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HONG KONG — In his new show at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong, contemporary Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso uses traditional Tibetan landscape themes and iconography, but also tchotchkes, bricolage, cartoon bubbles, and stickies, all of which serve as cheery subterfuge for the dire messages he buries under his techniques. The title of the show, Pop Phraseology, is apt, as the pieces fluidly penetrate language barriers, switching between Tibetan, Chinese, and English; they jump from traditional and decorative painting and sculpture squarely into conceptual theory and linguistics as well. Gyatso centers his work on two main constructs, the Western cartoon bubble and the Chinese ideogram, though he is not above using the English language to convey his sentiments.
When traditional Tibetan thanka paintings or sacred embroideries are completed, they’re sealed with a secret seed syllable, usually painted on the back of the canvas, and consecrated. This gives them their lungta, or life force. In a recontextualized and subtle way, Gyatso mimics this idea, using words in three languages as power sources and displaying them not on the back of the canvas but fore and center. Though many other contemporary artists use language in their work, they don’t have in their fundamental training an 800-year-old history of consecrated words soaked into canvas. Other key characteristics of both Tibetan and Chinese scroll painting are repetition, precise placement, and detail. Gyatso’s new pieces play with these ideas through the tension of the grid form, which gradually evaporates as if he were painting into running water. In this way, he pits traditional methods of geometric discipline against the cathartic spontaneity of abstraction.
The most unobtrusive piece with the least embellishment is an untitled work on paper (2007) depicting the head of the Buddha in traditional grid style, filled with tiny Chinese characters. The characters hail from propaganda sheets that the Chinese government releases about what great strides it has made for the Tibetan people, a hard line to swallow when you think about the 100-plus Tibetans who have self-immolated in silent protest over the past few years. This fact is referenced in another untitled work (2012), which features a headless body of the Buddha, a classical representation of ignorance, protruding from a wall. Among all the stickies pasted to the figure is one smack in the center of its lower back. In Tibetan its text translates as “self-immolation.”
But Gyatso casts his purview even larger, going straight to the desecration of his ancestral land for oil with the show’s signature piece, “Shangri La” (2014), a painting on aluminum in which an under-construction sacred mandala slowly dissolves into encaustic drips. There’s humor here, but also despair as the exploration for oil relentlessly desecrates a once pristine land. Cartoon bubbles, full of wit and double-entendres, occupy locations that in a traditional painting would be reserved for minor deities, ancestral figures, and members of their retinue.
The United States is thrown into the mix with the patriotic and brightly amusing, but also seriously dour, “Prism” (2014) and “Drone” (2014) pieces. References to both the NSA and US military tactics are spelled out by the English words and accented by bright, fake butterflies. Festooning the words in innocuous gaudy children’s toys belies the overwhelmingly serious intent of a coded discussion about global powers. The same holds true for Gyatso’s framed and bauble-like Chinese ideograms, which include seemingly simple characters but also layers of meaning; “Tiger (Lao-Hu)” (2014) can mean “tiger” but also perhaps “bitch,” and refers to the Chinese government’s use of coded messages and social media.
The melding of traditional and contemporary culture, referencing pop and 24-hour news feeds without losing personal identity in a globalized world — this is a tightrope walk for the artists who still identify with their homelands. Gyatso grips that balancing pole to walk the fine line with verve and aplomb.
Gonkar Gyatso: Pop Phraseology continues at Pearl Lam Galleries (601-605 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central Hong Kong) through October 31.