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?”[11]) 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.

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