The world according to Kesang
Kesang Lamdark in conversation with Elaine W. Ng
EN: You seem attracted to gun imagery.
K L: First of all, my father has a lot of guns. He’s a serious gun collector...He loves guns.
EN: He loves guns? But he’s supposed to be. . .
KL: A Buddhist? Well yes, he is. it’s common among Eastern Tibetans. They really like guns.
EN: They’re like cowboys?
KL: Like cowboys, yes, exactly. And also in monasteries, actually, you see a lot of old guns hanging around. In one special place in the monastery they’re all over. They’re there to protect the monasteries symbolically. It always interested me that they kept guns there.
EN: And how does this relate to the Dwarf of the Golden Horse-Shit?
KL: It’s funny. A Swiss uncle of mine in St Moritz held an art exhibition in a tent on the frozen lake there during a polomatch. He knew that I was making melted cow shit out of plastic, so he asked me to produce some plastic horseshit.
EN: He commissioned you to do this?
KL: Yes, and I put it on display there, but nobody bought it.
EN: You put it on the polo field?
KL: No, in his tent near the polo field.
EN: How is it you have two families – one in Tibet and one in Switzerland?
KL: My father is a Rimpoche, a living Buddha, from East Tibet. A few years before the Cultural Revolution, my parents fled to Darjeeling. In 1963, six months after I was born, we moved to a Tibetan refugee center in Switzerland. This was in Engadina, in southeast Switzerland. There was a home for Tibetans –we stayed there for four years. In kindergarten I had a problem learning language. I had trouble with both Swiss and Tibetan. Then I had to learn Swiss-German, which was really confusing. The same year, my then future-foster parents were on a ski holiday near Engadina and got interested in Tibetan refugees. Somehow they met my parents and asked if I could be their foster child, grow up in Switzerland and get a Swiss education. Because my parents were poor and it was a completely different culture, they agreed.
EN: Did your foster father speak Tibetan?
KL: No, he didn’t speak Tibetan.
EN: But somehow your real parents and your foster parents were able to communicate?
KL: Somehow. It was difficult for my mother, but my father was a Rimpoche, and it’s a custom to send children away to study at a monastery. His parents sent him to a monastery when he was three. So for my father it was like sending me away to a new country for my education. He thought it would be better if I grew up in Switzerland.
EN: And your foster father had an interest in Tibet?
KL: When I got a little older, my foster father Wanted me to learn Tibetan. So I went to Rikon, a Tibetan monastery in Switzerland. He drove me there every Wednesday afternoon, and I learned Tibetan from a monk at the school there. At the time the monastery was looking for a curator, so they asked him, “Will you do that?” He agreed. That was 20 years ago. That’s how we all got involved in Tibetan religion.
EN: So you lived a dual life?
KL: I didn’t really understand it at the beginning. When I was a teenager, my father tried to explain who he was, so he said, “I’m Saint Nicolas!” My parents were working in a factory and lived in a cheap apartment. But my Swiss family had their own private home and their own business. As a kid, you wonder, “Where do my parents really come from?” You don’t really understand. I denied it a little, my parents, my background and everything. When I was 21, my face became paralyzed. I went to a doctor but he couldn’t do anything. My Tibetan parents urged me to see a traditional Tibetan doctor, who heated up a gold needle and burn my face with it. Two weeks later the paralysis disappeared. That got me much more interested in Tibetan culture.
EN: Were there any obligations or pressure, to follow in your father’s footsteps?
KL: When I was a boy, my mother once told me that my father could pass his title on tome, but she never brought it up again. Only recently she mentioned it briefly because of all the refugees coming out of Tibet. But I’m not educated in traditional religion.
EN: So it would be impossible for you to become a Rimpoche?
KL: impossible, no . . . You can never say.
EN: You went to university and studied architecture?
KL: I worked as an apprentice architect, like they do in Switzerland. As part of your apprenticeship, you take classes once a week, and I did that for four years while working in the office. The company did interiors – I drew sketches for the carpenters. It was excellent training, because you had to make sketches that someone could use to build with. These were technical drawings, that’s all. I couldn’t draw freehand.
EN: Not even lines?
KL: Except lines.
