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Buddhadharma : Summer 2014
SUMMER 2 0 1 4 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 63 How can Tibetans speak out? Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art, one of the first museum exhibitions on this topic, is offering twenty-seven of them a voice. The Tibetan artists come from Lhasa, Nashville, Thimpu, Zurich, Oakland, New York, India, Nepal, and the Aus- tralian outback. They enter an international- ized art world increasingly concerned with the thoughts of the colonized; Dakar, Beijing, Singa- pore, Bangladesh, and East Africa all have their own biennial exhibitions. Anonymous gives liv- ing Tibetan artists a place in the sun, essentially for the first time. Traditional Buddhist art visualizes sources of refuge and has long been defined by intricate rules of color, proportion, ornament, and ges- ture. If refuge is a spiritual haven, refugee status is a flux condition colored by darkness, confu- sion, and sorrow. These fracture lines crackle through the exhibition, separating artists living in repressive environments from those who are prospering—or at least holding their own—in the diaspora. Exhibition curator Rachel Perera Weingeist observes how traditional Tibetan religious art celebrated “a collective, spiritual impulse.” Artist-monks wielding brushes in the monastery workshops would never have signed whatever thangka they were working on; the idea would be preposterous. But for the twenty-seven art- ists in this show, which originated at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art and is traveling to other locations, anonymity carries a different weight; it recalls how Tibetans have been deliberately silenced in the twenty-first century. Weingeist at first thought she would play with this theme by The artist Gade envisions Mahakala sprouting a gas mask, with hammer and sickle, grenade, guns and knives, the head of Shrek as a topknot, and garlands of Mickey Mouse-head skulls. making everyone in the exhibition anonymous, but Western-oriented artists vehemently opposed the idea. Even so, some artists need to mask their names because they risk punishment for speak- ing out. Weingeist sent out a call for video submis- sions via worldwide Buddhist networks and a new website created for the exhibition. As You- Tube users know, videos can be effective instru- ments for bearing witness. Artists living outside Tibet responded quickly, but artists inside Tibet at first sent nothing. Investigating this mys- tery, Weingeist discovered that digital media can’t be mailed from Lhasa under Chinese post office rules, and digital transfer on the Internet was mostly impossible because of slow upload speeds. Videos ultimately had to be carried to the West in Tibetan hands and pockets. The ones that survived the crossing are unusually urgent and not to be overlooked. In the video Lhasa Wind, a backyard laun- dry line holds clothes flapping in the pulse of air flowing from the mountains—you feel the cold, the precariousness, the physicality of a place—until they fall to the ground. In Bhark- hor, a handheld camera records a walk through the streets surrounding the Jokhang Temple, the center of Lhasa. Moms and children, mer- chants in their stalls, Chinese soldiers lounging on a distant street corner—you see it all, unfil- tered, for twenty long minutes—then a group of Chinese soldiers comes closer, and one of them looks directly at the filmmaker. The jolt is elec- tric. What happens next? Another video, Foot- prints, suggests the fear: for an hour and forty minutes, a man whose face is never seen walks KAY LARSON is an art critic and the author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Penguin Press), an NPR Best Book of 2012. KAYLARSON