Transforming a Tradition: Tibetan Artists on the Dialectic of Sanctity and Modernity
By Michael R. Sheehy
All that is ancient is proclaimed to be the tradition of the gods.
All that is modern is thought to be the magic of demons.
Miracles are usually considered to just be bad omens.
This is the tradition of our dharma kingdom Tibet.
This is our tradition as it is today:
The material magic of miracles that benefits everyone,
And the ritual magic of ominous signs that are harmful to all,
Each are sharp sides of a double-edged wisdom sword,
Each are counterparts certain to meet!
— Gendun Chöpel (1903–51) —
1. Tradition in Modern Tibetan Art
Art is not a word in the Tibetan language. So, to even begin a conversation about art in the Tibetan milieu, its important to keep in mind that the noveau connotation of art being a mode of self-expression via an individual—i.e. art for art’s sake—is not accounted for within the Tibetan lexicon or the Tibetan cultural framework. Despite their rich and complex visual culture, art in its modern incarnation is an alien idea to most Tibetans.
The closest semblance of a term for art in the Tibetan language is lha dri pa (lha '‘bris pa) which literally means, “to draw a deity.” The term lha itself most simply refers to an animating principle. It is a pre-Buddhist term imbued with indigenous sensibilities about the nature of the tangible cosmos as constructed by elemental energies that gyrate and take shape in specific life forms. Co-opted by Buddhist parlance, and equated with the Sanskrit term deva, the term lha has come to refer generically to living benevolent forces such as gods and local sprites (as opposed to malevolent forces such as demons, or ‘dre, etc.), and more specifically to the complex variety of sublime forms that embody enlightenment. That is, lha is a Tibetan cover term for both mundane and trans-mundane beings such as meditational deities (yi dam), protectors (mgon po), elemental spirits (‘byung po). Accordingly, the definition of what it means to be an artist, or lha dri pa in the Tibetan creative tradition, is broadly conceived as someone who captures a living animation in vivid form; someone who symbolically takes a deity captive [FIG-Vajrabhairava (Buddhist Deity) - Solitary (Ekavira).zip].
Having adopted from the ninth century onwards the pan-Indian cultural practice of passing down knowledge through an uninterrupted lineal succession or paraṃparā (rgyud pa), as in a familial ancestry, the Tibetan artistic and spiritual traditions have emphasized the formal transmission of specialized knowledge across generations. This model is typically a residential form of education in which a learned master transmits his or her knowledge of aesthetics, style, technique, and symbolism to a capable student. In fact, it is this structure of learning and its strategies of knowledge transmission that comprise Tibetan understandings of what tradition is.
Within the Tibetan artistic tradition, after having spent years in intensive training and apprenticeship, an accomplished artist is one who is able to seize and freeze-frame the essence of a particular deity, expressing the precise motion and emotion of that deity via his skilled visual language. Once a deity is drawn or sculpted, in the context of a fresco, statue, or painting, each deity is ritually consecrated through a tantric empowerment ceremony so that the deity as mere image is transformed into a receptacle for the actual living presence of that particular deity. In this way, the Tibetan artist has traditionally played the role of a mediator of sanctity within the Buddhist cultural matrix.2
Though the ideal artist is seen as a creative agent for visually communicating the physique and affect of a particular sublime appearance, the Tibetan artists is not typically praised for deviating from formalized visual presentations. In fact, like the Tibetan ritual arts, the Tibetan tradition of visual arts is understood to derive its power and efficacy not from breaking new ground, but rather for its ability to precisely imitate the real yet imaginative world via a range of media. This is to say, an artist is understood to successfully convey his design and style, and thereby accomplish art, to the extent that his or her imagery manifests as lifelike and inspires a sense of the sublime. At its core, this emulation is the purpose of the tantric visionary art presented by the Tibetan Buddhist creative tradition.
2. The Artists: Nine Agents of Transformation
Since Tibetan art is confronted with modernity, it is understandable that living Tibetan artists are consciously or inadvertently working to reconcile inherent tensions at this intersection of their cultural tradition and their art. In doing so, a host of questions naturally arise: What are the ways and means that these artists are adapting their own modern consciousness to their Tibetan tradition? Through what technologies, media, and styles are Tibetan artists expressing themselves? To what extent are they pushing the boundaries of their culturally defined comfort zones? What push-back, if any, are they getting in return? What social and historical dynamics are at play in the rupture of the Tibetan artistic tradition from its past of relative conservatism and cultural isolation into its present state of celebrity as a commodity on the global market? How are forces of colonialism, consumerism, and urbanization being perceived, absorbed, and visually represented through this creative enterprise? How is this new Tibetan art being received? Who is receiving it?
