A new bet for Gonkar Gyatso

Gonkar Gyatso, Power Lhamo, 2015, mixed media on fine art paper, mounted on Dibond, 122 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Mimmo Scognamiglio, Milan
Gonkar Gyatso, Power Lhamo, 2015, mixed media on fine art paper, mounted on Dibond, 122 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Mimmo Scognamiglio, Milan
30 OCT 2015

There is a bridge able not only to connect but also to create a dialogue linking East and West, spirituality and matter in a great harmony. It is the bridge in the construction of which many of us are engaged as well as many visual artists among which we can mention Kimsooja, Shirin Neshat, Wang Qingsong, Takashi Murakami, Imran Qureshi, Francesco Simeti, Alessandro Moreschini, Gonkar Gyatso. About the practice of Gonkar Gyatso I dwelt on several occasions including an interview published here on the pages of the Wall Street International where I defined Gyatso, English-American artist born in Tibet, a "post-global ethnographer" interested in developing the ties between traditional Buddhist iconography and Western pop culture, Eastern spiritual tradition and Western materialistic culture paying to both the same care and attention.

Now I am talking again about Gonkar Gyatso because visiting his new solo show at Galleria Mimmo Scognamiglio in Milan I had the opportunity to see a new cycle of works very different from those for which Gyatso is known throughout the world, for instance those with stickers camouflaging the shape of the Buddha or the form of a word. To define these "abstract" works James Putnam, curator of the exhibition, used the term "transcendental" suggesting something mystical, that goes "beyond common thought" but that in some way affects our practical life.

The works of Gyatso based on Tibetan iconometry where each image is a symbol and each detail has a specific meaning, with their cut texts and colored stickers from our consumer imagination (McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton but also the icons of Facebook and Twitter... ) immediately attract the attention of the observer who does not feel at all excluded or disoriented because already knowing some of the codes with which "decoding" the artworks, being precisely familiar with those phrases or brands. Instead the term "transcendental" takes us precisely in the opposite direction asking a review of some important concepts that seem distant from our daily lives. It is in fact a term very present in religion and philosophy, used for the first time in the Scholastic philosophy and in particular by Thomas Aquinas to indicate such concepts as truth or goodness that even if specifically referring to all human beings are universal because they are possible thanks to the will of God as a perfect being that made them possible. For another important philosopher as Kant are "transcendental" the concepts that while transcending reality, that being beyond experience, are essential to know and sort the data of the experience itself. The concept has been used by many other thinkers like Fichte, Schelling, Gentile, Husserl reflecting the luck the concept has been in the international cultural debate.

James Putnam uses this term in a generic sense to denote the fact that Gyatso’s new works transcend, go beyond, exceed certain limits. Sharing the choice of the term made by Putnam and his conceptual framework I prefer to underline the root "trans" of the word that defines the ability to overcome the normal divisions and if we think of the art world it makes me thinking of the Transavantgarde movement by Achille Bonito Oliva inspired precisely by this capacity "trans" that is to create links.

Several works included in this new course (think for example to 2,381 Prayers (2015), 3,448 Prayers (2015), 1,362 prayers (2015) have a square shape. The square is the symbol of the earth, the created universe. It is an anti-dynamics figure indicating both space and stability. For example have you been in a place in which you didn’t feel "at home" but feel lost? When we talk about stability in reference to space we refer to this type of condition. Inside the square very often we find the circle that is a symbol of eternity, of time, of spirituality and personal growth. It is clear then that the figure containing both the circle and the square is a symbolic representation of the universe and expresses its balance. In these new works Gyatso creates a square structure inside which he fits a circle that has really the shape of a mandala. If for Jung the mandala is a protective circle of the intimate personality holding concerns from outside, in Buddhism the mandala is the process by which the cosmos has gradually formed from its center.

The symbolism of mandala is already present in Gyatso’s production: for example think of the artwork Shangri-La (2014) we mentioned in the previous article or the series My Identity (2003) where the artist posed in the shoes of different characters including a Buddhist monk and a Chinese soldier engaged to paint various subjects including a mandala. These were artworks in which prevailed the figuration while the recent works are essentially abstract works. And this is also an important step: in the Buddhist tradition of creating mandala the physical images composing the mandala serve to create the true mandala that is in our minds. For this reason, for example, in Buddhist tradition at the end of its creation the mandala is destroyed reflecting the transience of things and the rebirth being the force that destroys all also the force that gives life. In this regard, James Putnam states: "Despite Gyatso’s initial training in this extremely sacred ancient technique his current interest in mandalas probably relates more to their geometric form and colour than to their covert Buddhist symbolism. His knowledge of their so-called iconometry, or system of specific measurements and proportions enable him to construct mandalas that possess a similar quality to Western abstract art".

Very interesting the artworks 3,888 Prayers where the symbolic representation of the universe is made as usual in Thangka painting through the use of graphic signs of the alphabet and 1,036 Prayers where the element composing the mandala is the lotus flower that in Buddhism is a symbol of the ability not to be deterred by corruption and dirty of the world, that is a symbol of purity, but then also of spiritual regeneration, resurrection and immortality as it is able to produce seeds even after 400 years.

So Gonkar Gyatso is back to amaze us with artworks less striking than previous artworks but very introspective and with a greater emotional impact. A new course of research while retaining all the characteristics of Gyatso’s artistic practice acquires more intimate and reflective characteristics, a universality that unites all us beyond the differences, a general invitation to look at what we have in common rather than what we have different. A new bet not only for Gyatso’s practice but for all humanity.