Tibetan Art: Speaking Bodies
(1) Cf. le livre de la poète dissidente Tsering Woeser au titre évocateur : Immolations au Tibet. La Honte du
monde, Indigène éditions, 2013. (2) Le 17 décembre 2010, à Sidi Bouzid, en Tunisie, Mohamed Bouazizi s’immole par le feu, en signe de protestation contre les violences policières dont il est l’objet. (3) Performatif est pris ici au sens linguistique, c’est-àdire réalisation de ce qui est énoncé. Inversion pour les « sans-voix » qui recourent à l’immolation du Quand dire
c’est faire de J. L. Austin (1962) à Quand faire c’est dire. (4) Anthropologue américaine, auteur de The Politics of Presence: State-Led Development, Personhood and Power among Tibetans in China. (5) Philosophe, théoricien du post-colonialisme, il enseigne en Afrique du Sud. (6) Religieuse du couvent de Gaden Choeling, elle s’immola en 2011, contre la répression religieuse. (7) En exil en Inde, il s’immola en 2012, contre la venue du président chinois, Hu Jintao. (8) Artiste sino-tibétain vivant à Lhassa, l’un des membres fondateurs de la Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild. (9) Les thangkas sont les peintures traditionnelles servant de support à la pratique bouddhiste. (10) K. Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, 1999. (11) « How does one write about self-immolation – an act that is simultaneously politically charged, emotionally fraught, visually graphic, individually grounded, collectively felt – and what does one write ? How do we intellectually make sense of these self-immolations… ? (McGranahan and Litzinger 2012). (12) Cf. Susan Sontag, Devant la douleur des autres, Christian Bourgois, 2003. (13) On se rappelle que Ai Weiwei (avril 2016) a lui aussi rappelé au monde son silence et son immobilisme, en échouant sa lourde silhouette sur une plage de l’île de Lesbos. On reconnaîtra au dissident chinois le courage de ses sympathies, lui qui n’hésite pas à concevoir la couverture du livre Immolations au Tibet-La Honte du
monde (2013) de Tsering Woeser, poétesse sino-tibétaine, condamnée à vivre en résidence surveillée. (14) Tsherin Sherpa, né au Népal, vit aux États-Unis. (15) Kesang Lamdark, Tibétain résidant à Zurich. (16) Épreuve de la vie mystique dans laquelle le fidèle a le sentiment d’avoir perdu la grâce. (17) Tenzing Rigdol, jeune artiste tibétain éduqué à Dharamsala, nord de l’Inde, et vivant aux États-Unis. (18) Échanges par mail, 2015.
Nathalie Gyatso est l’auteure d’une thèse sur la peinture tibétaine. Elle a publié Vers l’art sacré des thankas (Éd. Claire Lumière) et Gongar Gyatso - la peinture tibétaine
peut-elle trouver sa propre modernité ? (L’Harmattan). Lire également sur le site web d’artpress son article publié dans le n° 347, juillet-août 2008 : « Peinture tibétaine contemporaine ».
What we in the West know most about Tibet is the Chinese government’s political repression against Tibetan society and religion, and the acts of self-immolation carried out as protests by religious and non-religious dissidents. What is the role of art in this context? Little known in the West, Tibetan art comes out of the thangka tradition, from which it has sought to free itself under the influence of Chinese art since the turn of the century. Today, “regarding the pain” of those who burned themselves alive, Tibetan artists are taking up the image of flames in homage, turning suffering and the feeling of abandonment into art that challenges Beijing.
Contemporary Tibetan art remains little known and recognized in France, in contrast to the honors given to art from other countries and continents (India, China, Africa) at French museums lately (Pompidou Center, Maison Rouge, École des Beaux-arts de Paris, Fondation Cartier, etc.). Even more dramatically, the self-immolations in that country are also ignored. What can explain the intense silence maintained by the world’s media (1) regarding the deaths of about 145 Tibetans (recorded) between 1998 and 2016, whereas a similar suicide set the Arab world aflame in 2011?(2) Tibetan painters have tried, in their own way, to give voice to the voiceless. Self-immolation is both an image and a message. In fact, the essence of the message is in the image. It is a crying out to the Other whose strength lies in the power of the image and its dissemination by way of blogs and social media (when not censored). It is a carefully planned gesture. The would-be suicide has to choose the public place to stage their death before witnesses who thus become “active participants” insofar as they publicize the “performance,” much like an absent reporter. The act of self-immolation, if of course charged with a unique tragic dimension, depends on a strategy similar to procedures used in contemporary art, and therefore must be examined in that light. It is a kind of fleeting act of “body art,” performed by a particular individual but only acquiring its full meaning as part of a
“series.” Self-immolation is a form of communication in the propagandistic sense, a performative (3) and iconic discourse. Charlene Makley (4) draws on the term “necropolitics” coined by Achille Mbembe (5) to describe this specific use of one’s body to produce a burnt offering, in contrast to the weaponized body of suicide bombers. REPEATED ECHOES Palden Choetso (6), who turned into a statue, a prisoner of the flames, and Janphel Yeshi (7), who ran in a firestorm, wanted to become torches, living torches dying before our eyes. This is a “performance” whose visual power is its principal aspect. The aim is to make oneself into an image signaling to the world (and above all other Tibetans). One cannot help thinking of the flame held aloft by the Statue of Liberty “lighting the world.” In the painting My White Papers (2014) by Gade,(8) this same torch derisorily brandished at the end of an arm inexorably sinks into the water like the dousing of a hope. This is a series. The repetition of the act is what gives it its power; its meaning rests on these repeated echoes. The dissident Chinese writer Wang Lixiong emphasizes how the cumulative effect inspires courage, a particularly precious resource for a people in a weak position. These reiterated acts bear fiery witness to the impact of “powerless power,” to borrow the expressed used by Vaclav Havel in an ardent 1978 essay. We can guess the degree of courage necessary to set oneself on fire. By becoming “living torches,” these men and women seek to catalyze the minds of Tibetans, first, and then of the whole world. SACRIFICIAL OFFERING Fire is a recurring image in the Tibetan tradition of thangka paintings.