Gonkar Gyatso. Outline of Buddha ( de )
IN-SIGHT. Photography from the Wemhöner Collection, Kerber Verlag 2012-10
Homeland and cultural identity are often important issues, particularly for those who risk losing both. Gonkar Gyatso (b. 1961, in Lhasa) studied traditional Chinese ink painting in Beijing before returning home to Tibet. After a stay in Dharamsala, India, he made his way to London and studied fine art there. Today he lives and works mainly in New York, but also works in London and Beijing. His sculptures, photographs and works on paper visualise his empathetic approach to different cultural spaces, not by fostering identification with any one space, but rather by allowing irreconcilable contradictions to remain visible.
By the time Gonkar Gyatso was born, the Dalai Lama and 100,000 other Tibetans had already been forced into exile in India. The sinicisation of Tibet shaped the lives of both the artist and his parents. Even if Gyatso explicitly rejects the labelling of his art as political, his four-part photo series My Identity (2003) attests to a biography circumscribed by limited freedom of choice.
While in the first photograph he portrays himself as a traditional Tibetan painter creating a devotional image of the Buddha, the second image depicts him as a Chinese propaganda artist. The third scene is set in a corrugated-iron hut, where both the Indian script on a crate and the Potala (the official residence and seat of government of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa) on a canvas on the wall unmistakeably refer to the Tibetan exile in Dharamsala. The final photograph in the series gives us a glimpse of Gyatso as he lives now, working on a highly abstract mandala.
Besides the obvious autobiographical echoes, My Identity also forges a link to Tibet’s past, as the artist uses a photograph dating from 1937 as a template for his scenes. The original image was taken by the commercial traveller C. Suydam Cutting of New York and shows one of the Dalai Lama’s artists at work.
To what extent is a Tibetan identity even imaginable in today’s world? Gyatso’s four-part silkscreen print entitled Shambala of the Modern Times (2009), presented at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, provides a sobering answer. From a distance, the work depicts the gleaming outline of a Buddha; yet on closer inspection the inside of the head turns out to consist of Chinese-Tibetan characters, so tightly packed that they have become illegible. The aura of sanctity bursting out into the pictorial space is compiled of gaudy stickers, and snippets of text and advertising slogans – in other words, all the detritus of a globalised media world. While people used to find their ‘Shambala’ (a protected area or protective aura) in religion, faith and tradition, people in the modern world are faced with the task of having to repeatedly redefine these frames of reference at an individual level.