“Pop Phraseology” in Hong Kong: Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso – interview

Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso talks about his inspiration, influences and the coexistence of different cultures.

Gonkar Gyatso is having a solo exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong. Art Radar caught up with the artist to find out about his artistic practice, bridging East and West, the myth of Shangri-La and creating a space for diverse cultures to coexist.

Artist Gonkar Gyatso poses in front of one of his works entitled Shangri-La during the Pop Phraseology exhibition at the Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong on 17 Sept 2014. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST.

Artist Gonkar Gyatso poses in front of one of his works entitled Shangri-La during the Pop Phraseology exhibition at the Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong on 17 Sept 2014. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST.

Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong is holding Gonkar Gyatso‘s solo exhibition, entitled “Pop Phraseology“, from 18 September to 31 October 2014. The show includes older and recent works by the renowned New York-based Tibetan artist, whose practice takes inspiration from diverse sources like western street and popular culture and Chinese and Tibetan traditions and languages.

Gonkar Gyatso (b. 1961, Lhasa) creates humorous work that is, at once, informed by social and political issues and personal life experiences, ranging from painting and collage to photography and installation. As the artist says, “Just as the identity of my homeland cannot be separated from religion and politics, so my own sensibility has been shaped by the undeniable bond between the two“.

The exhibition press release (PDF download) states:

With a long interest in material and pop culture, Gyatso often combines references to traditional Tibetan life with references to the global mass-media culture that is constantly interacting with, and shaping, our current perspectives of cultural identity. By confronting the undeniable bond between his homeland’s religion and politics Gyatso throws into question what is considered traditional, whilst addressing the many new cultural hybrid identities to which globalisation has given rise.

Gonkar Gyatso, Untitled (silver base), 2012, mixed media collage, and pencil on resin sculpture, 16 x 18 x12 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, Untitled (silver base), 2012, mixed media collage, and pencil on resin sculpture, 16 x 18 x 12in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Much of Gyatso’s practice revolves around the reproduction and reinvention of Buddhist iconography and the geometry and aesthetic approach of traditional Tibetan thangka painting. Skilfully weaving western and Tibetan cultural constructs and influences, Gyatso translates Buddha images posed in traditional thangka-influenced compositions into pop imagery that satirises world politics and the mundaneness of life, while creating a space for the coexistence of different cultures.

His iconic work Pokemon Buddha (2003) marks the first example of what has now become the central theme, concept and style of his practice. Some of his work also references the shifts in identity that characterise the life of a migrant, as seen in Buddha in Our Time (2007-08). Language is another pivotal element of his work and, in his most recent pieces, the artist uses meaningful popular phrases to comment on socio-political issues that plague the world at large.

Art Radar spoke to the artist to find out more about his background, his influences and inspiration and his artistic practice.

Gonkar Gyatso, "Pop Phraseology", 2014, installation view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, “Pop Phraseology”, 2014, installation view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

You were born and raised in Tibet and then moved to London to study fine art. Could you talk a bit about how Tibet was at the time you lived there and how your experience of moving to a completely different cultural and social environment affected you at the time? What were the most influencing, inspiring and shocking aspects of your relocation?

I was in Tibet until the early nineties. Of course, I was born there, so I have experienced the seventies, eighties and early nineties in Tibet, and it was quite an amazing period. I went to Beijing to study art in the 1980s, and after four years in Beijing, when I came back to Lhasa, I remember I was a little bit shocked at the change. In the 1980s, when I went to Beijing, Lhasa was not officially open – I remember my grandmother did not openly practice Buddhism. But in 1984 when I went back people were praying, my grandmother even had a shrine and displayed Buddhist sculptures and pictures. Then, in the early nineties, it was a very open period. Even in Lhasa there were a lot of foreign tourists.

1985 or 1986 was the first time that I ever saw a commercial gallery in Lhasa. We never knew that art could be sold and that art could be a commodity. Before that, there was no commercial gallery even in China. We could give our work to the gallery to be sold and to be shown, and the contemporary art movement also started then. It was quite an amazing time. In 1992, I left Lhasa, but I didn’t go directly from Lhasa to London. Before that, I went to India, and I ended up for a little over three years with the Tibetan community in Dharamsala. And there I studied Tibetan Buddhism and also traditional thangka [painting], which I already knew before. In 1996, I went to London on a scholarship.

