GONKAR GYATSO, L’Internationale, 2007, pencil, stickers and mixed media on treated paper, 154 × 124 cm. Courtesy Red Gate Gallery, Beijing.

Lhasa: New Art from Tibet

798 / Red Gate Gallery

Tibet, to most people, is a remote society frozen in time with Buddhist temples and high mountains. However, the first gallery exhibition in China outside of Tibet to showcase its contemporary art, “Lhasa – New Art from Tibet,” suggests that the territory is not beyond the realm of rapid modernization and globalization affecting the rest of the country.

Independent curator Leigh Miller Sangster assembled 25 works by eight artists. Not surprisingly, images of Buddhism appear in almost all of the works, more often than not as a placeholder for “tradition” and cultural memory.

L’Internationale (2007), a large collage and pencil drawing on paper by Gonkar Gyatso, takes the shape of a thangka, a traditional Buddhist banner used in meditation. The penciled-in iconometric gridlines and halo behind the body of the Buddha follow the strict guidelines for thangka production. However, the halo behind the Buddha’s head contains sheet music from the Socialist anthem, The Internationale, and the Buddha’s body is a collage of colorful pop culture stickers such as Betty Boop and anime characters.

The blend of secular and religious is also apparent in Gade’s New Scripture Series – New Gods (2006), which resembles Tibetan Buddhist scriptures in its use of rectangular sheets of handmade paper and muted color mineral pigment woodblock prints. However, in place of the Buddha, Gade substitutes images of a Chinese policeman, Mickey Mouse, a Buddha-like figure in a Maoist suit, Ronald McDonald and a bikini-clad Chinese masseuse, each seated on a lotus throne. While this wry commentary on contemporary Tibetan life captures the current reality, many of Gade’s works feel stale in their similarity to Chinese Political Pop of the early 1990s in which, for example, revolutionary figures brandish Chanel handbags instead of hammers and sickles.

Without invoking Buddhist tropes, Tsewang Tashi’s two untitled portraits of young Tibetan men most successfully demystify Tibet. The large square oil on canvas works focus on the men’s heads, placed in the center of each canvas against stark white backgrounds. Viewers must confront the subjects as individuals without the accessorization of “ethnic” pastoral scenes or hillside monasteries that often appear in advertisements or souvenirs.

While some works emphasize Tibetan uniqueness and others hint that the transformations in Lhasa are not so different from other Chinese cities, no single voice or image defines this exhibition. The curator, Sangster, seems more concerned with giving Tibetan artists a platform to display contemporary Tibet on their own terms; a creative cacophony ultimately seems the most appropriate result.