of its four different shaped petals was hard for me, I did it slowly and carefully trying not to bruise the petals. But when you are making something which potentially will perish in a day if not a few hours, time is of the essence.
The first traditional Phuang Malai that I made, I kept in the fridge for three weeks, I thought it was too beautiful to let wither and die, I couldn’t let go. By the end of the residency I had Phuang Malai of all shapes, sizes and styles hanging from every conceivable hook, shelf and rail in my apartment, all slowly withering, fading and shrinking, the scent was beautiful, delicate and sweet.
I became more aware of my own sentimentality during the residency. I have always made work about memory and in a way my fear of forgetting. In the past I have made works to last, to stand the test of time, choosing traditional materials of metals and glass. From a foreigner or Farang’s perspective I saw these beautiful garlands and wanted to somehow preserve them. However this new form of making challenged this thinking. To spend hours making something that may only last another day was so foreign to me.
To spend time and pour love into something that is offered to Buddha or loved one, past or present, is a simple and generous act, meditative and cathartic. In the future my aim is to explore more ephemeral exhibition works using fresh flowers, considering the act of offering and impermanence.
How are Phuang Malai used in Thai culture? What aspects of this tradition inspired you?
There are several shapes and styles with a variety of functions that fall in to three main categories: offering, decoration and gift. The functions range from offerings to Buddha or for hanging around the neck or the wrist or to hold in the hand, to being tethered to boats, cars and buses for a safe journey home, there are types for ceremonies like wedding and funerals, whilst some to simply hang in the windows of houses for scenting the breeze with jasmine. I was particularly interested in the role that they play in paying respect, and as offerings.
Phuang malai are usually colourful, however your work is primarily monochromatic. Is there a significance to this?
In my exhibition work I use nature as a metaphor to investigate concepts of the fragility and transience of memory. To me flowers are a constant reminder that life is ephemeral, ever changing, momentary and precious. And I often use white, bleached of colour, to suggest transience in the way flowers wither, loose colour and die. I use clear glass for this same reason.
Your pendants often reference the flower as it withers or wilts – is there a reason you choose to represent the flower in this state?
In Thailand I began photographing decaying Phuang Malai that I found in the street, their intended destination unknown to me, perhaps dropped, offered to a spirit house or temple, or strung on a car rear vision mirror. I was intrigued by the brilliant coloured ribbons and decaying, browning petals, flattened by passing traffic, shrivelling in the heat. And wondered had these objects reach their intended destination?
Someone took care to string these delicate petals and crown flowers together. I marvelled at the journey these objects had taken and what brought them to this place. After a Phuang Malai is offered it will eventually decay leaving behind only the act of offering, these enduring objects represent this passage.
The choice to use the magnolia flower over other flowers that are used in Phuang Malai is a very personal one. Magnolia (or Champee as it is known in Thailand) is often used at the base of the Uba (tassels) which hang down from the Malai. But more than that the Magnolia was also one of the last trees I planted with my grandfather before he passed away in 2011. It’s a memory I hold dear to my heart and in reflection I travelled so far away to be brought back home.
How did you choice the materials for these neckpieces?
I like working with brass and I love the powder coated finish, scratched back in parts revealing hints of yellow brass, it creates an ambiguous, unexpected finish. But after working with flowers in Thailand my aim now is to explore more ephemeral exhibition works using fresh flowers, considering the act of offering and impermanence.
How do you hope people respond to your work?
I actively chose to expand my practice by travelling to another country to experience new skills and way of making, immersing myself in another culture. I feel incredibly privileged to have had these experiences, at times I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my teachers, I feel truly inspired and excited about my practice. I hope that this joy shows in these collections, these are my offerings to you.