As you suggest, it was an amazing contrast. Lhasa is a medium-sized city and also had quite a lot of modern buildings, events and art happening. But Dharamsala in India is a small town, so there wasn’t much really happening, except people practicing Buddhism and talking about politics. I remember my first big shock when I got to London was when I moved into my friend’s place and he took me around to teach me how to get onto the bus, to get on the tube, and also where to get food. And I remember he took me to one of the supermarkets; it was quite a big one, a very common one named Sainsbury’s, and I was just overwhelmed by the choice it had.

My school, where I had a scholarship, was Central St. Martin’s, and it’s right in the middle of London, one of the busiest areas in Central London. It was a culture shock. Art-wise, when I got to London there was a big exhibition called “Sensations” from the Saatchi Collection showing at the Royal Academy. It was one of the biggest contemporary shows I went to see when I was in London. Before I went to England, I saw and I knew quite a lot of western contemporaries and Modern Art. I had been taught some of the modern art history when I was in Beijing, and also I was interested in western modern art. So I was confident that I knew quite a lot. But after I saw that show, I told myself “I know nothing about modern, western contemporary art.”

Also in those days, especially in Chinese art education, we were always told there was an idea of what is art and what is not art. But after a few months in London, looking around in galleries and museums, especially that “Sensations” show, that idea kind of [lost its meaning], I realised that there is no boundary for what is art and what is not art, since anything can be art. And it was quite difficult for me to accept.

Gonkar Gyatso, 'drone' (detail), 2014, mixed media collage, paper and dibond, 186.7x 74.9 cm. Installation view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, ‘drone’ (detail), 2014, mixed media collage, paper and dibond, 186.7x 74.9cm. Installation view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

How did those changes and transformations in your environment affect your early artistic practice? What were the elements of your own culture that you mostly missed and that also appeared in your early practice?

I think that when I went to London, as I told you before, I was quite confident with what I knew about western art. And also doing my own art for more than ten years, I considered myself as kind of a mature artist already. I think that every time I move to a new place, it’s exciting, but it’s also very tricky; and in my life, I’ve had that quite a few times already. Moving to a new place means that you have to start everything from scratch. When I went to London, that was one of my challenges – suddenly I’m in a totally different environment, in a different cultural setting, and also I didn’t really know anybody there. And so naturally, I started questioning [myself] about my own practice, which was what I had been doing when I was in India and when I was in Tibet.

It took me quite a long time to get back to myself and also to navigate how I was going to change myself and my practice in this environment. One of the most challenging [aspects] was work with acceptability, because in those days, my work was quite heavily involved with Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan themes, landscapes and such. That kind of work was suitable for a particular environment – I could probably do that kind of work quite comfortably if I was still in Tibet or in India, but when I came to London the environment changed. There was also the challenge of how you are going to make your work engage with the new audience. And also as a person, as an artist, I wanted to be part of this culture, of what was happening in London, which raised the question of how I was going to get my work to do this. Somehow I managed to make it more accessible for a western audience that didn’t know much about Tibet or Buddhism. I think for many non-European artists when they go to Europe, or go to different cultural settings, it is a really big challenge for everyone.

Gonkar Gyatso, 'Sustainable Happiness', 2012, mixed media collage on treated fine art paper, 60.2 x 40.2 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, ‘Sustainable Happiness’, 2012, mixed media collage on treated fine art paper, 60.2 x 40.2in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Could you explain the significance and importance of popular culture and street culture in your work?

When it comes to street culture, for instance, I think I always loved the directness of street culture. And also its playfulness. What attracts me is the acceptability and also the energy that both pop and street culture have. Those four or five elements influenced my own practice. I also try to make my own work have those elements in it. Directness, energy and playfulness. I’m not interested in making work that is too difficult for people to understand. I always try to make it more accessible and easy. And I find that street art and pop art have those qualities.

What about the traditional Tibetan cultural aspects that influenced and inspired your work?

