Re-imagi(ni)ng The Buddha

Re-imagi(ni)ng the Buddha: The Multiplicity of Authenticities in Contemporary Tibetan Art
Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa
 
   
AAA welcomes Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Assistant Professor of Tibetan Cultural History at the University of Alabama, United States, as its guest columnist...
 

The last couple of decades have seen an international explosion of interest regarding contemporary art from the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan cultural areas that have been part of the People’s Republic of China since 1959. Much of this art has been acclaimed for its depiction of the rapid changes in minority communities in modern China through the use of sophisticated imagery and allusions, and has been mined by interpreters and curators for its similarities and contrasts with modern art coming from Tibetan exiles in India and the West.

An interesting and common theme in Tibetan contemporary art is that of religious iconography — including celestial beings, Buddhas, and ritual implements — being adapted to portray current themes and ideas of identity, cultural preservation, globalization, and tensions with the perceived colonizers — the Chinese immigrants that represent the control of the Chinese state. Many studies have looked at the political connotations of contemporary art in Tibet and its subversive undertones. Tibetan Buddhist icons are now increasingly appearing in Chinese modern art as well, being used to express completely different ideas about modern Chinese identity, and also feature in western modern art often in a continuation of depictions of earlier Orientalist ideas about Tibet.

However, an important aspect is often overlooked in the study of Tibetan contemporary art: the traditional use of these symbols. Within this cacophony of voices, there is not often heard the voice of those who originally made use of these symbols — elite religious practitioners, ritual specialists and clerical artists. While recent ethnographical studies [1] have explored these communities, what interests me is their original motivation in making art — that of artistic practice as a type of religious practice — which continues to be practiced by non-traditional artists. Contemporary art that uses Tibetan symbols often reinterprets them in accordance with the artist's own ideology, or because of cultural and religious misunderstandings on the part of outsiders. In the case of ethnically Tibetan artists, the incorporation of traditional religious motifs is articulated as a political statement, or as a signifer of Tibetan identity. However, some artists consciously explain their use of these symbols as being acts of spiritual practice. The use of traditional symbols in a contemporary setting leads to interesting questions of authenticity. This is particularly so since ‘traditional’ art — religious statues (sku), painted scrolls (thang kha), and also painted furniture — has become a valued commodity in the art world, with large artifact auctions taking place regularly in major international auction houses. Traditional art is also not without its controversy, since some pieces are believed to have been un-ethically procurred through theft from monasteries within the Tibetan cultural region, while others are fake. Forgeries have become difficult to identify due to the highly developed skill of the artists who make them for the international market. The Tibetan art world, like any art market, is based on supply and demand, though often traditional forms of art are given precedence over contemporary art in representing an authentic Tibetan identity.

In this context, the line between original and contemporary interpretations becomes blurry; how can we establish which of these forms of art is more 'authentic'? There are various players in Tibet who each have their own consumers to satisfy: the contemporary artists, the foreign curators, modern Chinese artists, the tourist market, and the traditional creators and consumers of this work — the religious elite. As Clare Harris has written, western (and now it can be added Chinese) Tibeto-philes are often disturbed by Tibetan modernist style, seeing it as ‘disconcertingly un-Tibetan’, since the use of transnational technologies and methods transcend earlier stereotypes and romanticism that depict Tibet as a otherworldly Shangri-la [2].  These stereotypes can often see contemporary depictions of traditional motivations. The interaction between groups of artists, curators, Tibetans, Chinese and other foreigners, and their use of overlapping themes, create a contested site of debate about the definition of authenticity in modern Tibet, as the ultimate ownership of religious art in modern times, along with its medias and formats, is negotiated in conversations that often echo social and political realities and tensions.

Crucial to these negotiations are the various collectives of Tibetan artists that exist both within the PRC and also abroad in exile. These different groups often have distinct philosophies regarding their art. However, all of them include artists who consciously use Buddhist themes and iconography to convey very different concepts of identity, cultural preservation and globalization. Interestingly, some contemporary artists originally studied under a traditional Tibetan system of artisan apprenticeship (for example, Karma Phunstok) before becoming a ‘contemporary artist’, while others have chosen to do so as a means of developing their contemporary practice (for example, Gonkar Gyatso).

Certainly, many contemporary artists do not associate their work with Buddhism; some resist associations explicitly to avoid stereotypes of the Shangri-La image of Tibet, whereas others such as the prominent artist Gade (b. Lhasa, 1971) use Buddhist images in a playful way to explore contemporary issues in Tibet.

Others consciously identify their motivation in undertaking particular pieces as being connected to their Buddhist faith and practice. The artists mentioned below are individuals who use Buddhist terminology in describing their art, and cite their motivations as being similar to traditional artisans — as a form of meditation, or an offering. Artist statements often deflect attempts to politicize their work through the incorporation of traditional forms of vocabulary. Despite the fact that many of these artists grew up in the environment of the Cultural Revolution, where religious was suppressed and therefore have not had traditional religious education, many still strongly self-identify as Buddhist and depict this identity in their work. Several different artistic collectives reflect some of the different motivations of contemporary Tibetan artists.

Sweet Tea House

Sweet Tea originally started in Lhasa in the late 1980s with the intention of portraying and exploring contemporary Tibetan life through art, though was short lived due to government interference[3].  However, one of its members, Gonkar Gyatso (b. Lhasa, 1961) revived the name in 2003 when he opened a gallery in London.

Gongkar Gyatso portrays some of the ambivalence felt among Tibetan artists about the connection of Tibetan identity with Buddhism. In an interview, he discussed how in traditional Tibetan art as well as in Maoist ideology the ‘assertion of individualism ... [is] outlawed.’ [4]  Gyatso's incorporation in his work of Buddhist motifs and the body of the Buddha, in particular, is used as a signifer of Tibetan identity, as well as commenting on contemporary images and political images surrounding Tibet.

