With the advent of Modern Age the figure of the believer characterizing the traditional society was replaced little by little by the figure of the citizen so much dear to intellectuals as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. With the advent of the capitalism and the beginning of the industrial society it makes way the figure of the worker that gradually barefoot the citizen. In our contemporary society the evolution is still in progress and to replace the worker could be the consumer or the subject. In fact for some contemporary intellectuals as for an example the Polish sociologist Zygmun Bauman our society is not founded on the production of goods and services but it is structured for satisfying the inconstant desires of a people of consumers for which the liberty and the happiness coincide with a high-level of consumption. For other thinkers as for an example the French sociologist Alain Touraine to replace the worker is the subject for which it becomes of fundamental importance both the culture and the identity that has stopped to depend on social roles and cultural tradition becoming a real work in progress that however is not the result of a linear and cumulative trial but the combination of fragments that to the necessity can be assembled, replaced or abandoned.
These considerations introduce us to the particular artistic practice of Gonkar Gyatso protagonist in this period of the extraordinary show Pop Phraseology at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong and of the group show Metaphysical in Milan at Galleria Mimmo Scognamiglio. Gonkar Gyatso is a Tibetan born British and American based artist who moved to London in the late 90’s on scholarship to the Chelsea School of Art and Design. Grown up during Mao’s cultural revolution destroying all the art that did not coincide with his ideological program including Tibetan and Western ones, during his training Gyatso came to appreciate his Tibetan heritage and studied traditional Tibetan Thangka (scroll painting). In his artistic practice Gyatso as a post-global ethnographer explores the link between traditional Buddhist iconography with Western pop culture reflecting on the popularity of Buddhism in the West and bringing equal attention to the mundane and religion fields also because in our contemporary society the consumerism is really a religion. In his practice Gyatso often combines traditional calligraphy and iconography of Buddhist Thangka with collage of colorful stickers from a mass media saturated imaginary, traditional Tibetan life with global mass culture. I met Gonkar Gyatso on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries where he presented his new series of artworks inspired by phrases found in popular culture and asked him some questions.
Could you please talk about this new series of artworks and their link with your previous works?
Sure, the new work has really emerged out of the work I was already doing. I’ve always been interested in pop culture and media influence in our lives and usually include snippets of text in speech bubbles that are throughout the work. In this new body of work I’ve singled out phrases or slogans that I find particularly interesting or relevant. The collage camouflages the form, whether it’s the shape of the Buddha or the form of a word. In the past I wanted to remove the religious connotations and just use the shape as a form. In the text work I want to disguise the meaning of the words. In China, when you are there, on the surface everything is kind of easy and their is a feeling of abundance. When you walk around everything is lit up and bright, even when you go into the food stores there are ornaments hanging and colorful signage , you may even find a fashion show or demonstrations using the latest cookware, in the cities people are driving very expensive cars and the restaurants are lit up and full. I want the work to reflect this visual bombardment that captures this desire for material possession and garish displays of wealth. When you start to look deeper there is a darker, more complicated side; I am always dealing in dualities with my work.
In many your artworks is present the figure of Buddha. Why this image is so important in your artistic practice?
I always seen the Buddha as a muse. In my previous life I might have been the palace pup, running around the grounds and kind of fell in love with the prince who was to later become Buddha. But on a serious note, the form has always been more of a cultural representation, than a religious one for me. From a cultural aesthetic the form is one of beauty, perfectly balanced and proportioned and I have used the iconometry taken from the traditional form to organize my paintings.
You said that your artworks serve to your own meditation on what it means to be living in a particular place at a particular time. You was born in Tibet and moved to London and New York. So with reference to your personal experience what does this suspension between different cultures mean for you?
I am a kind of person who lives in each moment, I don’t dwell on the past or live in the fantasy of the future and this is reflected in my work. I always try to assimilate into whatever society I am living. The other matter is that as someone from the East, I’ve had to adapt to western standards. For many hundreds years it’s been the dominate culture. Personally being from the East you have to work out how you are not going to be left out of the dominate ideology. This is has led to the development of the collision of eastern and western influences in my work. It’s not an easy process, rather kind of painful; there’s an aspect of my practice that is very repetitious and in this repetition I’ve found a kind of solace and place to work through these ideas.
Living in a globalised world can create some hybrid identities which can be really instable as a provisional equilibrium subject to sudden changes. All your artworks are based on the power to link different cultures and traditions overcoming the traditional incommensurability between different cultures and worlds. Do you think that this power can be a different key to understand the globalization process?
There is an instability in hybrid identities. It’s often not formed out of free will but out of political or social turmoil. There is a sense of loss and insecurity in this new identity that is formed from a need to survive in a new culture. There is a point where we have a choice about how we want to cope. I think my work offers a kind of utopian solution to the problems of globalization. I always hope that my work sparks a person to explore their own unique narrative that they can find woven through my work. I am personally fortunate to have an outlet to explore ideas which help me cope with being an outsider.
In your artworks we can find not only references about religion and cultural differences but also about environment, human rights, women’s rights, etc., that is what I said before talking about the subjects and their central role in our contemporary society where the cultural movements replaced the social movements asking cultural rights instead of social rights. Why cultural references are so important in your artistic practice?
This relates again to the sense of belonging and community. When are you stateless the only tangible thing you can hold onto is your culture. Buddhism is a kind of cultural identity rather than a religious one for myself. Through my experience living in different places, culture is how I can connect to other people and gives me that sense of belonging which I seek through my work.
Image courtesy: Pearl Lam Galleries and the artist