I think that’s the funny thing – even though I am Tibetan and even though I spent a couple of years in Dharamsala trying to study Tibetan Buddhism, I think, somehow, I am still not a religious person. I don’t really practice Buddhism, even though I am really interested in some elements of my culture and Tibetan Buddhism. I think the element that plays a crucial role in my work is the aesthetics and the geometry, which is an important force in traditional painting.

I also find interest in the Tibetan traditional thangka, which has the amazing ability of providing you with loads of information. When you look at one of the thangka paintings, the canvas is completely painted, there won’t be any empty space, and that’s something I found really interesting. From afar, you can see the shape of the Buddha and the landscape, and when you get closer you can see even more little details inside the canvas. I think it relates to the modern world, especially nowadays that we have all this bombardment of information from newspapers, magazines, social media, the internet. But of course I also try to make a mixture of the traditional and the modern. So these three elements and the presence of so much information, that’s the influence in my work from the traditional side.

Gonkar Gyatso, 'Shangri La', 2014, mixed media and dibond and resin on aluminium honeycomb panel, 120 x 120 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, ‘Shangri-La’, 2014, mixed media and dibond and resin on aluminium honeycomb panel, 120 x 120 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

What are the political and social issues that you examine and explore in your work?

I always think about social and political issues. Since I am Tibetan, people are always talking about what’s happening in Tibet and what’s happening between Tibet and China. When I was living in London, I also had to face the problems of living in a big city like London, because there was a race issue in London at the time and then there was the local culture and the multicultural [environment]. So it always interests me. I also try not to focus on one issue – for instance, for some Tibetan artists, the Tibetan issue becomes the largest issue. But I try to see things more from further away.

Looking from outside one can see the broader picture and it can also relate to what’s happening in other parts of the world. I try not to be propagandist. I try not to make Tibetan political issues my main focus, because when I was in China in the eighties I was kind of the victim of this propaganda culture per se and that’s something I don’t want to repeat in my work. I always try to put those issues in my own narrative, make it more accessible, more playful.

Gonkar Gyatso, Untitled (red base), 2012, mixed media collage and pencil on resin sculpture, 16 x 18 x12 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, Untitled (red base), 2012, mixed media collage and pencil on resin sculpture, 16 x 18 x12 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

You said before that you are not really religious, but you are interested in some elements of the Buddhist tradition and thought. You often use the image of Buddha in your work, but it appears to go well beyond religion, into the exploration of something more deeply engaged with social commentary. Could you expand on the significance of Buddha in your work?

I actually started using the Buddha image even when I was in Lhasa, which was in the eighties, around 1985, and it has become kind of a long relationship with that image. I think it’s perhaps some kind of karma. I know that I will have to stop somewhere, but somehow I still am in love with this particular image, which is the shape of the Buddha. Every time, when I look at the image, I don’t really see much of the religious side; I see more of the beauty, the calmness and also the geometry of the Buddha. Then I always treat the Buddha like a large container, which can contain lots of issues I find interesting or I’m facing. I put them all in a group and try to make them coexist together, which somehow I did manage to do. There are lots of stickers, lots of quotes, and it becomes very peaceful and comes together quite nicely.

This can apply to the city of New York or the city of London as well. I always see the city as a giant container, which contains all kinds of ideas, all kinds of people, all kinds of religions, and even though sometimes they clash with each other, they still manage to coexist. So that’s really something that I try to reflect in my work: the Buddha is this very tolerant, giant container.

Talking more specifically about one of your works, ‘Untitled’ is quite crowded with symbols and imagery. What are the imagery and symbols that you have included in your Buddha sculptures like this one?

It’s actually not so simple: lots of those symbols I created myself. They’re kind of inspired by traffic signs. I started taking interest in those signs when I was in London, because suddenly I wanted to drive a car, and part of that [process] is that you have to read about the traffic signs, how to understand them and their meaning. Then it occurred to me that traffic signs have become kind of an international language and anybody can understand them: you can drive in China and if you come to England you can drive there too! Even though you might not be able to read the writing, everybody can read the signs. So that inspired me and I created some signs, which bring up a bit of political or social issues. I try to make a sign to say something, which a language might not be appropriate to say it or too obvious to say it. In this piece, Untitled, there are also cut-outs from magazines and newspapers, and there are a lot of commercial labels, animals, stickers. Even though it’s a sculpture, I am still trying to treat the Buddha as a giant container.