Though this movement has only recently emerged in the past ten to twenty years, and attempting to answer such questions would be naïve, we can say that similar questions are at the cusp of this breaking-wave known as contemporary Tibetan art. How living Tibetan artists respond will largely define this new wave as either a fleeting trend or as a possible new cultural category. In fact, this is what this current exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art is about: showcasing how nine selected Tibetan artists are breaking from tradition and how each is responding to such questions as agents of transformation. In introducing each of these nine Tibetan artists, we would like to highlight some of their works in the context of their training, personal history, sense of cultural and ethnic identity, and artistic contributions:
1) Losang Gyatso (b. 1953)
Stimulated by pre-Buddhist Iron Age rock art of Tibet’s Zhang Zhung civilization, worn-down antiques and artifacts, folk imagery and mythic pictographs, textiles and utility objects, newspaper photos and television screens, the artwork of Losang Gyatso seeks to re-imagine Tibetan visual norms. Like many of his generation, Gyatso was born in Tibet but has lived the majority of his life outside the borders of his homeland. As a Tibetan looking in on Tibet, his work incorporates multiple facets of the broad Tibetan aesthetic, presenting familiar imagery in abstract form.
Though Gyatso’s digital images conceptually explore a range of visual themes and narratives, his Green Zone of Amoghasiddhi [CAT FIG-Gyatso-Losang.zip] (2007) and Clear Light Tara [CAT FIG-Gyatso-Losang.zip] (2009) in the style that he calls “linear painting” exemplify his ability to reinterpret distinctive Tibetan imagery. As if to intentionally blur the normative frames of perception for his Tibetan viewers, he has taken two classic sublime forms from the Tibetan Buddhist imagination and stripped them of their context and convention. By digitally reconfiguring the color schemes of these images, he has subtracted and refracted the image information to the extent that they remain recognizable yet are no longer representational. Like pixilated images on a computer monitor, each form in these two digital images is exaggerated to the point that its details cannot be visually resolved. With Green Zone of Amoghasiddhi, the Tibetan letter Ah, which is understood within tantric Buddhism to symbolize the vibrational presence inherent in the power of voice and which is the core syllable of the cosmic Buddha Amoghasiddhi, is visualized as a composition of neon green concentric shapes radiating from dark red glowing bubbles. His Clear Light Tara, based on one of the first pieces acquired by the founders of the Rubin Museum of Art, Shelly and Donald Rubin, is a repossession of the form of the female deity White Tārā (sgrol dkar) [FIG-White Tara_hi res.zip]. Articulating his motivation for creating this piece, Gyatso remarks,
I was interested in what a Tibetan thangka looked and felt like to a non-Tibetan who doesn’t view it through a complex Tibetan socio-cultural prism, and who brings their own experience of viewing art. This lead me to strip away as much cultural specific information and form as possible, and to reduce the White Tārā thangka to as pure a universal manifestation as possible.
He goes on to say, “For Tibetans, a depiction of Tārā or any other deity that they have an affinity with, exudes and pulsates with physical and mental energy, and my goal with this project was to create a Tārā that would do some of that to a non-Tibetan.” In these two artworks, traditional images are receding from their symbolic significance while the viewer is left with faint memory traces of their original appearance imbedded and scattered throughout a fragmented re-presentation. Leaving us with an abstraction of the original, Gyatso is at once commenting on the intrinsic linearity of the Tibetan artistic tradition while suggesting that such conceptual and visual distortions are integral to a new Tibetan art.
2) Gonkar Gyatso (b. 1961)
Art for Gonkar Gyatso comes easily, yet as he has remarked in conversation, emotionally connecting to his Tibetan cultural tradition is a struggle. In an interview with the artist, he described his life as a boy and young man in Lhasa as being imbued with Chinese tradition, and his frustrations with being disconnected from the cultural observances of previous generations of Tibetans. In fact, it is this great cultural and temporal rift that Gyatso navigates through his art and which his art has come to embody.
