Nortse on his Self Portarits


Nortse: Self-Portraits and My State of Imbalance, My Loss of Equilibrium

The more than ten ‘Self-Portraits’ I’m exhibiting this time are the result of an attempt I’ve been making over the past year to express myself in a new way by combining photography and painting.  Every once in a while, I feel I need to change every facet of my style of expression, from technique to medium, because for me, ‘duplicating’ myself is a very painful experience, which makes it difficult for me to continue using any one method for very long.  This versatile, unfixed way of creating is perhaps a result or a reflection of my character, but whatever it is, it validly expresses my personal condition – a type of imbalance, a lack of equilibrium.  Yet those who really understand me will discover that in the midst of this fluid, ever-changing creative mode, I am throughout continuing or extending, as it were, my personal experience and recollections, clumsily piecing together the fragments of my spiritual, inner life.

People of my age in Tibet have experienced the ‘Cultural Revolution’ and then the period of reforms and the country’s reopening to the outside world and now are experiencing the present period of economic globalization… perhaps, you might say, our experience of life has been rich, but if I could have made a choice, I would rather have done without such ‘richness’.  Even more, I personally feel that in the midst of all these various changing social or societal forms I’ve been a human guinea pig, part of an ongoing experiment, a constantly experimented-on substance, continually being forced in and out of different test-tubes to be tested for different chemical reactions.


The ‘Self-Portraits’ are of that guinea pig, that much experimented-on substance and the bound-up or hemmed-in imaginery is not at all accidental.  The origin of the imagery can be traced back to the 1980s, when I was in an uninhabitated area of the Tibetan grasslands in Jiangtang, Nachu and did a performance work called ‘Bound-up Scenery’.  Although the method used in ‘Self-Portraits’ is different, I have been continually using ‘Wrapped or Bound-up’ as the principal identifying symbol or insignia of my expression, as it is the mental concept most closely interwoven with my childhood memories. 

In 1976 when I was 13 years of age, my father died in a traffic accident.  The strong smell of formalin in the hospital, the white gauze bandages wrapped around his body, the bright red blood stains… even today all these images constantly appear in my dreams.  That is the background of ‘Formalin’.  The imagery for ‘Mask’ comes from that extraordinary, chaotic period of anarchy when everyone on the streets was wearing a mask, a period much like the demons of my dreams.  Now when I think back to that time, it seems to me that it was a rehearsal for the end of the world, the end of time.

Another symbol that often appears in my paintings is the ‘Wine Bottle’.  I have long been tormented by excessive drinking and over and over again when I am wandering in a state of imbalance separated from reality, I choose alcohol as a means of escaping, but in doing so I have lost so much.  The ‘I’ in my Self-Portraits is quite often expressing this state of imbalance or loss of equilibrium.

Besides images of being bound-up, of masks and wine bottles, the ‘Self-Portrait’ series also has memories of the Cultural Revolution, such as the pieces entitled ‘Father’s Violin’.

Some of the Self-Portraits, such as the picture entitled ‘Tattoo’ are about personal introspection.  Others such as ‘Prayer Wheel’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Auto man’ are about conflicts between ancient and modern culture.  Still others, like ‘Saved’ are about human nature and religion. 

While in the process of producing the ‘Self-Portrait’ series, I became more and more convinced that none of the formalistic aesthetic standards of any of the various forms of art can solve our modern-day spiritual problems.  The deciding factor in the power of the influence of art is culture and not linguistic imagery or formal language.  It is only when one completely gets involved in actual society and one’s own personal experiences that one can successfully reflect or give expression to the modern Tibetan art scene.  All our aesthetic spiritual problems are changing form as Tibetan society transforms and are just as profound and concrete as those transformations.  Thus, only if modern Tibetan art holds firmly to its own cultural viewpoint will it have an authentic artistic future.

I hope that the ‘Self-Portraits’ series will be viewed not only as the history of my own soul, my own inner being, but also as the history of the innermost being of every single individual who has lived through these social changes.