April 01, 2015
A new contemporary art show asks what it means to be Tibetan.
Art Benchung Buddhism China contemporary art Events Gade Gonkar Gyatso New York art News Review Tenzing Rigdol Tibet Tibetan Buddhism Trace Foundation Tibetan Social Justice Arts & Culture
Through April 12, 2015
Rogue Space, New York
Organizing an art show around a geographic region or ethnic group is treacherous: it can easily result in a grouping of works that otherwise have nothing in common or, worse, reinforce unwanted stereotypes. Transcending Tibet—presented by the Trace Foundation in partnership with Arthub Asia—is alert to these dangers and does a good job of avoiding most of them.
Curators David Quadrio and Paola Vanzo accomplished this by commissioning all new pieces for the show. They asked 26 Tibetan artists—living both in and outside Tibet—and four non-Tibetan artists influenced by Tibetan culture to respond to the question “What does it mean to be Tibetan today?” On view at Rogue Space in Chelsea are 30 different answers.
For both the curators and the artists, “Transcending Tibet” means transcending the image of Tibet as both a mysterious Shangri-La (an image embedded in the Western imagination since the time of Marco Polo and energetically promoted by Chinese tourist boards) and as a political cause (for groups promoting human rights and democratic freedoms in the Tibetan region, since 1951 a part of the People’s Republic of China [PRC]).
Transcending Tibet also means, in many cases, transcending tradition. Most of the artists included in the exhibition struggle to find a balance between preserving Tibetan culture (which is also primarily a Buddhist culture) and addressing the contemporary realities—such as modernization, urbanization, and the secularization of Tibetan culture—of those living in Tibet and its diaspora.
Many of these artists, including Rabkar Wangchuk and Tulku Jamyang, update the forms of traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings, prayer scrolls, and folio scriptures. Others adopt the tropes of Western Pop Art, as in the case of TseKal, or Communist Socialist Realism, as does Pempa (who, like many Tibetans, uses only one name). Although some Tibetan contemporary artists produce abstract paintings, and while much Tibetan traditional art, from sand mandalas to textiles, features reductive images or geometric designs, the show does not include any nonobjective art. Even Pema Rinzin, an artist known for abstraction, is represented here by a painting of stylized, but recognizable antelopes. The omission constitutes one of the show’s few missteps—some examples of non-illustrational art would have helped balance its occasionally didactic tone.
Of the artists employing traditional Buddhist imagery, some retain its original meaning in works meant to express their faith, while others repurpose it to convey a social or political message. In the former category is Livia Liverani, an Italian who has studied classic Tibetan sacred art. Isolating visual elements from traditional thangka paintings, she presents them as delicate appliqued and painted images. Her work for this exhibition depicts the blue, three-faced, six-armed Vajrayana deity Guyasmaja engaging in sexual intercourse with his consort. Representing the union of wisdom and compassion necessary for full enlightenment, the couple—flanked by flowering plants cut from Japanese textiles—floats on a pure orange ground.
Other devotional artworks include Puntsok Tsering’s calligraphy spelling out the words for “butter lamp”—a ritual object used to make the traditional offering of light—and Chinese artist Lu Yang’s digital animation Wrathful King Kong Core, which advances the practice of analytical meditation by explaining scientifically how the brain can become wired for anger (and rewired through mindfulness). More ambiguous is Jhamsang’s depiction of the Buddha of long life, Ushnishavijaya. Trained as a thangka painter, Jhamsang here employs a traditional technique of fine black lines on a gold ground but presents the deity as a robot, invoking the language of anime to indicate the goddess’s superhuman powers—or perhaps comment on contemporary society’s devotion to technology.