Meditations on the Philosophy of Death through the Installations of Pimpisa Tinaplit

Written by Alexander ‘Pug’ Williams.

The following piece of writing is a three part exploration of Pimpisa Tinapalit’s exhibition Silence #1.6.1 - A Meditation on Death held at the Counihan from June 4th to July 24, 2022. In Part 1 I provide a brief summary of the artist’s career to date including background as related to the context of Silence #1.6.1. In Part 2 I describe the experience of the exhibition, and finally, in Part 3 I provide a critical reflection and analysis as it relates to the topic, Tradition and History.

Part 1

Pimpisa Tinpalit was born in 1979 to an artistic family in Thailand, where from the age of nine, and under the guidance of her family, she decided to follow a career as a sculptor (Kaminga 2017). She graduated from Silpakorn University with a MFA in 2006 and arrived in Australia in 2009, quickly embedding herself in the Melbourne Art Scene where in 2016 she founded BLACKCAT Gallery where she is the current director and curator (Tinpalit 2021). Tinpalit has been a practicing sculptor for over 20 years, showcasing her work across Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, the USA and Australia (Kaminga 2017).

Silence is an ongoing philosophical exploration of how all metaphysical conditions co-exist (Moreland City Council 2022). Silence #1.6.1 is preceded by the iterative installations Silence #S.1, Silence #1.1, Silence #1.2, Silence #1.3, Silence #1.4 and Silence #1.5 (Tinaplit 2021). As a practicing Buddhist, philosophies drawn from this ancient religion can be read in Tinpalit’s practice including the exhibition Silence (Joy 2019).

Part 2

My companion and I journey to Counihan Gallery via the number 19 tram. As we step off the stationary vehicle we walk slowly past the Merri-Bek City Council building. I couldn’t help but notice how dominant the colonial architecture is on this corner of Sydney Road, in Melbourne’s inner north suburb of Brunswick. It takes some moments for us to pass by the council building, and we eventually reach the threshold between colonial and contemporary, and step through the glass plated, futuristic entrance to Counihan Gallery. The city council receptionist ignores us as we step into the building, making our way up and to the left, where the entrance to the gallery lies. I hold your breath as I pass by her — thankfully the gallery attendant breaks the unease greeting us both with a warm smile.

As we enter the space we are immediately struck by the large, imposing black installation facing from the opposite wall titled Silence #1.6.1 (Figure 1). The room is otherwise empty, save for a bench, and as I move towards this void I begin to notice its strange materiality. A huge composite of canvas emerges outward, its large frame looming in the circular spot lit beams. It is woven deeply with thick black rope. I am immediately intrigued, and I think of  the Japanese rope tying bondage art of Shibari. To bind, with gentle intention is to bind with love. The rope pours out of the canvas like eviscerated intestines, disemboweled and laying on the floor. I consider the materiality of rope. Constriction, bondage, being captured. I view the artwork as a maw that might just pull me in. Then again, I think, rope can be used to escape. Do I need to escape? It is a tool for rescue and it is a tool for construction. How do you decide what the truth is? I trust my own interpretation, it has taken me this far. A concept settles like ash. Truth is subjective. I must work to interpret. Mark Rothko’s writing comes to mind, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of a sensitive observer” (Rothko 2004:20). I recall the title and subtitle of the exhibition, ‘Silence #1.6.1: a meditation on the beauty of death’. Meditation, I think. On the beauty of death, I ponder. I wonder how much of the artist's intention was focused on death and I wonder how much of her intention was on meditation. They are perhaps intrinsically linked. I suddenly break out of the trance that was initiated by the encounter with this work and breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. I breathe the deepest breath I have taken all day.

A quick scan of the rest of this room provides me with the discovery of the video installation Silence #1.5/5. I see a woman in the video installation, perhaps it is Pimpisa, covered in black in ink in dark space. To me it seems like she is engaged in a meditative practice, as she begins to cover her face in sheets of glistening gold leaf. A death mask perhaps, like the precious veil that the Ancient Egyptians used to cover their mummified monarchs in the hope that they would accompany the sun god Ra to the lands of the dead. The cyclic experiences of Ancient Egypt were deeply connected to their culture, the adult life expectancy was a mere 35 years old (Taylor 2010). Perhaps, it was a necessity to see the beauty in death, the possibility of renewal on the other side.

The golden faced woman observes me as she observes herself. She begins to manically wrap her gilded crown in black rope. My focus drifts to my companion, who is sitting cross legged listening to the audio for this video installation through headphones. My companion tells me about bells and she tells me about drone and she decides she has had enough. As I place the headphones over my ears and the rhythmic bells toll I squint and lean forward. The floor in front of me is covered in a mysterious black substance. For all I know it is sand, or maybe synthetic. One thing is for sure, it is clear as night. It is darkness, its void-ness.

Figure 1. Silence #1.6.1, 2021, Rope on Canvas, 900cm x 300cm, NFS, image courtesy of the artist Figure 1
Meditation, meditation, meditation on death. The artist's words echo in my mind and I wonder to myself how serendipitous it is to have stumbled upon this exhibition at a point where my own meditation practice is regular and valued. The sub-title of the exhibition resonates in my mind again, ‘a meditation on the beauty of death’. My mind drifts to music and I hear the rhythmic bass tones of OM’s ‘Meditation is the practice of death’. The lyrics thrum, ‘destroyer of the ghost void, the self is not a void’ (OM, Meditation is the Practice of Death, 2009). It becomes clearer as I move through the exhibition that Tinpalit’s work is speaking to a concept that is deeply rooted in the human experience. Her intention of bringing the viewer into a place of reflection is strengthened by the video work and how it holds the viewers gaze. Meditation shakes us into awareness, ‘the self is not a void’ (OM, Meditation is the Practice of Death, 2009). I feel myself connected to the gold faced woman as she performs her ritual ceaselessly (Tinpalit 2021). Looping, looping. There is human connection here, small cycles of death and rebirth occur in every moment (Evans-Wentz 1960). I chuckle, recognising that I myself am not an island, I loop my patterns, I loop my behaviours. I step back and notice your companion has moved deeper into the show, into the second room. I turn around to face Silence #1.6.1 (Figure 1).

