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"Tradition Transformed": A Conversation About Tibetan Contemporary Art

July 25, 2010

By Louise Chen
ArtInfo (USA)
July 22, 2010

NEW YORK -- Tibet is internationally known as a
bastion of spirituality and a political
flashpoint, but one thing this plateau region
north of the Himalayas is not commonly associated
with is contemporary art. Now, with the first
museum exhibition of recent Tibetan art in the
United States, New York's Rubin Museum of Art is
attempting to present Tibet's visual culture in
the context of the 21st century. Titled
"Tradition Transformed" and running from June 11
to October 18, the show features recent works by
nine Tibetan contemporary artists living both in
Tibet and the diaspora: Losang Gyatso, Gonkar
Gyatso, Kesang Lamdark, Pema Rinzin, Tsherin
Sherpa, Penba Wangdu, Tenzin Norbu, Dedron and Tenzing Rigdol.

Advocates for the preservation of their
birthplace's traditional art, these artists are
also agents of transformation in the contemporary
Tibetan art scene, which has had been in
existence for only two decades. ARTINFO recently
spoke with co-curator Rebecca Bloom about the
show, the artists included in it, and the
movement behind the study and promotion of contemporary Tibetan art.

What challenges did you face in curating this exhibition?

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I think our challenge was to choose the
representative works among many of our favorite
ones. We have nine artists and a moderate gallery
space, so we have to be selective. In the
meantime, we hope that each artist's works speak
to the theme “Tradition Transformed” and to each others' as well.

When did you begin planning for the exhibition?

We sent out letters last June to invite these
artists to participate in the exhibition. We
wanted to give the first voice to each artist to
determine the best way to make their museum debut in the U.S.

Were these artworks all created over the past year?

I will say 40 percent of the works on view came
straight from the artist’s studio and have never
been displayed before. For instance, Gonkar
Gyatso, currently the most well known Tibetan
artist, is showing the first three-dimensional
work he’s ever created and his signature sticker-made Buddha collages.

Can you tell me about Gyatso’s work?

Gokar Gyatso was raised in London. He approaches
Buddhism as a modern human being. In his
artworks, the tradition has been absorbed into
pop culture and lost its sanctity. In his series
of Buddha collages, he utilizes colorful stickers
to compose the Buddha collage, in which the
tradition and religion lost some substance.

Are Buddhist figures and iconography still
important to most contemporary Tibetan art?

Yes, for most Tibetan artists. But Pema Rinzin
has gone to the abstract direction. Dedron and
Norbu tackles everyday Tibetan culture and
folklore, while Tenzin and Sherpa deal with the
experience of the Tibetan expatriate community.
The symbolism and iconography you see in their
contemporary art and in traditional paintings
represent the elite Tibetan culture. But Tibetan
culture is inevitably linked to the religion and
the political context. These artists are not
overtly political, but they do more or less touch
upon it. It’s more about how the culture and
religion are preserved. This sense of cultural
responsibility is lost in the younger
generations. Many Tibetan artists are
traditionally trained — it's natural for them to
use these religious images that comprise part of
their visual vocabulary. Also, in this art
market, they are able to create their identity by
incorporating these motifs and visual elements.

What is their attitude toward pop culture and
contemporary art outside of Tibet? What are their expatriate experiences like?

Though it’s difficult to get visas, these artists
do travel out of Tibet, not to mention that Lhasa
is now a modern-day city. Some of these artists,
now in their 40s and 50s, have been living in the
west for a long time. You can see the
conversation between the East and the West in
their paintings. For instance, the presence of
pop culture and some Murakami influence are quite
evident in Gonkar Gyatso's Buddha collages. These
Tibetan artists are hip and highly aware of
what’s going on in the international art world.

Can you briefly talk about artist Pema Rinzin?

Pema Rinzin is based in Brooklyn. Trained under
the mentorship of Tibetan thangka [silk paintings
with embroidery, usually depicting Buddha]
masters, he is also teaching thangka painting in
New York to some graphic designers and tattoo
artists who have lost touch with the brush stroke
in their commercial work. Pema has also lived in
Japan for nine years, so there’ s some Japanese
influence in his works as well. Lamdark was
raised in Switzerland and educated in New York.
He is able to bridge the gap between Tibetan
tradition and the contemporary culture.

What about Kesang Lamdark?

Lamdark utilizes found objects such as beer cans
and Red Bull cans in his religious-themed
installations. Also a lover of pointillism, he
punctures the bottom of the cans with a pin and
use them as the light box for his photography. He
took the same approach to Temple Dancer, the
image of which was pin-pricked onto the bottom of
the can, which was then backlit by natural light
so the outline of the image can be seen through
the mouth of the can. His childhood experience
also inspired him to employ the punctured beer
cans in his works. When he was a child, he
suffered from facial paralysis. After being taken
to a traditional Tibetan doctor, the paralysis
was cured by dipping the acupuncture needles in
the melted gold and applying onto his face.

Is it true that there are not many scholars who
are focused on the study of contemporary Tibetan art?

No. It is really a new field, so it posed another
challenge to us when producing the catalog essays
for the exhibition. One writer, Michael Sheehy,
is a scholar studying Tibetan culture and
history, and Anna Bremm is a researcher who has
recently focused on Tibetan art. So the
exhibition serves as a jumping-off place and
provides a foundation for the study of contemporary Tibetan art.

What is the art scene like in Tibet?

Lahsa’s Artist Guild was the first contemporary
art gallery, which was established in the
mid-80s. They also showcased works by ethnic
Chinese artists. Their curatorial criteria was
not built on ethnic divide but promoting contemporary art in Tibet.

What is the timeline of contemporary Tibetan art roughly like?

Since the 80s, Tibetan artists have started
making art for the purpose of self-expression.
Some talented Tibetan artists have always found
ways to put their thumbprints even in the most
complex and rigid religious paintings and Tibetan
iconographic art. Other visual elements such as
motifs, decorative symbols, and landscapes,
though secondary to iconography, are of great
artistic values in contemporary Tibetan art.
Religious painters in Tibet play a similar role
to Michelangelo, who did commissioned works for
the Church. Many artists insist that the
tradition is critical to the contemporary Tibetan aesthetic.

Are European collectors paying more attention to
the Tibetan art than U.S. collectors? If so, when
did European collectors start collecting contemporary Tibetan art?

Yes, you're right. Fabio Rossi, who started
dealing in classical Asian art since the late
90s, discovered the art scene in Lhasa in early
2000s. They organized a contemporary Tibetan art
group show in 2005 at their gallery Rossi and
Rossi in London. At that time, there was no
market for contemporary Tibetan art, so it was
really an experiment with huge business risk. But
he felt the need to show these works. In
addition, Gonkar Gyasto has established a small
gallery Sweet Tea House in London, exhibiting
works by Tibetan artists, while Lomsang Gyasto
has organized small group shows in the gallery of
the University of Colorado, as there’s a small
Tibetan community living in the region.
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