Gyatso has adopted the Buddha as a seminal image in his work. Though he speaks of his own evolution of art in relation with the Buddha figure since he started working with it through a variety of media in 1985, it is his fragmented collages of electric colored stickers and pop-culture magazine cutouts in the shape of Śākyamuni Buddha that he has made in the last several years that are his trademark. Trained in Chinese brush technique and style at the Institute of Nationalities in Beijing from 1980-84 and having studied classical Tibetan thangka painting in Dharamsala as well as postmodern art at Chelsea College of Art & Design in London, where he has split his time since 1999, Gyatso is consciously re-appropriating the sacred visual forms of the Tibetan tradition into paintings such as Panda Politics (2006), L.A. Confidential [CAT FIG-Gonkar - LA Confidential.tif] (2007), The Buddha in Modern Times (2009), and The Shambhala in Modern Times (2008)[FIG-Gyatso_Shambala of Modern Times.tif]. In conversation, he said that his interpretation of Buddhism is that its imagery feels outdated and old-fashioned, so his artistic project is partly consumed with modernizing the visual culture of Tibetan Buddhism.
One illustration of this updating of Buddhist imagery is found in his depiction of the Wheel of Modern Life [FIG-Wheel of Modern Life hi res.zip] (2010). Besides the image of Śākyamuni, the Wheel of Life (srid pa’i ‘khor lo) [FIG-Wheel of Life (Traditional) .tiff] is one of the most central images displayed across Asian Buddhist visual worlds. It is understood by the Buddhist tradition to be an image that the historical Buddha himself sketched on the ground as a teaching device during one of his discourses. Known by its Sanskrit name bhavacakra, it literally means “the wheel of becoming,” referring to the incessant recycling of unenlightened life. From its center outward, the wheel represents the repetitive tensions at play in the non-Buddha realms of saṃsāra (in contrast to nirvāṇa), interlinking pictures of a cock, boar, and snake that consume each other at the hub of this wheel and symbolize the forces of aggression, delusion, and anger that fuel this cycle of upset. Graphic illustrations of each of the six realms and their corresponding living beings make up the primary imagery of the wheel while the outer rim is segmented into twelve distinct sections that depict patterns that interconnect like links of a chain in order to causally bring about its perpetual turning. This entire image in revolution is embraced by Yama, the one who devours time, thereby taking life.
At the hub of Gyatso’s rendition is a BVLGARI timepiece. Symmetrically, the clock face has the same divisions: six realms and twelve links. In classical depictions, there are hungry ghosts whose necks are drawn disproportionately long and as thin as a hair to symbolize their inability to swallow, or of gods self-absorbed in their hedonistic ways of music and dance. In Gyatso’s depiction, the realms are a random collage of miniature cartoon superhero figurines, lipstick, a woman in a bikini, signs that read “Unlimited LARGE Pizzas” and “BANG,” nude body parts, a one-eyed monster crab and palm trees. Dotted all over the wheel are images of dollar bills, dice, and lotto balls. Replacing the traditional fruit tree of the gods at the border of the realm of the gods and jealous gods—whose envy is exasperated by the deliciously sweet aroma of unattainable fruit that seeps from its roots—is a money tree. Phrases including “Pay Back,” “1 Million Fast Cash,” “$3 Off” and “Job” cut from advertisements and magazines are interlaced with corporate logos such as Starbucks’, drawing viewers’ attention to a contemplation on the commercialization of saṃsāra as well as the omnipresence of the corporate world. On the outskirts of the wheel, on the backdrop of a muscularly ripped Yama, are insects and pandas and ducks wandering around, a gerbil asks, “Do you know anything about falling stocks?” and a connoisseur asks, “Good art or bad art? That is the question.”
3) Kesang Lamdark (b. 1963)
The artwork of Kesang Lamdark presents us with a lens, actually a range of variegated lenses through which to look at. Born from disparate cultures, Kesang spent his early life in the diasporic community of Dharamsala, was raised in Switzerland, and later educated in New York. His experiments with heat, light and industrial materials enable him to visualize Tibetan imagery in esoteric and often surprising places. Though he creates sculptures such as Can in Blue Hand [CAT FIG-Lamdark_BlueHand.tif] (2007), it is his pierced beer can art such as Pussycat (2007), Dance of Death: Chitipati [CAT FIG-Lamdark_Beercan_Reflections.zip (Chitipati)] (2007), Garuda [CAT FIG-Lamdark_Beercan_Reflections.zip (Garuda)] (2007), Arhat [CAT FIG- Lamdark_Beercan_Reflections.zip (Arhat)] (2007), and Temple Dancer [CAT FIG-Lamdark_Beercan_Reflections.zip (Temple Dancer)] (2007) and his mirror light box imagery that have come to signify his work.