(9) When crowning the heads of wrathful divinities, the flames are a whirling reverberation of the symmetry of their representation. Fire is power and light, an offering to the gods—thus the omnipresence of butter lamps at the foot of statues. The presence of the concept of offering is undeniable in these successions of self-immolations, in which individuals offer their body for the good of the collective body.(10) The conceptions of offering and sacrifice go together. Fire is a source of light symbolizing Illumination, which scatters the shadows of ignorance. It is no accident that the last words of Lama Sobha, in his recorded testament, were, “I am giving my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings of suffering.” While fire is ubiquitous in traditional Tibetan art, there were no cases of self-immolation by Tibetans before 1998. Consequently they should be seen as political acts rather than “ritual” practices. Tibetans wanted to tell the Chinese and the whole world that when the voice of a people is silenced, all they have left to speak with is their body. The halt of such actions (since March 2016) demands that discourse take their place if these images are not to disappear in the flood of information fated to be forgotten. This is exactly the task of art, to ensure the longevity of this image. But as anthropologist Carole McGranahan writes, “How does one write about self-immolation—an act that is simultaneously politically charged, emotionally fraught, visually graphic, individually grounded, collectively felt—and what does one write? How do we intellectually make sense of these acts of self-immolation?”) echoing Susan Sontag about “regarding the pain of others.”(12) What can art add to such strong photographic images, simultaneously so spectacular and disturbing? If the information overload ends up deleting compassion and dulling emotions, it permits the persistence of iconic images in our visual memory, like that of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang (1963) and the bodies hurtling from the windows of the World Trade Center. What art can provide is a differently-driven emotional charge, one whose power does not come solely from its visual impact. The response of an artist can encourage interrogation and reflection. A photo goes right through reality; all that remains of the latter is its violent image. Even if it engenders an ethical response on our part, even if a connection can be made between what we see and what we choose to do in reaction, the violence of the image, at least for a while, has the effect of blocking our imagination. We are stupefied by the image; the spectacular violence of the act it conveys grabs us and immobilizes us. Art, on the other hands, opens up possibilities and ramifications. Herein lies the interest of the work of contemporary Tibetan artists who have addressed these self-immolations by making paintings using the resources of seriality. BEYOND OUTCRY Gade’s Fatal Attraction I, II, III, IV speaks (Tibetan paintings are always voluble) about the fragility of the Tibetan people. The butterfly consumed by flames is represented with the same delicacy as a Bodhi tree leaf eaten away by time. In the Buddhist tradition, the moth, attracted by light, is consumed by its ignorance and desire as it dives into the fire. Many controversies have arisen De haut en bas/ from top: Kesang Lamdark. « Self Immolation - Ghost ». 2014. (Court. galerie Rossi & Rossi, Londres, Hong Kong) Immolation de la religieuse Palden Choetso, le 3 novembre 2011, à Tawu. Death of religious leader Palden Choetso on November 3, 2011, at Tawu
from these dramatic acts to which no Tibetan can remain different and no artist can see without responding. Is suicide compatible with Buddhist teachings? Since the Tibetan people are so few, isn’t ending a “precious human life” giving aid and comfort to the Chinese government? But isn’t this act of taking total control of one’s body also a challenge to that government? The reverberations of these debates can be implicitly seen in the veins of Gade’s leaves. But perhaps here there is also a subtle expression of the unbearable lightness of these acts. The lightness of all the world’s misery washed up on the Bodhi leaf with the silhouette of little Aylan lying on it (13) in Untitled (2015). Since Buddha attained enlightenment and freedom from suffering under a fig tree, this allusion is freighted with meaning. This is typical of Gade’s ironic, if not sarcastic, view of the world. In depicting what he calls “Lhasa Vegas,” the capital of Tibet under the Chinese heel, he does not hesitate to paint Ronald McDonald Buddhas and little girls showing their underpants flanking the divinities. Isn’t this what Tibet has been reduced to today? Fatal Attraction was shown in an exhibition called Bodhi Leaves and Little Red Book (Rossi & Rossi Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016), where beside the images drawn on fig leaves are images drawn on the pages of the Little Red Book. There