Gonkar Gyatso, 'Pendulum of Autonomy', 2014, mixed media collage and dibond on aluminium honeycomb panel, 60 x 80 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, ‘Pendulum of Autonomy’, 2014, mixed media collage and dibond on aluminium honeycomb panel, 60 x 80 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Could you tell us about the concept and ideas behind Pendulum of Autonomy and Shangri-La Play?

About the piece called Pendulum of Autonomy, I especially like the Chinese translation: 摇摆的自治权 (yaobai de zizhiquan). I find it quite an interesting translation. I think I’m trying to make the case for peace, but I try to make it more meaningful and at the same time not too obvious. So, as you can read from the title, it’s mainly about the issue between Tibet and China, but I try to use  a more subtle way of presenting it, through the language and characters, which are something I created between 2006 or 2007. They are basically a combination of Chinese and Tibetan characters put together, trying to create a new language. The unfortunate thing is that nobody can read it, even myself, I can’t really read it, so the idea was to put two things that are quite different together and try to make them coexist, to create a correlation between them. There are signs in the middle of the Buddha’s body, which I made myself, and around the Buddha there are dragon drawings, which are traditionally from Chinese culture. So the idea here is still that of putting some things that have a big clash together. It’s sort of a big haven in the head, even though it’s not really happening in reality, but I am surprised as to how it has come out quite balanced and these diverse elements go together quite nicely.

About the other one, Shangri-La Play: Shangri-La is this mythical place that doesn’t really exist in real life, it’s very happy, no suffering, disconnected from any kind of negativity, a pure land. And here, the Buddha is not really meditating, I think he is just sitting there, but you don’t see that much in traditional form. I only saw one ancient sculpture and it was a very provocative pose, even erotic. There is some inspiration from a science-fiction film [Avatar, 2009], with big blue people, and the landscape was basically all floating in the air and the native people all riding giant birds flying in this landscape. So that’s where the landscape kind of comes from. This work is a little bit more playful and fun, compared to some other pieces.

What about the other Shangri-La-related piece, where there is some construction happening, what is that talking about?

It’s really about environment issues. I’m trying to talk about issues, especially in developing countries, of the racket caused by construction and development, the loss of the land, the loss of the landscape, and the environment being destroyed. It can also refer to China, or what’s happening in India or Thailand. To develop their country they need buildings, they need looking for oil, for coal and damaging the environment. This piece is saying that the ruckus of human desire is destroying the Shangri-La.

Gonkar Gyatso, 'Shangri La Play', 2013, mixed media collage and pencil on treated fine art paper, 30 x 23 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, ‘Shangri-La Play’, 2013, mixed media collage and pencil on treated fine art paper, 30 x 23 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

There is an obvious engagement with language in your practice and with the creation of symbols. Could you talk a bit about your creation of stickers and phrases or languages?

I think especially with the creation of new characters, the combination of Tibetan and Chinese, that’s the only thing I tried. Having lived a long time in England and the United States, I thought about making a language that is a combination of Chinese, Tibetan and English. But I haven’t done that yet. With Chinese, it’s a very personal issue: as you know, I had a very strong Chinese way of education and I also went to university in China, so I really knew quite a lot about China, and I also honestly appreciate a lot of the Chinese traditional culture. But of course, I am Tibetan. And coming out of Tibet, you always hear about the Tibet and China issue, and I think that Tibetans can be quite extreme and independent-thinking when relating to this political issue and they think that all Chinese are bad. But experiencing what is outside [of Tibet], the social and political circles, you become more tolerant. And I think this is my kind of struggle, wanting to make these two cultures coexist. I also speak about identity, a mixture of both. And this language is also speaking of autonomy, it is an autonomous language, a perfect language for the autonomy of the new Shangri-La.

I like the symbols because they are international. The issues [expressed] sometimes don’t even need to be explained to people, people just get it when they look at a symbol.

Gonkar Gyatso, 'Lao Hu (Tiger)', 2014, mixed media, collage, pencil and acrylic on dibond, 20 x 20 x 2 in. Installation view of "Pop Phraseology" at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST.