Working with the symmetry of a maṇḍala, each of these pieces is a point-by-point pin-prick engraving into the back of two round mirrors the size of beer cans that are positioned back-to-back in relationship to one another and illuminated from within. In O Mandala Tantric (2009) [CAT FIG-o mandala tantric.zip], a detailed illustration of tantric imagery is arranged like a zodiac, each constellation floating in a black backdrop. From the sublime form of an anonymous deity in enlightened embrace with his consort (yab yum) at its center, the maṇḍala radiates outward, incorporating a round of inverse and reverse heads looking up in opposite directions at the viewer, and a second outer layer of skulls interspersed along side dancing humanoid figurines with long twisted tails. The outer ether of this concentric space is filled with miniature lifeworlds that include celestial Hindu goddesses, tigers, fish, serpents, gymnasts, a yogi with chakras wide open, and a range of beings—elephant and human—interlocked in contorted sex postures. Looking from its nirvāṇic center to its outskirts, this is a maṇḍala of rich saṃsāric imagery. Or it is a true optical display of the tantric view.
4) Pema Rinzin (b. 1966)
Painting in ways that extend the lines and boundaries of preset formula, Pema Rinzin’s artwork encompasses both classical deity depictions as well as his more recent interlinear productions. Trained under the supervision of master Tibetan thangka painters, and having painted a 16-set piece for the Shoko-ji Shingon Temple in Japan, Rinzin’s style is rooted in tradition. With his series of water and knotted cloud images displayed as part of the current exhibit, he is challenging the structure and function of Tibetan art by painting pieces that are entirely composed of interweaving traditional line patterns. He is inspired by the complexity and richness of the traditional imagery and insists that it is foder for a contemporary Tibetan aesthetic.
In this set of paintings, Peace and Energy [CAT FIG x2-Rinzin_Peace and Energy, 1 and Water, 1.zip] (2009), we see a fluidity and suppleness of line execution that emphasizes the interlay of overlapping multicolored wave-like patterns of the same elemental substance. Articulating a fine precision and exactness of line movement, as well as a bold natural pigmentation, these compositions offer the viewer insight into the dimensionality of the elements of air and water that these paintings represent. As these artworks seem to undulate, billow, and surge forth in tangling currents of energetic and colorful inflows and outflows, they radiate with a certain electromagnetic presence, as if to suggest that sublime form is in essence undefined.
5) Tsherin Sherpa (b. 1968)
Blending classical technical skills with his ability to imaginatively reform and reconfigure, the paintings of Tsherin Sherpa transgress Tibetan aesthetic boundaries. Having undertaken his training in traditional thangka painting with his father from a young age in Nepal, Sherpa’s work is an unusual amalgam of recognizable motifs such tantric deities and ritual gestures that are encapsulated within a broader frame of quintessentially modern image schemes. His gouache painting method uses opaque pigments and acrylic paint in order to give his artworks a peculiar vibrancy and rich texture.
Sherpa’s works bring the viewer’s attention to the assault of modernity on classical Tibetan conceptions of art. His Preservation Project #1 [CAT FIG-Sherpa.zip (Sherpa_Preservation Project.tif)] (2009) is a painting of a jar full of multicolored arms stretched outward in all directions with hands cusped in gentile gestures associated with dancers and goddesses, all hovering in the outlines of a blue buddha head. Evoking questions concerning the nature of preservation—whether it be culture, art, thought, etc.—the piece captures traditional imagery in a state of homeostasis and self-regulation of a closed system. Another one of his works, Butterfly Effect – The Chaos Theory [CAT FIG-Sherpa.zip (Sherpa_Butterfly Effect.tif)] (2008) is a complex composition whose central figure is an oversized semi-divine semi-fierce monster engulfed in flames with a vulture overlooking his left shoulder. Traced on the surface of the deity monster’s blue body are interspersed arrows in graphic patterns that point to red boxes resembling a Power Point presentation. While some red boxes are blank, many are inscribed with preset technical Tibetan terms and phrases. On the right side of his bulging belly is the phrase “worldly dharma” (‘jig rten chos), at the lower edge of his right breast is “passion” (‘dod chags), at his left wrist is “delusion” (gti mug), at each thigh is the phrase “if it does not arise, its not joyful” (ma ‘byung na mi dga’), and directed inward from each thigh are straight-arrow meridian lines that point to a red box at the bottom of his lower belly that reads, “if bliss arises, its joyful” (bde ba ‘byung na dga’). Reminiscent of Buddhist and meditative body graphs, this piece brings to mind tantric concepts of physiology and the implicit physicality of bliss.
