Anonymity and self-expression may seem incompatible, yet both are currents that run through and electrify “Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art.” These are works not previously seen in Vermont, or indeed in most of the world. Each is surprising and revelatory. To some viewers — particularly traditional Tibetans — the works may be shocking, outrageous, sacrilegious. But not necessarily for the reasons Western art viewers might expect.
Opening next week at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum, “Anonymous” consists of paintings, sculpture, photographs, installation and videos by nearly 30 artists. They responded to a call to Tibetan artists by guest curator Rachel Perera Weingeist, senior adviser to Shelley and Donald Rubin. Most of the works are now part of the Rubins’ vast collection of traditional and contemporary Tibetan art, much of which was gifted to their eponymous museum in New York.
What visitors to the Fleming should know first about “Anonymous” is this: No works except the videos are, in fact, anonymous; rather, they are attributed to individual artists. That practice alone is new and radical in Tibetan culture.
Such a tradition may be hard for viewers to grasp in the United States, where individuality is expected and celebrity worship is practically a national pastime. But Tibet has a long history of classical artworks that went unsigned by their makers. The thangkas, mandalas and sand paintings familiar to many in the West are created for a spiritual purpose — to assist viewers on their path to enlightenment — and not, as Weingeist puts it in a phone interview, “to decorate the walls of an office.” The concept of the self, let alone the “selfie,” is just not a thing.
Yet, for more than six decades, the notion of “traditional Tibet” has been under siege — politically, culturally and geographically. It began when the country was forcibly incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1951, its government dissolved. Since 1959, the country’s spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and thousands of other Tibetans have lived in exile in Dharamsala, India. In what is now called the Tibet Autonomous Region, Chinese authorities repress indigenous culture, language and religion. As Weingeist notes, “Tibetans live under pretty extreme circumstances. They have to register in internet cafés, they can’t photocopy anything and many have lost their passports.”
Those in diaspora witness the continual dilution of Tibetan culture — less violent, but inexorable — as they assimilate into other countries.
Is it any wonder, then, that Tibetan artists have begun to rebel against a forced “anonymity,” claiming not only their individual identities but a collective cultural one? What does it mean today to be Tibetan? How can a people resist the repression of its traditions while simultaneously inventing new ways of being in the 21st century? What does “home” mean for the 200,000-odd Tibetans outside the country? The tumult and anxiety of displacement are powerfully reflected in “Anonymous.” So are pride, protest, courage and nascent self-awareness.
“Aiming to initiate a dialogue about the role of identity and self-expression in contemporary Tibetan art, ‘Anonymous’ is a petri dish for the exploration of this changing attitude,” writes Weingeist in the show’s catalog, actually a substantial and engaging hardcover book. “Will contemporary art be able to formulate a visual language that bridges Tibet’s tradition with its evolving modern context?” she asks rhetorically. “Is it possible for both anonymity and self-expression to be reflected in artists’ intentions as they respond to their world?”
The pieces in “Anonymous” — by artists living in Tibet, India, Nepal, Switzerland, the United States and Australia — indicate just how far their creators are willing to push in their efforts to answer those questions.
The mere presence of the word “contemporary” in the exhibition’s title signals something unusual; this is just the second show in the U.S. to focus on new artworks by Tibetans. The first, “Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond,” featuring nine artists, launched at the Rubin Museum in 2010 and traveled to two other venues, including the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. Similarly, “Anonymous” will appear in three museums; the Fleming is its second stop.
Weingeist, who curated both exhibitions, says she is delighted to get this one to Burlington, which is home to a relatively large community of Tibetans. Vermont is special to the curator for another reason: She has a number of relatives here and has been wrangling residencies for Tibetan artists at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson for “six or seven” years, she notes.
The Fleming’s staff aims to engage the local Tibetan community, as well as other Vermonters, with a series of associated events that include artist talks, performances and a film. “Anonymous” will give them all plenty to think and talk about.
The first painting to greet visitors in the Fleming’s East Gallery has a familiar reference and title. But this 2012 “Mona Lisa” is an update of the Renaissance-era original, an “encrypted self-portrait” by a female artist named Dedron that uses a surrealist-Tibetan style to express feminist and environmental concerns. Created with traditional, brilliantly colored mineral pigments, the 39-by-31-inch painting casts its Mona Lisa figure in florid pink, her large, limpid eyes bright blue. A sort of shroud of classically painted cloud formations surrounds her, and the background is a field of orange.