Gonkar Gyatso, ‘Lao Hu (Tiger)’, 2014, mixed media, collage, pencil and acrylic on dibond, 20 x 20 x 2in. Installation view of “Pop Phraseology” at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST.

You have been playing quite a lot with language in your recent works, such as the use of traditional phrases to explore contemporary issues. Could you talk a bit about these works, such as Lao Hu, and what you are trying to examine through them?

I’ve always been interested in slogans and phrases. I spent quite a few months in Chengdu, China, and I came across some of those phrases through reading the paper, watching television and especially on the Internet. The term “Lao Hu”, when I first heard it and I first read it, I was kind of laughing. It was a genius idea. It came from the Chairman of the local party who was trying to describe these big corrupt ‘lao hu’ and the small ones called 苍蝇 cang ying, which means ‘fly’ [the insect], and I thought it was very clever. Especially in China those big corrupt officials are very powerful, they are in high positions, and nobody can really touch them. If you try to touch them, you might put yourself in danger. Exactly like a tiger, being a very powerful animal. It was in fact interesting that a party leader was using this phrase to address officials.

There was also another saying, “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, if it still can catch a mouse then it’s a good cat: “不管白猫黑猫,能抓到老鼠就是好猫.” There was quite a class struggle in China, and people were divided in classes and the saying said that whatever class you are, if you do a good job, then it doesn’t matter, you are in a good class. So that’s something I became very interested in. I think it’s very smart of them (the Chinese) to do that, to use language to the grassroots level, so that all people can understand and therefore also become very popular.

And then of course, there are those phrases that came from social networks, due to censorship issues and people come up with interesting names saying certain things. I find it genius and playful as well, to use them to describe nasty issues.

Gonkar Gyatso, 'drone', 2014, mixed media collage, paper and dibond, 186.7x 74.9 cm. Installation view of "Pop Phraseology" at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, ‘drone’, 2014, mixed media collage, paper and dibond, 186.7x 74.9cm. Installation view of “Pop Phraseology” at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre / studioEAST. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

You talk about censorship in one of your works, 查水表 Reading water meter. Could you expand on this work’s concept?

It’s actually not about censorship, but it was created because of censorship. It was about the police coming to your house and in social networks you can’t really say that. And somebody came up with this genius idea of [using the phrase] “checking the water meter” [to denote this].

There was also another one, 请喝茶 qing he cha, or being invited to have tea, which referred to when the police ask you to go to the police station to have a chat.

And although all these are very sensitive phrases, they are all over the place in China, on social networks – they are basically in the public domain. So the government doesn’t really mind people using those phrases.

Have any of your works ever been censored?

I can’t really remember, but I think a couple of years ago when I had a show in Beijing…but I think it was the gallery itself that censored it. So it did not happen as it happens sometimes in China, when people come in and tell you to take down the work.

But it happened in New York, which is a little bit bizarre. I presented a piece that was too provocative, so I stopped creating that kind of work for the show.

Gonkar Gyatso, Gonkar Gyatso, Untitled (blue base), 2012, mixed media collage and pencil on resin sculpture, 16 x 18 x12 in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Gonkar Gyatso, Untitled (blue base), 2012, mixed media collage and pencil on resin sculpture, 16 x 18 x12in. Image courtesy the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries.

Your work has a lot of universal symbols, but because of your use of Chinese and Tibetan in your works, a western audience might have more difficulty in understanding your work. Exhibiting in China, what do you expect of the public there? What is your hope in conveying your messages to the audience in Hong Kong?

Probably you are right. In Asia, especially Hong Kong, people still have a link with the Chinese tradition and with Buddhism. When I look at the shops, I see a lot of Buddhist shrines, incense, and in that sense here it will be easier to receive my work. And in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the middle class is that which usually carries out the traditions – [they are] more educated and they also appreciate traditions. This was clearly disconnected in mainland China before, but in the last thirty years there has been a new middle class because of development. But it’s still slightly different from the middle class in Hong Kong and even in Taiwan. So, yes, I think people here in Hong Kong will be more understanding [and receptive] of my work and also the phrases in my recent works, especially one piece that might relate to Hong Kong people.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Tibetan artists, painting, installation, sculpture, Buddha in art, political art, art about society, gallery shows, interviews, events in Hong Kong

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