KL: Measurements. In a way it was like painting thangkas, with all that symmetry. Four years . . . it was like being in amonastery.
EN: So how did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
KL: I was working with architecture, making maps and things, but I never got personally involved. The houses we designed were so far away. I wanted to get away from Switzerland, and go to New York or London. I applied to art schools in Switzerland a few times, but I was never admitted. Then I got into Parsons in New York in the fall of 1991. I was in Tibet when I got the message.
EN: So you went to New York and tried everything?
KL: I did a foundation year at Parsons. I didn’t know if I wanted to go into fashion, or graphic design, or what, so I tried everything. In the end, a teacher told me, “You’re a free spirit, you should go into fine art.”
EN: And you were also spending a lot of time in nightclubs.
KL: of course.
EN: And you were hanging out in the street.
KL: Hanging out, yes, hanging out all night, and then showing up at drawing class at nine o’clock in the morning. I still smelled of vodka, but it felt good drawing sketches.
EN: Were the skills you learned as an architect still part of you, when you drew?
KL: No, drawing was like an explosion bursting out of me. Because architecture was so hard, so strict. When I started making my own sketches and drawings, they were so weird and –
EN: There’s nothing terribly strict about your work now.
KL: People in Switzerland said they never thought I could draw. They’re so precise. But this is something that you really have to learn in Switzerland. Swiss people are really –
KL: Yes, about everything. People like sorting out their garbage. But once I had done that, I could let loose.
EN: Were you doing things in New York that You weren’t doing in Switzerland?
KL: I was hanging out, looking at people on the street.
EN: You developed a fascination with street culture?
KL: It was 1993, and Larry Clark, the guy who made the movie “Kids,” was in the park, and an old friend of mine, a skateboarder, was there too. Now he does all the graphics for UXA, the skateboarding company and he became a good friend, so I got exposed to skateboard culture.
EN: Do you skateboard yourself?
KL: No, but all my friends in New York did. Back when I was in Switzerland, we always looked up to the scene in London. They had Punks, the New Wave. We were into that music. I was never like, “I’m a Punk,” or I’m this or that. I wasn’t into hip-hop, or Punk, or street culture. I listened to the music, but I didn’t have to be like them.
EN: But in Washington Square Park, the skaters – they accepted you, they talked to you?
KL: Yes, we talked.
EN: You have this amazing ability to meet people. Everywhere I run into you, in New York, Switzerland, London – everybody
KL: Iguess so. When I got lost in Chengdu in China once, in 2001, I went into this bar and suddenly I was talking to this tall Chinese guy and –
EN: Everyone in Chengdu knows you!
KL: Yes, after that. But I couldn’t speak a word with him. He only spoke Chinese, and I spoke Tibetan, but somehow we made a connection and he invited me to stay at his place. Now he is a graphic designer, and owns a company that’s growing fast.
EN: And after four years at Parsons?
KL: I graduated Parsons. And then I applied to Yale and Columbia, and got accepted at Columbia. There were a lot of smart people there who could criticize the art. I felt so stupid, like “What am I doing here?” They’re all so academic. The first year, they wanted to kick me out.
EN: What materials were you using then?
KL: I was working with wood –with everything, actually. I didn’t specialize. I explored a lot of things. I also tried using plastic wrap in my sculptures.
EN: Why did you choose those materials?
KL: You can use anything in sculpture, so why Bother with old-fashioned stone-carving tools? I wanted to explore plastic, butter, aluminium and things like that.
EN: What did your professors and classmates say?
KL: They always liked my work.
EN: You were taking history classes, and you studied classical art history?
KL: I tried to take the easiest classes, because my English was poor. I always asked how many papers I had to write, and how many pages they had to be.
EN: At Columbia, you had some noted theory professors.
KL: Like Rosalind Krauss, yes, but I never attended her class. It was always theory. I am into practice. Listening to theory, Ifeel they think too much. Benjamin Buchloh was there too, and he was talking about that Gerhard Richter work with all the family photos arranged in a square. Buchloh said, “Why did he place this picture with that picture, and that picture with this picture?”
and so on. There were a lot of different photos from different years, he was trying to figure out what Richter was doing. So I said, “Listen, he has a square, he has lots of photos, and – he just made a sculpture out of them.” And Buchloh said, “You must be a painter.”