is something audacious in this association of faith in the teachings of the Buddha with those of Chairman Mao. An audacity untinged by pathos. This sentiment is what distinguishes the paintings of Tibetan artists in response to the self-immolations. A witness to such an act (whether witnessing it live or secondhand, by means of photos and blogs) spontaneously responds to the distress induced by the sight of a person in flames by letting out a cry conveying his or her own suffering. This artist refuses the tragic and goes beyond that self-expression of simple distress, but he does not remain silent. His commentary sprouts in all directions like a rhizome, even alluding to Adrian Lyne’s film Fatal Attraction, in which Madame Butterfly is part of the plot mechanics. Gade is a painter of a world gone mad where a Tibet is also burned by the mirage of the Western world. Tsherin Sherpa (14) also uses seriality, such as references to the prayer flags flying throughout the Tibetan landscape: the wind they
Tsherin Sherpa. « Gas Cans ». 2012. Gouache et crayon sur papier. (Court. galerie Rossi & Rossi, Londres, Hong Kong). Gouache and pencil on paper float on carries their prayers in all directions. But the wind will not blow through these ones, because his 49 canvases, corresponding to the number of days of prayers after someone dies, portray not the Wind Horse but 49 Gas Cans (2012) containing the fluid that self-immolators soak their clothing in and even drink to ensure a fiery end. The jerry cans are decorated with the heads of wrathful divinities crowned with the flames of traditional thangkas. FEELING ABANDONED In thangkas, the flames rising above the representations of irate gods proclaim their powers. With their eyes brimming with repulsion, they stand brandishing their weapons to fight negativity. In his piece somberly titled Vest, Kesang Lamdark (15) uses his favorite material, plastic, because of its ability to be transformed. He chose the shape symbolic of dereliction (16) to represent not only the rising flames but also the feeling of abandonment. There is nothing spectacular in this work, no desire to excite. How can anyone say more than what monstrous reality has already said? This is not journalism; it is an artistic act, the ultimate homage. The point is not to imitate traditional flames but to transpose their vibrancy. This is what repetition signals in the 2012 works of Tenzing Rigdol.(17) What greater tribute than to replace the burned silhouette of the suicide, crashed down on the ground, with the classical representation of the Buddha stretched out as he reaches Paranirvana. But here sparks run through the Buddha’s body and an empty beggar’s bowl lies by his head. Is Tibet, Alone, Exhausted and Waiting, as the title of this piece puts it, begging for recognition? The extreme violence of self-immolation does not fit in with the dominant image of a Tibet respected for taking the Middle Road, in opposition to the Chinese occupation. I conclude with these words by artist Tshering Sherpa: “I think these immolations have begun to shred the naive conception of Tibetans as a peaceful people who have attained enlightenment and passively accept whatever they are forced to endure.”(18)
Translation, L-S Torgoff
(1) See the book Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations
Against Chinese Rule, by the dissident Sino-Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser, translated by Kevin Carrico, Verso, 2012. (2) On December 17, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself as a protest against the police violence he had been subjected to. (3) The term performative is used here in its linguistic sense, as an utterance that is itself an act. Here J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words (1955) is inverted by the “voiceless” who resort to self-immolation: When doing is saying. (4) American anthropologist, author of The Politics of Presence: State-Led Development, Personhood and
Power among Tibetans in China (forthcoming). (5) A post-colonial theory philosopher, he teaches in South Africa. (6) A Buddhist nun at the Gaden Choeling convent, she burned herself alive in 2012 to protest religious repression. (7) In exile in India, he set fire to himself in 2012 to protest a visit by the Chinese president Hu Jintao. (8) A Lhasa-based Sino-Tibetan artist he was a founding member of the Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild. (9) Thangkas are traditional paintings used in Buddhist religious practices. (10) See Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead
Bodies, Columbia University Press, 1999. (11) McGranahan, Carole and Litzinger, Ralph: "SelfImmolation as Protest in Tibet." Hot Spots, cultural anthropology website, April 9, 2012. https://culanth. org/ fieldsights/ 93-self- immolation- asprotest-in-tibet (12) Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Picador, 2003. (13) In April 2016, Ai Weiwei chastised the world for its silence and indifference by setting his bulky body on a beach on the island of Lesbos. The Chinese dissident artist had the courage to design the cover for the book by Woeser, condemned to lifetime house arrest. (14) Tsherin Sherpa, born in Nepal, lives in the U.S. (15) Kesang Lamdark, Tibetan living Zurich. (16) A trial in mystic life where the faithful feels that he has fallen from grace. (17) Tenzing Rigdol, young Tibetan artist educated in Dharamsala, northern India, and residing in the U.S. (18) E-mail exchange, 2015.
Nathalie Gyatso wrote a thesis on Tibetan painting
and is the author of Vers l’art sacré des thankas (Éd. Claire Lumière) et Gongar Gyatso - la peinture tibétaine peut-elle trouver sa propre modernité ? (L’Harmattan). See the artpress website for her article on contemporary Tibetan painting in issue 347.