6) Penba Wangdu (b. 1969)
Replicating themes derived from Buddhist visual narratives, Penba Wangdu’s work brings a sportive playfulness to Tibetan imagery. Wangdu is trained in traditional Tibetan art techniques and has spent most of his life living in Central Tibet. A professor in the Art Department at Tibet University in Lhasa, he is one of the few living artists who continues to adhere to the traditional use of stone ground minerals.
Wangdu’s set of paintings, The Five Poisons #5, Ignorance [CAT FIG-Wangdu.zip (Ignorance.tif)] (2005), The Five Poisons #4, Jealousy [CAT FIG-Wangdu.zip(Jealousy.tif)] (2005), The Five Poisons #1, Desire [CAT FIG-Wangdu.zip (Desire.tif)] (2005) are three of five artworks depicting the five poisons (dug lnga) or five distinct toxic emotions that make up the Buddhist understanding of saṃsāric living. In each work, the form of the body is laced with cloud while in Desire, a naked male figure is disproportionately twisted and entangled in response to a nude female figure lying beside him in repose, illustrating his impassioned state of distortion. In Jealousy and Ignorance the male nudes depicted exhibit emotionally charged expressions and postures suggestive of their respective titles.
With Links of Origination [CAT FIG-Wangdu.zip (Links of origination.tif)] (2007), Wangdu narrates the classic Buddhist depiction of the twelve links of dependent origination (rten ‘brel yan lag bcu gnyis) in the traditional style of Tibetan mural painting, playfully reinterpreting it for the modern eye. Extrapolating these twelve links from the outer rim of the Wheel of Life, each of these standard teaching devices is painted over a man’s naked body as vignettes that correspond to each of the links, illustrating ordinary conditions for perpetuating paranoia and anguish. There are the usual suspects of the blind man, who symbolizes ignorance (ma rig pa), the monkey who symbolizes consciousness (rnam shes), the couple having sex who symbolize contact (reg pa), the man with an arrow in his eye who symbolizes sensation (tshor ba), etc.3 Wangdu’s version of the typical image of a person with a bottle symbolizing thirst (sred pa) is a man drinking from beer cans. Though these episodes are traditionally representational, the imagery of this piece is particularly erotic and facetitious. Replicating these motifs while flirting with his own style, this piece takes well-known visual schemes and presents them through a new composition.
7) Tenzin Norbu (b. 1971)
Inheriting the artistic tradition of his family that dates back over four centuries, Tenzin Norbu was trained as a thangka painter by his father from a young age. His style is impressionistic, depicting his momentary visual imprints through landscape and portrait. Though he paints from Himalayan folkloric imagery and has composed a rendition of the famed Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa (1052-1135), his compositions re-imagine themes and motifs derived from the bucolic imagery of his native Dolpo region of Nepal, a cultural region along the southern border of Tibet.
Norbu’s contributions to the current exhibit, Story of the Northern Plain [CAT FIG-Norbu.zip (Norbu_Story of a Northern Plain.tif)] (2008), Liberation (2008), and Speech and Meditation [CAT FIG-Norbu.zip (Norbu_Speech&Meditation.tif)] (2009) each exemplify the clarity and structure that typify the harmonic effect of his artwork. In Story of the Northern Plain, an everyday feeling of the pastoral highland Himalayan plateau is captured by an impression of the countryside while a narrative about the mythic landscape is suggested with the presence of a dragon dangling in a cloud. The story told in the painting is that the Tharok Lake in Dolpo freezes and nomads walk across the ice to the island where they camp for the wintertime, however at the end of one winter, a young nomad girl and her dog were stranded on the island for the summer once the had ice melted. During that summer, they would watch a dragon fly from the lake and prance in the sky.
