Art

An Artist Uses Buddhist Iconography to Engage in a Political Debate Around Tibet

Tenzing Rigdol enters a political debate that is disruptive, slippery, and without comparison in Tibetan contemporary art.

Tenzing Rigdol, detail of My World Is In Your Blindspot (2014), silk brocade and scripture (all photos by the author except where noted)

DENVER — During 1954 and 1955 peace talks, the Dalai Lama and Mao Zedong engaged in several meetings that were surprising to the Dalai Lama, who stated in interviews that he learned he shared many ideals with Mao. Yet, at a private meeting that would be their last, Mao leaned close to the Dalai Lama and quietly said, “I understand you very well. But of course, religion is poison.”

This strange relationship between Tibet, China, and the Dalai Lama, now in exile in India, continues today. The Dalai Lama does not argue for a free Tibet, fearing the country’s economic collapse, but he does want Tibet to regain religious freedom. As the aging Dalai Lama proclaims he won’t be reborn, his tradition of nonviolence may die with him, making a peaceful path forward appear uncertain.

Tenzing Ridgol is a contemporary artist born in Nepal to parents who fled occupied Tibet in the late 1960s. He has never stepped foot in his homeland but he has produced a body of work that is critical of Buddhist leaders, the Chinese government, and the world’s hand-wringing response to 155 self-immolations since 2009. He borrows the iconography of Buddhism to enter a political debate that is disruptive, slippery, and without comparison in Tibetan contemporary art.

Tenzing Rigdol, installation view of My World Is In Your Blindspot (2014), University of Colorado Denver

Stretching 30 feet in length, Rigdol’s five-panel collage installation, titled My World Is In Your Blind Spot (2014), is on display in the United States for the first time and it is the namesake of his exhibition at Emmanuel Gallery at the University of Colorado Denver. Seamlessly constructed from silks acquired in New York’s garment district, buddhist scripture, and photographs, five Buddhas reach down in bhumisparsha mudra, a gesture calling the earth to witness the moment of enlightenment. The other hand of the Buddha holds a begging bowl, which Rigdol explains in the exhibition catalogue, “is basically to completely remove your ego because when you beg, you have nothing.”

Tenzing Rigdol, detail of My World Is In Your Blindspot (2014), silk brocade and scripture

In many ways these are thangka paintings, which simply means “Tibetan hanging scroll.” These scrolls are traditionally made to travel with Buddhist monks from town to town, educating people on Buddhist stories and teachings. Rigdol’s silhouette and materials are similar to those of thangkas, but several of his artistic decisions signal his engagement with matters outside of devotion. For example, many thangka scrolls include a blue and green landscape, evidence of the aesthetic influence of China that became apparent as early as the 15th century. Rigdol understands this influence as a prophecy of China’s eventual colonization of Tibet. By removing the landscape and replacing it with a brickwork of U-Chen (Tibetan script legible to all the dialects within Tibet), he makes the sutras a unifying force. He also fills in and substitutes the body of the Buddha with the imagery of fire, draping arms, chest, and face in flames.

Tenzing Rigdol, detail of My World Is In Your Blindspot (2014), silk brocade and scripture

Within the past year, four young men, all lay people rather than monks, have set themselves on fire in Tibet. Self-immolation is a violent act directed at oneself without harming others; it challenges the perception of heroism and smashes the ego.

Tibet remains effectively closed to foreign reporters. Isolated from the world, these protests are unknown to most outsiders. But if we saw these protests in our media would we and our elected leaders act? We see many injustices every day, yet we shuffle on. We find refuge not in compassion, but in our indifference. Why?

Tenzing Rigdol, detail of My World Is In Your Blindspot (2014), silk brocade and scripture (image courtesy Robert King Photography)

Rigdol’s work is a visual reflection of this indifference, presented to the viewer to negotiate. His choice of silks, acquired through international trade, his use of the unifying language applied to religious text (typically divided among four schools of thought and dialects), and the prominent position of the flames are all fluidly connected. Once the viewer moves past the image’s beauty and discursive meaning, the fire predominates, haunting us from every wall in the room. Acknowledging the self-immolations, we may question the events that led up to these acts, but once we recall that US leaders can’t even work out the price of soy with China, let alone the ideological power structures presented here, we’re likely to shuffle on to the next object.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, the exhibition’s curator, Sarah Magnatta, identifies Rigdol’s work as deconstructionist, in that it does not hold one meaning, but instead can be read in multiple and often conflicting ways. According to Magnatta, the artist also dismantles traditional elements and replaces them with symbolic alternatives; she states that the work is “safe, but subversive.” Provoking non-Buddhists and devotees alike, Rigdol leverages the iconic Buddha and the common perception of Tibetan Buddhism as peaceful to reveal the West’s shallow understanding and intellectual engagement with its history. Tibetan Buddhism has not always been peaceful, and once the Dalai Lama dies, his directives for nonviolent resistance may also be silenced, enabling the fractures of Tibetan Buddhists sects to reemerge from history.

Included in the exhibition is an eight-minute video work titled “Scripture Noodle” (2009), in which Rigdol goes to a Chinese restaurant in the United States and prepares a meal from Buddhist sacred scripture pages. He slices them into strips and cooks them in a wok with oil and vegetables, eventually eating the “noodles.” Although initially humorous, there is a subtle but menacing moment when a Chinese cook in the kitchen stops his work to toss a butcher’s knife on the counter in front of Rigdol.

Tenzing Rigdol, detail of My World Is In Your Blindspot (2014), silk brocade and scripture

The act of eating the sacred is repeated in Rigdol’s documentary film Bringing Home Tibet (2013), in which he shipped truckloads of Tibetan soil to a community in exile. Some people were so moved by the experience they ingested the dirt. The noodles and the dirt are both literally and metaphorically consumed in these presentations, but they are also abstractions of sacredness and gestures of attachment. When Rigdol sliced and consumed the paper noodles, he was admonished by Buddhist leaders, revealing their own attachments to an object of knowledge that transcends its physicality. Buddhism teaches detachment from desire as a means to end suffering, yet there are limits to how much one transcends these distractions. These limits are at the heart of Ridgol’s investigations.

Tenzing Rigdol: My World Is In Your Blindspot continues at Emmanuel Gallery (Auraria Campus at University of Colorado Denver, 1205 12th Street, Denver, Colorado) through June 7. The exhibition will travel to Tibet House in New York later this year.

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