Other black-outlined clouds seem to float over the figure, as three exotic birds hover around her, and seven unnaturally colored fish swim by at the bottom of the canvas. There’s a lot going on here, and the painting is deceptively pretty. But the focal point is Mona’s white face mask — which helps us to grasp that those clouds are actually smog. The wall text informs us that these symbols “articulate the artist’s concerns with the destruction of the Tibetan landscape in the wake of China’s rapid industrialization.” Weingeist confirms that the air in the artist’s home of Lhasa has become quite bad, and face masks are an increasingly common sight.
Dedron, 36, is one of Lhasa’s few female artists working in a contemporary style. She is one of just two women in “Anonymous.” The other is French-born Marie-Dolma Chophel, 29, who currently splits her time between Paris and New York. Her work could not be more different from Dedron’s.
“Winter,” executed in oil paint, enamel, marker and spray paint, conveys the topography of the lost country of Chophel’s Tibetan father. The artist has transferred outlines of the Himalayas onto canvas and filled in the shapes with white paint. This is laid over a computer-generated “net” whose rigid red lines imply containment. Beyond are dark, roiling clouds. The minimalist work is ghostly, its symbolism unmistakable.
The artist Jhamsang, 42, lives in Lhasa, apprenticed under a master thangka painter, and studied computer science and Chinese literature. His work “Mr. XXX” addresses another way in which Tibetans experience a loss of identity: the PRC-issued passport. His large-scale mixed-media work on canvas contains a replica of such a passport, indicating what the Chinese do with Tibetans’ traditional single name. That one is listed as “surname” and “XXX” appears where a first name would go. (“FNU,” for “first name unknown,” is also used.) These iconographic stand-ins serve to “blur identity,” writes Weingeist, rather than clarify it.
Jhamsang further represents alienation by replacing his passport photograph with a metallic, robotic-looking head of Tara (the female bodhisattva or Buddha) that is open on her left to reveal nothing inside.
Nortse, age 50, also lives in Lhasa and works in a variety of media to address topical issues including environmental degradation, overpopulation, alcoholism among the young and the search for identity in a mass-media-influenced world. The diversity of his interests and artistic forms is reflected in two distinctively different contributions to “Anonymous.” The trio of figures in the chromogenic photograph on the cover of this issue depicts three stereotypes — “Auto Man,” “Big Brother” and “Prayer Wheel.” Each figure’s face is obscured, with a metal mask, strips of newsprint and brocade, respectively. The portraits are simultaneously amusing and chilling.
Nortse’s installation “Zen Meditation” is eerie yet quietly beautiful: Six dark-red monk’s robes sit inside metal trapezoidal frames arranged in a neat row. The stiff fabric of the robes keeps them partly propped up, as if a shrunken body remained within the folds. Scattered in front of each frame are Chinese currency, scriptures and butter lamps. The there-but-not-there “figures” inspire both reverence and sorrow for something lost.
“Anonymous,” despite its weighty themes, is not without humor. At least, American pop-culture images such as Mickey Mouse, Shrek and Marilyn Monroe look funny in the context of classic Tibetan forms. To a religious or artistic traditionalist, however, such depictions stacked within the exacting iconometry of a Buddha head (in “Faces of the Buddha,” by Ang Sang) may appear brazen at best.
These are but a few of the works and viewpoints expressed by the artists in “Anonymous,” each expressing an identity that seems a hybrid of old and new, traditional and radical.
As for the show’s revealingly ironic title, Weingeist says that was unplanned. She had invited artists to participate in the exhibit without using their names and was surprised when they chose to identify themselves. “I thought it would liberate artists to express themselves freely,” she says. “But no one jumped at the chance to be anonymous.”
“Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art” Through June 22 at the Fleming Museum of Art, University of Vermont, in Burlington. Reception Wednesday, February 5, 5:30 to 7 p.m. Free and open to the public. For info about programming related to this exhibit, visit flemingmuseum.org.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Showing ID"