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Three Realms was a comprehensive retrospective of the work of Tibetan émigré artist and rising star Gonkar Gyatso. His meticulous sticker drawings were introduced to Australian audiences through the Sixth Asia-Pacific Triennial (2009–10) and, shortly after, he was included for the 2010 Sydney Biennale with its aptly titled theme ‘The Beauty of Distance, Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’. By 2011, the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney had collected works by Gyatso. This recognition of the now London-based artist quickly culminated with this three-part retrospective put together in Brisbane by Griffith University Art Gallery’s (GUAG’s) Simon Wright.
The catalogue documenting the event was published after Realm One had occurred at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), which meant that installation shots could be included in it. Even before the publication appeared memories of the works lingered. In the first room at the IMA, Gyatso’s fields of small glossy stickers made letters which read Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, a mural spreading over three walls. The collage’s intricacy, with its grubbed up escaping figures, engaged the audience in a non-strident manner, but a troubling one nevertheless, as peering viewers could pick up the political references within the maelstrom of otherwise banal pop imagery. I remember needing to locate the work in a way that did not solely mean plunging back uncritically to the 1960s in the USA and Britain with Jimi Hendrix’s lyric in mind. Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, did after all have a feeling of Marshall McLuhan and of consumer culture around urban epicenters of Times Square and Piccadilly Circus. What, I wondered, were the points of difference in the iconography of this work and that of Eduardo Paolozzi’s Bash (1971), the well-known mass-produced screenprint from a standard-bearer of Pop Art?
Certainly both Paolozzi’s print and Gyatso’s IMA wall work used collagist techniques to reveal popular culture’s take on the ‘times’. However, if you swapped Marilyn Monroe, a TV with blue fluorescent screen, Apollo space photos, a John Kennedy poster and an Action Boy (Paolozzi) with a hand-held Blackberry, I love NY, Macdonald sign, pandas, daisies, numerous world currencies, a Buddha statue, and M&M (Gyatso), the overriding difference seemed to be that the former’s interpretation of a fragmented civilisation derived unequivocally from a Eurocentric perspective, even including high art references (Stella particularly) in its Pop vocabulary. On the other hand, forty years later sees Gyatso employing much more randomness and density in his use of collage and a compulsion to include politically sensitive references, with which he can personally identify.
Obviously, Gyatso’s mature work is a response to the overwhelming mass consumerism and information of our age, where art as such hardly features (except perhaps for Van Gogh), but it is also a result of the complexity of his cultural identity and experience as an artist. He grew up, for instance, during the Cultural Revolution, which restricted art expression, then studied traditional Chinese brush painting in Beijing followed by Tibetan thangka (scroll painting) in Dharamsala, India. Finally he moved to London in 1996 and entered Chelsea College of Art and Design when postmodernism was de rigueur. By 2003 had set up Sweet Tea House, a London gallery for contemporary Tibetan art.
Gyatso gathered the stickers and fragments of illustrations together himself and applied them to the wall at the IMA while his assistant painted a small dot matrix to connect them. The stickers continued their apparent randomness in the adjacent gallery space and served as a dense aggregate skin on the seated Buddha, with its classic earth-touching gesture. In place of chakras, black-and-white badge graphics punctuated the figure, humorously matching the mind chakra with a popular symbol for a ‘brain wave’ and the heart chakra with ubiquitous ‘smiley’ faces surrounding a valentine heart. Some of the chakras were less politically benign. Around the figure hung the quietly provocative108 Burning Questions (2011), collage/drawings presented uniformly, rather like pages taken from a comic book or a cult handbook of some kind, except that the text added to the inside edge of each frame spelt out potent issues such as The Arab Spring, celebrity death, the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), the missing Panchen Lama. To anchor each of the images, Gyatso had used a central form taken from the devotional shape of the lotus throne within a rectangle. It acted as a type of mirror, as though one was peering through each into a private sanctuary, around which flowed hand drawn marginalia of protest and barbed wit.
Buddhist iconography and pop cultural referents in Gyatso’s mature work continued in the University of Queensland Art Museum’s (UQAM’s) Realm Two and the GUAG’s Realm Three in 2012. The catalogue was launched at this period and gave viewers the opportunity to understand how much of this artist’s work has been influenced by migration and his Tibetan background. I would recommend this excellent publication Gonkar Gyatso: Three Realms with its illustrations of works (including enlarged details) and essays by Savita Apte, Maura Reilly and Simon Wright. Their accounts made comprehensible the seemingly volatile and ambivalent collage mix that went into making large wall based works such as Reclining Buddha – Shanghai to Lhasa Express (2009) at the University of Queensland.
Perhaps because of the drama of the installation and having a relief from the highly detailed collages, I personally found Do What you Love at GUAG the most rewarding of the three Gyatso events. It allowed for an immersive and pleasingly mysterious experience. The gallery space was bathed with soft red light, the high-density pop collages cloaked a towering seated Buddha figure, while headless statues of the deity tipped over into an ash-like substance on the floor. Each of the end walls featured floor to ceiling drawings of ‘offering symbols’, reminiscent of those painted, using a thumbprint in flour, over doorways of Buddhist sites to mark significant occasions. At this last venue, Gyatso alluded to the fact that he intends neither to be an apologist nor propagandist for Tibet or China, by drawing with his thumbprint ‘bastard’ texts, fake script combining the languages of both so as to symbolize communication whilst resisting a single unitary translation.
Gonkar Gyatso, Do what you love, 2012. Detail, site specific installation, Griffith University Art Gallery. Photograph AJ Moller. Courtesy the artist and Haunch of Venison London/NY.
Gonkar Gyatso, (foreground) Excuse me while I kiss the Sky, 2011. Stickers, paper collage and pencil on resin cast sculpture, 122 x 81 x 17cm. Collection Peggy Scott and David Teplitzky, Hong Kong. (background) 108 Burning Questions, 2010-11. Stickers, collage, India ink and pencil on treated paper in 108 custom made frames with text insertions. 108 parts, each 27 x 25cm. Installation detail, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photograph Mike Richards.
Gonkar Gyatso, My Identity: 3 (Refugee artist), 2003. Digital photograph, 56.6 x 70.6cm. Courtesy of the artist and Haunch of Venison, London/NY.