The ropes loll out of their canvases like tongues, reaching towards me, offering a pathway. Their mood has changed, my perspective has shifted. I follow my companion’s lead into the second room and this is what I see.

I see a monolithic artwork in front of me, titled Silence #1.6 (Figure 2). Ropes and pillows and blackness. The pillows grip the wall like columns as the rope descends like vines. Both materials reach the gallery floor in unison and reach toward me, an invitation to rest. The ropes and pillows together form a bed on the gallery floor. I see the bed as a symbol. The place where many lives begin in birth and where many lives end in sickness, or death. I feel uncomfortable, the abject yellow stains on the pillows leaving traces of the human detritus that used them in their previous life. I recognise a connection between the found object’s own cycle of death and rebirth. Likely discarded, pointedly reclaimed, philosophically repurposed. My companion whispers from around the corner, ‘There is one more artwork to see’. I follow the muted tones and enter the final room. I am again in awe at the doomy beauty of Tinpalit’s work. Two distinctive elements reside in this final space. A microcosm of the previous artwork in a bundle of pillows, knotted ornamentally. The form rests in opposition to three large, ethereal abstract paintings displayed serenely on the back wall of the gallery (Figure 2). I bend slightly at the knees, aware of their creaking, and read the didactic text, ‘Silence #1.6.2, 2022, Sumuk on Hanji Paper’. These materials are unknown to me, but they speak to a distant language and hold themselves with the grace of an ancient form of art. The sumuk paintings swim in front of your eyes, their inky washes stroked across the Hanji paper like ghosts chasing each other through the ether. ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ speaks of the Bardo, the realm in between life, death and rebirth where the spirit of the deceased must navigate through the mists of illusion and escape from the grasping pull of Samsara, the realm of the living (Evants-Wentz 1960).

I breathe again, conscious of the air moving in and out of my lungs, as the gallery attendant approaches me and my companion. She gestures towards the rope and pillow on the floor and tells of a performance by the artist, recently completed. I see the hand of the artist in this constrictive gesture, a binding of waking life and sleeping death.

I commit this experience to memory and as I leave the gallery I whisper something like a prayer.

Part 3

As observed in Part 2 the experience and presence of Tinpalit’s work prompts the viewer to investigate their own perspective on death. The didactic introduction begins this process, supported by the powerful impact of the first encounter with Silence #1.6.1 (Figure 1). It immediately brings you into the present moment with its scale and holds you there with its void-like depth of blackness. If the viewer is active in their reading of the art then the sombre nature of this installation has a strong chance of prompting internal reflection.

There is research that suggests a healthy and open dialogue with the reality of death is essential to living life fully (Blomstrom et al. 2022). Pimpisa Tinpalit expresses this same concept through her artmaking process, which has its roots deeply embedded in Thai Buddhist philosophy and her own personal experiences (Tinpalit 2022). After experiencing the loss of her sister at age 18, and her father at age 25 Tinpalit was forced to confront mortality in a very real way. In her artist talk for Silence she speaks of her experience of her father’s illness, and witnessing the changes in his body as well as the development of his philosophy on dying (Tinpalit 2022). When he was coming close to death he spoke more clearly about how to live life, and insisted on Tinpalit focusing on the fact that she was going to live on. This experience is analogous to the Buddhist philosophies on the Art of Dying, where “the transition from the human plane of consciousness, in the process called death, can be and should be accompanied by solemn joyousness” (Evans-Wentz 1960:xvii).

Tinpalit reflects further on her usage of symbolism in Silence when asked a question about her use of rope as a material. She says “Rope has many elements, hundreds of elements that form together to make a rope, like suffering. It is really strong…when you pull it it has lots of strength and you cannot take it with you. When you let it go, it’s gone. You start a new journey of your life and create something new that your life will appreciate.” (Tinpalit 2022). This concept of letting go of clinging is a steadfast cornerstone in Buddhist philosophy.

“Get thee away from life-lust, from conceit,
From ignorance, and from distractions craze;
Sunder the bonds; so only shalt thou come
To the utter end of ill. Throw off the Chain
Of birth and of death — thou knowest what they mean.
So, free from craving, in this life on earth,
Thou shalt go on thy way calm and serene”
The Buddha
Psalms of the Early Buddhists, I 1vi
(Davids 1909)

Silence #1.6.1 was a powerful and moving exhibition that showed great sensitivity to the human experience and a deep reflective practice of art making. The curation of the gallery flowed with a cyclic sense of purpose and the artworks held themselves in the space like meditations, or thoughts. This gave the viewer an opportunity for self-reflection and interpretative readings of the art, led by Tinpalit’s artist statement for the exhibition, “Death is not the end, but a new beginning” (Merri Bek City Council 2022).

Figure 1. Silence #1.6.1, 2021, Rope on Canvas, 900cm x 300cm, NFS, image courtesy of the artist

Figure 2. Silence #1.6, 2021, Polyester nylon rope, pillows, Dimensions variable, NFS. Silence #1.6.2, 2022, Sumuk on Hanji Paper, 420cm x 200cm.

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Counihan Gallery (11 June 2022), Join artist Pimpisa Tinpalit as she discusses her… [Instagram post], accessed 23 August 2022.

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Pimpisa Tinpalit (February 19th 2021), The Beautiful in death…[Instagram post] accessed 21st of September 2022,