Heady Intersection of an Alien and Tibetan Modern Art

In response to the New York Times review by Ken Johnson. Read the original article here.

By Tenzing Rigdol. Originally published on Young Tibet Online.

Myth has it that when Columbus and his sailors came to invade America, the Native Americans didn’t see the huge ships that were approaching the shores of their homeland, simply because the innocent Native Americans didn’t have the psychological context, knowledge and vocabulary with which to construe the visual sensations. The transduction of neural information never came to the fruition of correct perceptions. Similarly, I believe that the art reviewer Mr. Ken Johnson of New York Times miserably failed to perceive much of what was happening at the Rubin Museum of Art’s current exhibit of Tibetan modern art, titled Tradition Transformed, simply because he didn’t have the knowledge or the qualification to write properly about Tibetan contemporary art. So most of the trees and inks were wasted over his insipid prattles erected on the pedestal of arrogance and ignorance.

Like a blind man writing a thesis on light, Mr. Johnson flounders and errs in his review, hovering over the surface of one painting to the next, describing with disjointed logic and making statements that the exhibit in its entirety clearly contradicts. He blindly announces, “Surprisingly, given Tibet’s violent post- World War II history, none of them deal with politics directly, nor do they express anything very personal about their own experiences.” Incredibly, he either fails to see or chooses to ignore Tibet-born artist Gonkar Gyatso’s piece My Identity. A series of four photographs, this piece is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important and politically significant contemporary Tibetan artwork. Many art critics and scholars of various disciplines have written in great length about this piece.

The artwork accurately and poetically captures the exilic experiences of being a Tibetan political refugee at various personal levels. It deals with the identity struggle that he as an individual endured as the result of China’s occupation of Tibet.

The first picture shows the artist in his traditional Tibetan chu-pa dress in a dignified and serene posture. This piece amply speaks about independent Tibet. The second photograph shows him in a party cadre uniform, with a red arm band and a painting of Chairman Mao.

Gonkar Gyatso, My Identity

The third photograph shows his struggle as a Tibetan in exile. The ready-to-go maroon suitcase signifies his desire to return to his homeland. The unkempt long hair and the symbolic bareness of his foot give the melancholic experiences of a refugee. The framed photographed of H. H. Dalai Lama atop, probably signifies the artist’s and the rest of Tibetan people’s strong devotion towards the non-violent political struggle of Tibet. The last photograph expresses the sedimentation of his previously disorganized lives as a vagabond. The acquired serenity and stability clearly proclaims his identity with a tattoo on his left arm which reads Tibet. Additionally the absence of Buddha, Mao, or even the Dalai Lama in the photograph probably proclaims the history and civilization of Tibet that predates all of them for thousands of years. When this artwork was exhibited in China, it was censored due to its strong political content.

Tsering Sherpa, Preservation

Furthermore, he fails to acknowledge the complex political artwork created by Tsering Sherpa, titled Preservation. His father along with millions of Tibetans underwent great sufferings due to the invasion, which was further worsen by the destructive cultural revolution. The fanatic hammer of bringing down all that is old revolution fell hardest in the land of snow. His father who is a master thangka painter spent all of his life preserving the unique Tibetan traditional painting and trained Tsering to become the heir to his tradition. So in many ways this particular painting of Tsering, depicting a glass jar in which you can see the Buddha’s head deals with the complex triangular struggle between him, his father and the struggle against the Communist force. The label on the jar reads, 1959, and it  corresponds to the year that Tibet lost her independence.

Mr. Johnson has signally failed to understand the metaphorical allusions and the conceptual vocabularies of the artist simply because of his lack of preparation to review the show. Nevertheless he has the audacity to say that the show fails to deliver neither the intense conceptual nor the metaphorical thought. To review means to critically evaluate, to evaluate means to arrive at judgment but to in order to arrive at judgments mustn’t one be at minimum, modestly equipped with the knowledge of the subject matter.  He claims that the artworks of Pema Rinzin, Penba Wangdu and Norbu are decorous. Aren’t all artworks decorous when orphaned from its personal and traditional history? Without the historical and personal backgrounds the description of Picasso’s artwork would be ‘crooked eyes, crooked nose and bright colors’, and Pollock’s drip paintings would be similar to the random droppings of restless pigeons that we find on the floors under the Roosevelt subway station. And Andy’s Brillo boxes would just be a casual boxes and Duchamp’s urinal pot would just be like the one in our restrooms.

Furthermore, he suggests some artists to “think of all the sex and violence in traditional Hindu and Buddhist art.” I doubt that he knows the signification behind those figures in tantric positions. They are not sexual but spiritual; they are not about violence but about absolute compassion, but a pervert, who sees a mother breastfeeding her child would always misinterpret  the spirituality of the act. Not a single dictum or a statement that he has scribbled exhibit a sense of confidence in the subject matter. I encourage the reader to read his review to see it for yourself, how uninformed and ignorant his views were on the artworks that were at the show. His use of limited terminology, and awkward and forceful attempts at pinching the Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan traditional artwork is comedic at some instances.

Rubin Museum of Art is equipped with faculties of experts on Tibetan traditional and contemporary art, so to bluntly conclude that modern artists of the exhibit are merely doing the things that Tibetan artists of the past had done hundreds of years ago, is just insulting to the intelligence of American readers. After reading Mr. Ken Johnson’s review, I honestly doubt if he had really been to the show that he was reviewing. Even though I highly admire the New York Times for its interest in Tibetan Contemporary Art, I hope that a more informed reviewer on this subject will emerge in the future.

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