High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by a Tibetan artist who calls himself Kaka21. The blogpost was uploaded onto his blog on November 13, 2010. Born in 1971 in Lhasa, Kaka21 had his work exhibited in last year’s major modern Tibetan art exhibition in Beijing called “Scorching Sun of Tibet”, see some photos of his works here on Woeser’s blog.
Whilst modern Tibetan art may be becoming more visible on the international market, it is still fairly rare to find critical commentaries on modern Tibetan art written by Tibetans. Last year’s commentary piece on “Scorching Sun of Tibet” by Woeser was a very popular post on High Peaks Pure Earth and below, Kaka21 offers a rather different perspective on modern Tibetan art. For readers interested in seeing more art, visit the Sweet Tea House website or Mechak Center for Contemporary Tibetan Art.
A few years ago, in a coffee shop in Lhasa I accidentally bumped into two members of the Tibetan artistic community. We instantly recognised each other, having encountered one another before in the past and so began to discuss the topic of art. I don’t know why, but I have always loved asking questions, testing my own ability to examine and understand things from a different artistic perspective. Perhaps it was because I asked too many questions, but soon enough the two Tibetan artists seemed to grow distant, simply agreeing with everything that I asked with a “Yes, yes… of course!” After a while, we all eventually drifted into silence, and the discussion stopped.
We don’t need to spend ages thinking about how to paint a painting or finish a piece of art. All you need to do is to pick up a pencil and draw, that is modern art. This is what they ultimately summarised as their creative motivation. I think that maybe “unconscious art” should be a sub-category of Tibetan modern art, or to put it in another way, works of art which are “intellectually simplistic”. This kind of art has only value in terms of its form, as there has been no thinking behind it. When looking at a particular style of art, it is vital to take into consideration the culture, environment and society that shape it because ultimately, what is art but a reflection of this? Especially when considering modern Tibetan art, I think it is something that we modern artists need to carefully investigate and analyse. On countless occasions, when discussing ideas with other artists, even though we all respect one another immensely, we always end up talking about things in such a cynical, joking way.
I believe that modern artists have a different set of values when judging the past and present, the modern and the traditional. The question is how can we determine modern values, when we don’t even understand traditional values? Is there even a correct system of evaluation with which to improve your creativity? In terms of artistic creativity, to blindly go against something has no merit or future, and does not allow room for progression. For modern Tibetan art, religion is a way for us to express the importance of our unique heritage and background. A lot of work nowadays is based upon the modern interpretation of religion. However, in these works, the presence of a religious element always appears to be distant and hidden to the audience, as if mourning the loss of a beautiful but fading scenery, helpless to stop it. At the same time, in many of these works modernity and its markings are always portrayed as being in opposition to this beautiful scenery, instrumental in bringing about its demise. Are we condemning modern society for its advances, or ashamed of our own incompetence? Maybe it is both. If people take religion to be the most defining part of their lives, then its power and greatness is as strong nowadays as it has ever been, and we should not take such a lamenting, defeatist approach towards it. Religion’s real demise will only happen if it is fading within the hearts of the people. I remember an article in a magazine introducing modern Tibetan art, that once said “In our works, the Buddha will always be the symbol for life’s emotions.” From what I understand of religion, especially Buddhism in particular, the Buddha transcended our kind of human suffering, so this kind of artistic symbolism is not really applicable to the situation. Suffering is something which affects everyone’s lives, is it not possible for us to just face the reality of the situation and address it head on?
It is impossible to try and remove religion from Tibetan life and culture, yet presently, the modern Tibetan society that artists are trying to portray is also changing day by day. Tibetan culture is evolving, and the changing attitudes towards religion have become a main point of contention for many artists. Because the majority of modern Tibetan artists take religion as their main inspiration, the current crisis in belief within society has meant that consequently, the state of the art scene is also becoming rather problematic. Modern artworks are beginning to take on a rather embarrassing creative direction. Religious belief should not be just concerned with celebrating the beautiful and sublime; it is also about being ignorant and ignorance, fear, the strange and the uncanny. For such an ancient civilisation such as Tibet, we already bear so many countless examples of beautiful treasures and art, created and inspired by the unwavering beliefs of those before us. So much art nowadays has just become fickle, impatient and unfocused. We cannot deny or try to hide the fact that the modern age has shaped and forced our creativity and art into this manner, and left us with no other choice. On September 10, 2010 there was an exhibition of modern Tibetan art in Beijing entitled “Scorching Sun of Tibet”, which was received extremely well, with many people confessing that it “exceeded all expectations”. I think many people would have been surprised to find that when those artists who had been silent for so long, finally let their voices be heard, the things they had to say was actually quite informed and progressive. In addition, there have been two more exhibitions in Beijing related to Tibetan art, one called “Big and Beautiful Tibet” and another “Fascinating Tibet”. From “Beautiful” to “Fascinating” to “Scorching”, all these exhibitions seem to represent a kind of Tibet that has been negotiated and interpreted through art and creative process. However, we should pay more attention to what the purpose of these exhibitions are, and how others are engaging with them.
We still need to observe and take note of the many unique qualities of the Tibetan modern art community. There are two communities in Tibetan art; one which is involved with the Chinese Federation of Literary and Art Circles (CFLAC), and the other, an autonomous and independent collective, made up of artists such as the Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild, in spaces such as the the Melong Modern Art Space. The latter represent a much more organic and spontaneous representation of the Tibetan art community. All these communities have their own ways and characteristics, and artistic differences. From my experience of Tibetan culture, I can feel the multicultural conflict between the art, social environment and the freedom of artistic expression. This conflict and collision shows us in a visible or invisible manner, modern art in the context of frustration and helplessness.