Conversation with Tsering Nyandak

Tsering Nyandak in conversation with Kabir Mansingh Heimsath

I first met Tsering Nyandak and his paintings in a small dark gallery just off the main Barkhor square in Lhasa. I was as impressed by his articulate thoughts as by the depth of his work. In the late 1990s there were few artists in Lhasa that strayed from the romantic portrayal of standard Ď Tibetaní subject matter, such as cute nomad girls, old monks, desolate landscapes and Buddhist ruins. Nyandakís work, on the other hand, included urban landscapes and contemporary life expressed with distorted irony and shades of depression. I did not know then that he and other artists in Lhasa were on the verge of a creative explosion that continues to generate work of startling power. Nyandak and his paintings have become less pressured, more playful, but an underlying gravity maintains its hold. This Ďinterviewí has been compiled from conversations between Nyandak and me as we viewed the works intended for his Rossi & Rossi show. The talks were haunted, as all Lhasa has been, by the aftermath of protests that led to the riots of March 14th.

KH: Are you going to London for the show?

TN: I was hoping to go, but now I donít know because of my passport problem. Itís expired. To renew it is unlikely now. I nearly got a new one before these problems, but now itís difficult.

KH: Do you think you can address the recent problems through your art?

TN: Mmm, maybe. But I donít want my work to be politically ventured. . . . these days in Lhasa itís hard to really think of anything else.
Yeah. Thatís right.

KH: You live in the middle of the old city. Did you expect that such an outbreak would ever occur?

TN: Yes. Actually I had been expecting such a thing just a few months before, but not on such a political level. Because of the cost of living, the tension generally has been building. I thought eventually. . . somehow. . . things would erupt.
Itís happened a few times in Tibet, but on a smaller scale. Basically, the cost of living goes up and then it happens. Similar things happened before. . . . Recently, in the past few months, inflation has been very sharp.

KH: Some people say the railway is part of the reason for that.

TN: No, I donít think so. Itís part of a general Chinese thing. . . all over the country. But when the train came, people were saying the prices would drop, but they didnít. We were discussing just a few months before that something like this could happen. We just didnít expect it to be that politicised.

KH: And why did it become so political so quickly?

TN: Sometimes itís difficult to say whatís social and whatís political.

KH: You had done this painting immediately after the riots Ė can you tell me about it?

TN: That day, when I was walking from my momís house [near the Jokhang temple], I first heard the shouting and all, but I felt quite ok. Then I saw the beating, burning and these things and I began to feel quite uneasy Ė especially when I saw civilians were being beaten. . . . So I thought that as long as it was a non-violent protest itís ok, but when it becomes violent then itís uneasy. So I thought about doing this kid in the middle of all the smoke and tanks. The child, I feel, is like Innocence Ė a bit like civilians and ordinary people caught in the middle of these problems. Just innocent, and it is the big ideas that clash, and somehow nobody can see the middle way.

KH: What about the other children?

TN: Yes, similar. They are these big ideas, these floating ideas. You know your cultural identity is a big idea. Sometimes it doesnít really relate, practically, to ordinary peoplesí lives. But itís an idea, so sometimes people fight for the idea. I donít know why. . . . So with the kids Iím thinking you should hold onto your innocence; you are bare, without any socially added stuff. . . . So there is a kind of very innocent part to everyone. Like a basic-ness. This, to me, is very important.

KH: When youíre explaining these things to me you can tell me the chair or kids means this or that. . . when you paint are those ideas Ė their significance Ė quite clear in your mind? Or . . .

TN: No, no, not at all! Personally, itís more visual rather than conceptual. Sometimes Iíll do one thing and it makes me think; and then maybe I think itís this concept. First came the vision and then came the concept. Perhaps when you write youíre very clear about what you want, but when you paint itís more about intuition or feeling. I think itís more on an emotional level than any sort of readable ideas. But yeah, recently, somehow I have learned to think more and more. . . . Before, I used to say my work was not concept-oriented at all, but now I realise itís difficult to say this because sometimes you think and that is what motivates you. So itís very difficult to say that Iím not conceptually oriented. It depends on what I want to do in a painting. For instance with these two [a woman with concrete, a woman with a Buddha head], I was trying to address practical issues, actual things going on, and I think itís good to do people with clothes because itís a kind of label that says, Ďok, she is Tibetaní. Other times it doesnít matter whether itís Tibetan or not Ė naked Ė it could be more imaginary, or personal or universal.

KH: And what do these two address?

TN: Maybe you have heard of the situation in Amdo when they developed a new area and moved the nomads into concrete houses? In doing that a lot of the traditional ways of living changed. They could not do their normal pilgrimage, they couldnít graze their animals on the grasslands. . . development brings on the disappearance of a lot of traditional elements.
So all those things I wanted to show in this painting. And this one moving the Buddha head somewhere could be like a continuation of the previous one. . . . One thing is removed for another to be put in place. The head is carried away by the crane.