His painting Liberation [CAT FIG-Norbu.zip (Norbu_Liberation.tif)] (2008) is a portrait of a monk making prayers in the light of butter lamps, as the lamps rise from smoldering depths and multiply into oblivion. Straying further from his classical presentation, the work Speech and Meditation depicts the view from inside a cave as the viewer is looking out onto a scene of monks on the grounds of their monastic college and meditation retreat, suggesting a reversal of perspective from the old to the new, as the viewer of Tibetan paintings is typically looking into a cave in paintings where yogis are represented. Though some monks are debating and strolling around in their full garbs as is typical of such a scene, monks in the painting are also wresting, playing soccer, full-mooning the viewer, talking on a cell phone, and riding another monk with bare ass exposed.
8) Dedron (b. 1976)
The art of Dedron communicates in bolder and more ambiguous ways than some of her contemporaries. Mysteries are designed in the overlay of her imagery. Trained in the Art Department at Tibet University, Dedron is a member of the China Minority Art Association and of the Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild, Lhasa’s most well-known collective gallery. Though she is not reconfiguring or replicating traditional Buddhist images, her art challenges trends in her visual culture. She is one in a handful of Tibetan women artists on the scene and one of the few artists who actually live in the cultural heartland of Tibet, Lhasa.
She speaks of her art as a mode of expressing independence and freedom, but not of political or post-colonial vexations. Her art, she says, is a medium for raising awareness on behalf of women and animals. A fusion of cubist and surrealist styles with subliminal traces of what could be construed as a Mayan idiom, Dedron paints dense visual fields from the realms of humans and animals. Painting from memories of her childhood in Tibet, observations of Tibetan social life, and from reflections on the global eco-crisis and the rampant slaughter of animals on the plateau, she incorporates clouds, mountains, trees, yak, snakes, birds, antelope, nuns and the Mona Lisa into her portrait and landscape compositions. Her creations portray simple allusions to her inhabited cultural and ecological space, as her imagery calls into question for most Tibetan viewers the boundaries of deity (lha) or demon (‘dre), the normative lifeworlds of women , and a rapidly diminishing respect for the natural world.
Dedron’s art is folksy. The hues that she emphasizes complement jewel tonalities of emerald, indigo and ruby while many of Dedron’s pieces are distinguished by complexions of dark brown and gold pigments extracted from the mineral rich soil of Tibet. Her contribution to the current exhibition, Grandparent’s Son [FIG] (2010) is a visual commentary on the multigenerational transformation of Tibetan tradition. Drawing the viewers’ attention to the verticality from the time of her own grandparent’s to her parent’s to her own generation, and depicting the continuity of tradition with the birth of a son, the subtle suggestion of this piece is that more is transformed than fads and fashion. As in many of her works, the characters of this painting look back at the viewer with bulging oval eyes typical of modern Chinese art .
9) Tenzing Rigdol (b. 1982)
Having spent much of his youth at his family’s carpet factory in Nepal, Tenzing Rigdol has a discernment for the means of production and the precision of form that have come to define the graphic structure of his artwork. Though he has lived outside of Tibet his entire life, his works challenge traditional Tibetan artistic sensibilities through their composition and arrangement. Re-imagining the maṇḍala (dkyil ‘khor) or ideal concentric pattern used as a device for ritual and contemplative transformation, Rigdol’s series of the Obama Mandala: Mandala of Hope (2008), Kid’s Mandala (2008), Nya-ki-mi-key Mandala (2008) jest at classic tantric presentations, replacing the principle meditational deity at the center with images of Barack Obama, Tom and Jerry, and Mickey Mouse.
Rigdol’s cross-training in graphic design, Tibetan sand painting, butter sculpture, thangka painting, philosophy, and poetics mesh to create a synthetic aesthetic. The overlay of acrylic, patchwork, wordplay, and pastel watercolor in pieces such as Fusion: Bud-dha-tara (2005), Compression/Blue/Deity (2005), Updating Yamantaka (2010), Fusion Tantra [CAT FIG] (2008) and his reinterpretation of the diety Tārā as the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi in his Updating Tara (2010), each create a geometrically disjointed collage that captures the gesturing movement of the deities with a psychedelic effect as if they are being reflected through a prism of shattered mirror.
