| exhibitions

Waves on the Turquoise Lake: Contemporary Expressions of Tibetan Art - Lisa Tamiris Becker

Making Waves: The Rimo of Curating : Contemporary Tibetan Art Through an Anthropological Lens - Tamar Victoria Scoggin

Acknowledgements | Biographies

Waves on the Turquoise Lake main exhibition

Carole McGranahan and Losang Gyatso

A symposium is defined as either a “convivial party at which there is a free exchange of ideas” or “a formal delivery of addresses on a topic or related topics.” In the Waves on the Turquoise Lake Artists’ and Scholars’ Symposium, both meanings were manifest. Seven artists, four scholars, curators from the CU Art Museum, directors from the Mechak Center for Contemporary Tibetan Art, and a lively audience all gathered on September 30, 2006 for a conversation celebrating, but also challenging, the contributions of contemporary Tibetan art. Each artist gave a presentation—an overview of his oeuvre, musings on his inspirations or trajectory, or, in the case of Losang Gyatso, a poetic tour of art as cultural narrative. Linking these together were four roundtable sessions designed to play off the works and themes in the exhibition and to provoke the artists and audience in new directions. Raw, reasoned, critical, and complementary, our discussions were wide-ranging and—like the exhibition itself—provocative from the start.

“What is the Tibetanness of this?” asked Tsering Shakya in the opening roundtable, titled Traditions/Tensions: Contemporary Art and Tibetan Society. “What makes this art Tibetan?” Shakya, a renowned scholar of contemporary Tibetan history and literature at the University of British Columbia, urged the panelists to engage with questions of culture, history, identity, and especially tradition. There is, he claimed, an internal community critique among Tibetans: “One is disloyal if you don’t hold up tradition.” Given the occasional redundancy of tradition, however, Tibetan society needs artists to push past tradition, to reinvent expressions of Tibetan identity, and to speak in a contemporary idiom. The artists, for the most part, agreed.

Fig. 1

“We need to ask what art is,” offered Tsering Nyandak, who paints in Lhasa as a member of the Gedun Choephel Artist Guild. “Contemporary art is not necessarily a lineage of tradition. . . . Artists don’t have to have the burden of tradition on your back.” And yet, though some artists are able to work around tradition, others see it as one of the demands of community, in which they are caught. Dharamsala-based artist Sodhon spoke of the difficulty of painting to fulfill his artistic needs, given “the duty of the artist to serve [the] community.” And, one might add, to pay the bills. Sodhon is a successful cartoonist, commercial and educational artist in the exile community, who also makes oil paintings to, in his words, “breathe new life into Tibetan culture.” As he explains it, Tibetan art “shows the Tibetan mentality” and must be executed by Tibetans in order to “contribute to a positive future.”

Artists at the symposium represented the far corners of the global Tibetan community—two from Lhasa, two from the United States, and one each from India, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Geographically diverse as this group was, there were nonetheless common themes in their work, in the visions of these artists who had never met or, in many instances, even communicated with one another before. The “collective feel of this very personal art” was highlighted by art historian Dina Bangdel. The persistent and shared references to Buddhism in the exhibition works led her to follow Tsering Shakya’s opening question by asking if it was “the recognizable Buddhist symbols that made this Tibetan art?” Gonkar Gyatso, who uses Buddhist symbols and references overtly in his work, described this technique as, in part, a search for his roots. Born in Tibet, trained in China, resident in India for a decade, and currently residing in London, he is not so much exploring a hybrid identity as searching for a “multisource tradition.” “Tibetan culture is very heavy,” he observes. “I am in some ways trying to reach people who don’t know Tibetan culture. Mine is a serious message [delivered] through a playful method.”

Fig. 2

The “Tibetanness” presented by many of the artists is cultivated in a mix of spaces and places, some Tibetan, some not. Kesang Lamdark speaks to this in his work: he is Tibetan by birth, Swiss by citizenship, and trained in New York. His artistic sensibility is indebted to some traditional Tibetan motifs, but he executes his work in ways not limited to “Tibetan” styles or genres. Denver-based artist Tenzin Rigdol spoke strongly to the absence, in his mind, of Tibetanness in his work. “For me,” he said, “it is more about being human than being Tibetan, . . . about investigating human relationships.” He also claimed the elusive prerogative of the artist: “The beautiful thing about art is breaking the definitions, making the art historians scratch their heads.”

Definitions and interpretations will always be contested, because culture itself is always contested. Anthropologist Charlene Makley reinforced the idea of culture as a contested process of meaning making during the roundtable Offerings: The Role of Art in Tibetan Culture and Beyond. Tibetan society is more fractured than most at present; while one community response has been to work to safeguard tradition, another, albeit less heralded, response has been to create new traditions. As Losang Gyatso explained, a key question in the Tibetan community at present is the contested issue of “what to discard and what to keep.” In his art, and (perhaps like all artists) in his life as well, Gyatso addresses what happens when “things become symbolic rather than meaningful,” and draws deep from a cultural repertoire of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist images to explore what it means to be Tibetan.

The relationship of the personal to the collective, evident in much of the art in the Waves exhibition, references the simultaneous exploration of issues inside and outside the self. Lhasa artist Nortse speaks directly to the relationship between Buddhist themes, contemporary issues, and the place of the self in his works, exploring “materiality and subjectivity.”

Fig. 3

Our closing speaker, anthropologist Losang Rabgey, reminded us that there are many “new and emergent sectors of Tibetan society.” Art joins with these sectors to make and remake culture, to bring meaning and symbols to life, to give hope, to pose questions, and to create the future. The symposium audience was a diverse group, but included a large number of Tibetans. They called for more women in the contemporary art world as an important step toward meeting a key need as articulated by Gonkar Gyatso: “There is no debate in Tibetan society,” he said. “We need this. To push Tibetan art forward we need galleries, curators, critics.” And also the participation, the support, and the constructive criticism and engagement of Tibetans, male and female, old and young, clergy and laity, in and out of Tibet.

The symposium ended on a note of excitement and anticipation: We know that a new era of creative expression is being forged within a rich traditional culture in transition. William S. Burroughs once said, “Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing.” Contemporary Tibetan artists watch the dissonant waves rippling across the lake of Tibetan civilization today, and are imagining and creating ways to calm the lake’s surface; they are observing certain futures into being. Together they—we—have started the work of “creative observation.”

Waves on the Turquoise Lake main exhibition

Acknowledgements | Biographies

Making Waves: The Rimo of Curating : Contemporary Tibetan Art Through an Anthropological Lens - Tamar Victoria Scoggin

Waves on the Turquoise Lake: Contemporary Expressions of Tibetan Art - Lisa Tamiris Becker | exhibitions