EN: You said that to him?
KL: I told him, “Forget about all those theories. Richter was just thinking, I’m going to put these nice things together in a frame.”
EN: So you were more fascinated with the materials and the technique.
KL: Technique, and also trying to understand what Richte rwas thinking when he made it.
EN: But for you, working with the material and Exploring was more challenging?
KL: Exploring art? Just experimenting – like, what happens if I mix this with that?
Exactly. Can I use metal with plastic? Melt this?
EN: So you were bit of an alchemist.
KL: A little bit.
EN: But you have the patience for it. There’s something about physical experiences that seem to fascinate you, like staying up all
night, going clubbing, testing how many substances you can put in your body before you collapse.
KL: And I think sculpture can become a very physical experience, like when you pierce the cans you work with.
Those holes in the cans – I also like to think I’m jogging.
EN: You jog?
KL: Yes, I jog. I enjoy feeling my body, and getting a sense of completion. So if I have an idea, I work on it until I finish it. But then, let’s say, I lose it, I don’t have the energy, then I wait three days and finish the whole thing then.
EN: It’s like a ritual process?
KL: Yes. There was another piece I made in school, I took some of my long hair and started braiding it, until I had a long strand that I put near the ceiling. My art teacher asked me, “Where is your work?” And I said, “Up there.”
EN: But it must have taken a long time –
KL: it took a long time to make. If I start something, I want to finish it.
EN: So, there was a period where you almost got kicked out of school – you didn’t talk about it, but you were working at the restaurant?
KL: A Swiss friend of mine wanted to do something in New York, so he opened a restaurant called “Angry Monk” after those monks who were protesting all the time. A lot of interesting people came through, like the Ramones, eating vegetarian food.
EN: When did you leave New York?
KL: In 1998, but I went back in 2000. Then again in 2001, everything came down – the Twin Towers – and so I got away.
EN: Were you using cans then, and melting plastic?
KL: Melting plastic came later. I used the cans and sometimes instead of cans, I put beads inside disco lights.
EN: There’s nothing precious about your work?
KL: What do you mean, precious?
EN: Like there’s nothing sacred. You use any material you find on the street.
KL: Yes, but I make them precious.
EN: Why are you attracted to materials that aren’t precious?
KL: Yes, but you have to make them precious. My work is like, making little shrines –
EN: Little shrines?
KL: It’s the common things that make them precious.
EN: When people think about Tibetan art, they think of rare bronzes, or sculptures of marble or stone.
KL: Marble, yes, but in the end it becomes precious. Otherwise it’s a just a hunk of rock, metal or plastic.
EN: Does your father know about your work?
KL: I showed him a couple of cans and he said, “Did you really make this? it’s really good.”
Some government officials were there and they got really interested.They didn’t say, “What’s this?” . . .Because
it looks very different from the artwork you see in temples. But if I make a nice piece like this, they also understand.
EN: You use sexual imagery, but you also use blatant Tibetan imagery.
KL: I use whatever I like. Whatever I find I feel like doing, I put it in there. I don’t have problems with sexual imagery, because in Tibet, you can always say it’s tantric art.
EN: What about your images of death and demons?
KL: I like devils, but that also comes from Tibetan culture – they’re actually protective. They have a frightful appearance, they have multiple faces, and I like this kind of –
KL: And if they fight demons, they also have to be demons to be strong. I like the idea. You can’t just think, “Be peaceful and the demons won’t harm you.” You have to force it on them, so devils fight with devils. I think about the duality of the image, it’s not like I’m making a horror movie.
EN: What about the contrast between the plastic and the image of the grass?
KL: I was thinking of the mobility of the skull and the grass – a kind of evolution, like how we all evolved from fish.
EN: Do you believe in evolution?
KL: Western evolution – yes. In Tibet we believe in reincarnation and say we come from a mountain ghost and a monkey. . .
And after the monkey, the gorilla. We’re all still monkeys and gorillas, but before, we came out of the water . . . The world is 80 percent water.
EN: What do you think of the title of this exhibition, “Plastic Karma?”
KL: I like the title, because it speaks about my work.
EN: Do you believe in karma?
KL: Yes, I believe in karma. And I also work in plastics, so it makes sense.