Rigdol’s piece, Excuse me Sir, Which Way is to My Home? (2008), brings to mind the famous story of the Buddha getting lost on his way to Varanasi after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, and stopping to ask a local farmer on the roadside for directions. It also points to ancient Indian and Tibetan understandings of the subtle body as a geographic maṇḍala with direct correlates to specific sacred sites of pilgrimage, or pīṭha (gnas) [FIG-Shakyamuni Buddha .jpg]. Playing with this metaphor, Rigdol forms the body of buddha with a collaged atlas roadmap of the United States over the surface of Śākyamuni. Buddha’s face is marked by the cities of Toledo and Columbus, at his heart chakra is Philadelphia, and in the open palm of buddha’s mudrā of the earth-touching gesture of awakening is Cambridge, Massachusetts. In lieu of the Buddhist visual narrative that depicts the onslaught of demonic forces of egotism, the background of this piece is filled with consumer paraphernalia such as cologne and makeup bottles, sports cars, sexy ladies, and iPhones collaged from magazine images, calling attention to the interplay of materialism and spirituality.
3. New Tibetan Art | New Cultural Space
If the artists’ social duty is to comment on how a society is imagining itself at any given moment, then we can safely say that these Tibetan artists are playing their role. In their search for their aesthetic, many of these artists are working intimately and elastically with the imagery of their conscious and subconscious landscape, drawing conceptually and materially from their imaginal Tibetan cultural horizons. Though there are pervading themes that we can identify throughout the works of these artists, such as the appropriation and re-contextualization of iconic Buddhist imagery, these newly emerging art forms are the response of individual Tibetan artists whose collective impact on Tibetan visual culture is only now beginning to be recognized by the global art world.4
Signaling the contraindications of these artists’ to traditional art—that is, art as a preset media for communicating and mimicking the sublime—the artists in “Traditions Transformed” thrive on the very concepts that typically defy Tibetan conceptions of art, and that define the clichés at play in the dialectic of sanctity and modernity.5 Though Tibetan modernist painters and designers are careful not to desacrilize the imagery of their cultural tradition, they are suggesting more than a departure from the visual normatives of their past. Actually, a few elite artists involved in contemporary Tibetan art are ironically now making contributions to the mediation of the Tibetan cultural dialogue about modernity in ways similar to how artists have historically played the role of a mediator of sanctity in the Tibetan tradition. By invoking and provoking patterns of cultural dissonance as well as by seeking to transfer iconic and imagistic fetishes from their cultural framework into their artwork, these masters of appearance being exhibited in “Tradition Transformed” are facilitating this dialogue between the religious and secular, the old and new, the ritualized and commercialized, the meaningful and inconsequential.
As interlocutors in this emerging dialogue, contemporary Tibetan artists are suggesting a parallel cultural space in which to negotiate their identities and their art. By choosing not to reproduce or replicate the imagistic repertoire of which they are the inheritors, but rather to reconstruct a technique, media, and style in order to express the symbolic and visual language of their cultural milieu, these artists are repurposing the very spaces in which Tibetan art is viewed and interpreted. In doing so, they are both widening the divide with their own formalized tradition while working to loosen the fixity and tightness of its aesthetic.
Through this process of negotiation, each artist is extracting the sacred for the sake of the modern. By working to bring familiar imagery out of its insularly past and into conversation with the present time, by stripping art of its ritual and contemplative context and reintroducing Tibetan visual conventions into a foreign setting, it is interesting to observe whether or not these artists are remaking Tibetan imagery more relevant or less meaningful for both their Tibetan or non-Tibetan contemporary viewers. Though de-contextualization is a risk that the modernist takes, many of these artists are suggesting through their art that this decontextualization does not have to define the dialogue. In fact, many artists involved in this movement are seeking to be defined via an entirely distinct cultural category that is disjoined from tradition, yet not divorced from its visual forms.
As is evident in the artworks presented in “Tradition Transformed,” each artist has cultivated nuanced and sophisticated methods for negotiating tensions imbedded in this newly emerging alternative cultural space by bringing attention to the intricate social, economic, political, and spiritual forces that codefine their art. Since that is what artists do—create imaginary spaces—it will be seen through time how the Tibetan artistic tradition as a whole accommodates such new cultural space, and if it thereby finds ways to sustain this visual dissonance and refigure its idiomatic imagery while continuing to transmit its normative styles of communicating the sublime.
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Michael R. Sheehy, Ph.D. is the senior editor of Tibetan literary research at the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. He teaches courses on Buddhism, Himalayan visual culture, and the Tibetan language at The New School in the city of New York.