The Buddha, spirits and the artist
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on January 27, 2012
KANCHAN G BURATHOKI
Ngima Tendup Sherpa drives us through Sukedhara, into one of the alleys of Kapan, to meet his artist brother-in-law Ang Tsherin Sherpa (Tsherin).
On Wednesday, January 4, Tsherin had been in town for nearly a month and was returning to San Francisco a week later. But even during his short trip, Tsherin had shipped in stacks of canvases to work on, and at Kapan, he had set up his temporary studio.
A 100” x 72” canvas, laid out on a pair of wooden panels, leans against the wall in one of the rooms. A work in progress, we are faced by a large female demonic figure in blue.
Bright orange flames lick her and butterflies, in their under painting, flutter all around. The painting is very similar to Tsherin’s first contemporary work made in 2008, titled ‘The Butterfly Effect/Chaos Theory.’ Only then, it was a blue male figure painted on a much smaller scale of 22.5” x 28”.
“The Butterfly Effect/Chaos Theory was my response to the then financial meltdown in the US, where the blue figure represents the corporate giant,” Tsherin states.
Within the figure is a corporate chart, in Tibetan, outlining the eight worldly concerns of Buddhism.
“It is about how the corporate giant’s actions would impact the general public,” he adds and further expresses, “The butterfly effect, where one action can affect something totally different, is very much tied in to the Buddhist view of cause and effect, and to karma.”
Tsherin’s new painting, although similar in composition, refers to the more recent Occupy Wall Street movement.
The female version of the butterfly effect will be one of the 17 works at his upcoming solo exhibition in London, in October this year.
Rossi & Rossi, a leading Classical and Contemporary Asian Art gallery in London, has been the artist’s agent since 2008.
Tsherin, 43, stands today as an emerging contemporary Asian artist in the world, but his beginnings started in Kathmandu.
Born and raised in Boudha, not too far from Kapan, Tsherin began training under his father Urgen Dorje as a traditional Tibetan thangka artist at the age of 14.
Alongside, he also started studying Buddhist philosophy at a monastery.
“It was forced on me,” he laughs and admits that he left for Taiwan, when he turned 16, to “run away.” From 1988 to 1992, he studied computer science and Mandarin, but only to return to Kathmandu and work with his father on thangka projects – painting murals in remote monasteries in Tibet and working on individual commissions.
“I wasn’t really keen on being a painter and I took it more as a profession than a passion,” Tsherin says over coffee.
After six years in Kathmandu, Tsherin left for San Francisco where he is also currently settled with his wife.
He began working as a Tibetan thangka painting instructor at a Buddhist center and slowly started exploring museums and galleries.
“I began exploring into secular subjects, but was a bit reluctant and intimidated because I didn’t go to an art school,” he shares and adds, “And I was still more concerned with paying my rent.”
In 2003, Tsherin was commissioned to make marketing posters for Jamba Juice in which he replaced the image of a deity with a cup of juice.
The ‘Enlightened Smoothies’ received its inevitable share of criticisms, but he clarifies, “I didn’t intend to demean our tradition.”
Eventually Tsherin would question his own motivations of painting. What is just for paying the rent? he would question, through his works, the obsession with the Buddha’s image, its relationship with Buddhist philosophy and debate between dualities such as what is holy and unholy.
Two installations made during his residency at Vermont Studio Center in 2010 explore such duality. ‘Self Portrait’ is a work made from garbage the artist collected from some 80 residency mates.
In another artwork, he stenciled a line of Buddha heads on a toilet paper roll.
Whether one can find and experience the ultimate truth without images is something Tsherin mulls over.
“For instance, we symbolize ‘compassion’ with the image of Avalokiteshvara but if I were to see a homeless man next to an image of Avalokiteshvara, I would pick up the image and negate the homeless person,” he puts in a scenario. He therefore feels that extreme attachment to images sometimes doesn’t help in enabling compassion.
“In my works, I’m projecting what I’m experiencing,” states Tsherin who is constantly exploring and trying to find meanings in his own knowledge and practice of Buddhism.
These experiences also include his assimilation into different societies, influences of urban culture and his identity as a Tibetan.
‘Preservation Project # 1’ (2009) features limbs and a head ‘preserved’ in a specimen jar. The painting depicts the need for preserving the Tibetan tradition.
The date on the jar, at the bottom left corner, reads 1959 – a significant year for the Tibetan Uprising. Tsherin asks, “But how do we preserve traditions in a manner that not only preserves the visuals, but also the essence of it?”
“Two Spirits” (2010) shows the artist’s interpretation of Tibetans who grew up abroad and can’t speak Tibetan. “In addition, some monasteries in Tibet are now teaching in English,” he informs. The work, which was exhibited at the Songzhuange Art Center in Beijing, China, explores these two aspects.
Spirits are an integral part of Tibetan paintings. “There are spirits of mountains, water, rocks and of a specific region. What happens to these spirits when people leave and travel?” Tsherin once again questions. In his works, these spirits are assimilating into new environments and transforming.
Red and blue colors drip away from their bodies to reveal their flesh beneath. “They could be transforming into a demon or a deity,” he leaves the interpretation open ended. So his spirits could be turning into human beings too.
In another series of spirits, he has three paintings titled ‘Red Spirit’, ‘Blue Spirit’ and ‘White Spirit.’ ‘Red Spirit’ is currently a part of group exhibition ‘What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” at Rossi & Rossi, London.
“There was so much news of violence and chaos in the radio and I made this work while I imagined these events in the shadow of my mind,” reveals Tsherin.
The colors red, blue and white are references of him taking up American citizenship. “The colors are from the flag,” he says. Coincidentally, the same colors are in Nepal’s flag too. “I hadn’t noticed that,” he laughs.
On the other hand, ‘Modern Prayer Flag’ (2009) is a visual juxtaposition of prayer flags that Tsherin was surrounded by in Boudha to the billboards he saw in Oakland, California.
Inventing his own script – which looks Tibetan, but is actually English – Tsherin has inscribed advertising slogans onto this modern prayer flag.
Tsherin doesn’t like to be classified into a certain criterion of identity and feels that he is a global person. “I grew up in Nepal and I can’t deny that I’m Nepali, but I can also relate to the Tibetan side and now I’m an American citizen,” apprises the artist who, however, is aware that people put him into a category because his works are ethnically Tibetan.
Contemporary in content, Tsherin does retain the Tibetan thangka technique of painting but also hopes to explore into installation and sculpture works.
In 2010, Tsherin was a part of a major exhibition titled ‘Traditions Transformed – Tibetan Artists Respond,’ along with eight other artists, at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.
The title of the exhibition does summarize his works in simple words. “There are hundreds of thangka students and artists already preserving the tradition,” he states and asserts, “What we need are people with new concepts and thoughts to take traditions and transform them into a language of today.”
Burathoki is the contributing Arts Editor for The Week