Disney Plus 3 (2004), for example, includes an image of the Buddha along with images of Mickey Mouse. Both of these images are instantly recognizable as cultural markers, but the depiction of them together subverts expectations of their traditional uses.

Gedun Choephel Artists' Guild

The Gedun Choephel Artists' Guild is based in Lhasa, and artists from the group often collaborate and exhibit in Gyatso's Sweet Tea House gallery. One of its most prominent members, Gade, like Gyatso, has grown up without a traditional Buddhist education. His work is a commentary on contemporary Tibetan issues, and often incorporates traditional motifs to further a contrast between Tibetan modernity and traditional culture.

Railway Train (2006) is an example of a piece that depicts this contrast. Including images of traditional Tibet, such as monks and nomads, alongside Coca-cola signs and the train that dominates the landscape, Gade's landscape subverts the dichotomy between tradition and modernity in an artistic commentary and comments on the changes that the newly constructed train line will bring to Tibet from the outside world.

Mechak

Mechak is a more recently formed initiative that encompasses other collectives through the use of the internet and by including artists from within the PRC as well as those in exile. The term ‘Mechak’ itself conveys the ideas of the group: me (me) meaning fire and chak (lcags) meaning iron refers to a traditional Tibetan iron-edged tool used for creating sparks. Mechak states that its mission is to ‘ignite a renewal of Tibetan culture’ through the inclusion of Tibetan artists from around the world. One of the group's intentions is to explore new forms of expression while maintaining ‘a spiritual centre’. Indeed, many of the artists involved, including one of the founders, Losang Gyatso, use Buddhist imagery and explore Buddhist themes.

Ang Sang (b. Lhasa, 1962) is one artist who incorporates traditional themes, particularly Buddhist ones, in his art. White Tara, a modern image of the goddess Tara, is one example. In his artist statement Ang declares that, ‘Painting to Ang Sang is the Buddha Nature in his heart; his works express faith and devotion. Through the exploration of the artistic language of Tibetan spirituality, he tries to find common characteristics between ancient and traditional Tibetan art and Western avant-garde art.’ [5]

Other young artists also incorporate Buddhist themes in their work, although their subject matter may not appear as explicitly to be Buddhist.

Palden Weinreb (b. 1982, New York City) is such an example. Born and still living in New York City, educated in a western artistic tradition, Palden's work incorporates mixed media and also refers to Buddhism. In his artist statement, he describes how, frustrated on one occasion, he began to recite mantra (symbols recited as a form of spiritual practice), reached a meditative state and found his pencil moving of its own accord. Fascinated by the results, Palden continued to use this method, explaining that through doing so, ‘I discovered a new sensibility in approach and aesthetics. I possessed a new appreciation for the illusion and deception held within a mark, creating ambiguous passages and environments ... There was a beauty and a depth in the relation between systematic and unconscious patterns.’ [6]

Tibetan artists incorporate Buddhist motifs in their work for different reasons. Some reflexively use them as signifiers of ‘Tibetan-ness’; others as social or political commentaries. However, some artists have also consciously used them in a manner similar to traditional artists: as a form of spiritual practice.

These motivations disrupt cleavages between tradition and modernity, since in this space, the concept of ‘authentic’ Tibetan art, which is often only ascribed to traditional, antique religious images, is confused. Contemporary Tibetan art in all its diversity, but particularly in its depiction of Buddhism, lifts Tibetan culture out of its stereotypes and into the realm of a vital, alive and changing culture. Rather than inscribing Tibetan identity as being that of oppressed victimhood or as a levitating hermit, Tibetan contemporary art suggests the complexities of being Tibetan in a time of change. As Yangdon Dhondup has written, ‘The issue of authenticity does not seem to torment the artists themselves but more those who want to confine Tibetans into certain constructed identities.’[7]  When artists are broken free of those identities and the different forces of colonialism and the market that enclose them, Tibetan contemporary art becomes a record not of a dying, insecure or suffering culture, but instead a multi-faceted depiction of a vibrant culture infused with continuity with the past, but not transfixed with that past. Tibetan contemporary artists constantly renegotiate and re-inscribe Tibetan identity, and the role of religious imagery furthers a sense of continuity which ultimately deems all Tibetan art, particularly contemporary art but also art created for tourist markets or curators, as eminently authentic, and transcendent of any singular, hegemonizing discourse and concept of ‘Tibetan-ness’.



1. Mark Stevenson, ‘Wheel of Time, Wheel of History: Cultural Change and Cultural Production in an Amdo Tibetan Community’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Melbourne, Melbourne; & Mark Stevenson ‘Art and Life in a mdo Reb gong since 1978’, in Amdo Tibetans in Transition: Society and Culture in the Post-Mao Era: PIATS 2000: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Toni Huber (ed.), Brill, Leiden, 2002, pp 197-220.

2. Claire Harris, ‘The Buddha Goes Global: Some Thoughts Towards a Transnational Art History’, in Art History, no. 29.4, September 2006, p. 712.

3. Ibid, p. 702.

4. Zaklina Petrovic, ‘Conversation with Gongkar Gyatso’, in Visions from Tibet: A Brief Survey of Contemporary Painting, London, 2005, p. 14.

5. Ang Sang, http://www.sweetteahouse.co.uk/en/index.php?section=46

6. Palden Weinreb, ‘Bio’, http://www.paldenweinreb.com/bio.html

7.Yangdon Dhondup. ‘Some Thoughts on Contemporary Tibetan Art’, http://www.mechak.org/some_thoughts_on_contemporary_tibetan_art.html