KH: Looking at all of these recent works I feel like you often have a human figure, or figures, dealing with some kind of object. . .

TN: Yeah, yeah. Thatís kind of what I think. Some- times I donít have a specific message that I can draw from the object in my pieces, like the Buddha head, balloon, chair. . . . But because itís kind of ambiguous, I consciously use it as being symbolic of something.

KH: It seems like youíre playing with the Buddha head a bit. . .

TN: Yeah, certainly on a commercial level. But sometimes itís commercial, and sometimes itís simply necessary for the painting. I need it for what I want to say. I take it as an actual physical object that relates to me, not in the sense of an aesthetic or religious value. I use the Buddha not because of my religious inclination but as a physical object that relates to me and my surroundings. Itís objectified, but also works as a container. Every object can hold information, so the Buddha head has certain information it can give; whether that be of a stereotypical, mythical or romantic nature Ė or whatever Ė it gives some information.

KH: Often when people talk about contemporary Tibetan art they relate it to traditional Buddhist art. Do you feel this is valid, and is it helpful in understanding your work?

TN: On the one hand itís valid, but itís kind of a generalising tactic Ė whenever you make a critique or you write about something, you need to grab some sort of link or lineage.
So people always try to label. . . itís kind of a labelling tactic. But on a personal level, it doesnít really help. For me, for myself, I can say that Iím not influenced by Tibetan thangka or traditional art at all. I never studied that. . . unlike some of my artist friends who think that [temple] murals are very beautiful, and they feel some sense of beauty and feel some connection. But I donít feel that at all.
I feel kind of. . . blank in front of a mural or something. I never have this kind of strong emotional feeling.

KH: What do think of the relevance of Buddhism to you and to everyday life here in Lhasa?

TN: Actually, for many people, Buddhism has become a kind of subject that we talk about and think about; but somehow it doesnít really relate to us much. Like, itís becoming something more mental than emotional for many people Ė many of my friends. Sometimes there could be no connection at all. But maybe because for people outside Tibet Buddhism is very much associated with Tibet, that probably also influences locals like us. Sometimes when this kind of Buddhist imagery comes up, it kind of naturally reminds you of Tibet.

KH: So you donít feel any strong connection?

TN: No. In my case itís Western paintings that have moved me more. . . . But at the same time, especially around 1999, I started doing paintings that looked very Tibetan. And I consciously used lots of colour schemes from murals and all this, because it was kind of a tactic to sell and, you know, to get into the [commercial] stream. But that didnít last long, I think, for me.

KH: Do you feel like there is pressure on you to be a representative of Ď Tibetí in some way?

TN: No. We used to think that Tibetan artists should have this strong feeling of Tibet. . . we call it
the Ďsmell of tsampa í in your painting. So if your painting was too bright it didnít come up Ė this Ďsmellí. So, for many artists here there was a period that I call the Ďsoy sauceí period because all the paintings were tinged with this layer of brown-black so the work would not be so bright Ė so the Ďsmellí of yak butter or tsampa would come up. It was a kind of motto for us Ė for Tibetan artists in the late 1990s especially. But now itís becoming much less so. . . because artists realise itís not the only way for art to be interesting [to the public].

KH: What about the balloons?

TN: When I started the balloons I was just trying to break away from what I had done before.
Some people said my work was too ethnographic, too Tibetan. So I wanted to break that, and thought of putting in the balloons as sort of mass-produced stuff. But when I did one piece, there was a critic who liked that very much and she wrote that it had lots of meaning,
you know, political and suchlike. . . . So in that way my initial, simple, idea was changed a lot. People incorporate a lot of meaning behind it, but actually itís just a need, at a visual level, to break the imagery. Itís not that complicated . . . . But I like the new meaning Ė if I make a work then people start to talk about it and take different meanings from it. I think that is one of the functions of painting.

KH: Maybe then the balloons are also flexible, can become a more ambiguous signifier?

TN: Yeah, I like ambiguity in some of my work.

KH: This painting with the ropes. . .

TN: Actually I have been sketching ropes a lot and for many years, when I would draw my own
distorted legs with ropes and nails. My friends saw that and said, Ďyouíre so pathetic!í. . . . So, I donít know, maybe it came subconsciously into the more recent work. But I no longer relate in the same way to my own physical problems. Now the ropes are more a visual element. But maybe, originally, it was more about, you know, every person being some- times stuck by something Ė maybe by your immediate surroundings, maybe by something else. Anyway, there is something that holds you, and at the same time you would also like to free yourself. So Iím kind of playing with this idea Ė contradiction.

KH: And the balloon. . . thereís still hope?

TN: Yeah, yeah, it could be hope. You always tend to have some imagining or dream. . . that you always hold on to. Maybe itís a kind of empty hope. But itís kind of instinctive Ė an international phenomenon Ė not just in Tibet.

Kabir Mansingh Heimsath is a DPhil candidate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has been working in Lhasa since 1996.