Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso fuses pop culture with Buddhist iconography

Pop Phraseology Pearl Lam Galleries

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 11:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 11:49pm

Born in Lhasa in 1961, Gonkar Gyatso's earliest memories of drawing were of the Chinese propaganda images he was tasked with creating at school.

"We didn't have art classes, but I was quite good at drawing, so the teachers made me do a new one on the blackboard each week," recalls the artist. "It was always drawings of heroes, Mao's portrait, or sunflowers. I got quite sick of it so I've always been very deliberate about not making my work propaganda for just one viewpoint. I want it to be more playful and easier for people to look at."

But it would be wrong to view Gyatso's works as decorative musings. His artistic trademark is to use cheap and glossy plastic stickers to create, or cover, serene traditional Buddha figures. The resulting psychedelic collages belie a thoughtful study of what society considers "traditional", and also examine the cultural identity crises that globalisation causes.

"Pop Phraseology" is a new series of works that artist created for his solo show at Pearl Lam Galleries, and it stands out for its timely investigation of the language of popular culture. For example, Tiger reflects on the mainland government's use of social media in their high-profile crackdown on corporate corruption. The work was inspired by a recent stay in Chengdu, where Gyatso says he noticed how powerful social networks were as a means of modern communication.

"Everyone there uses words that have a double meaning, and they all know exactly what it really means," he explains. "For some people, it is about avoiding censorship. But even the Chinese government creates new phrases to make their message popular. I found that amazing."

Gyatso takes the government's use of the word "tiger" to describe the most corrupt people in corporations or government, while "flies" stands for smaller ones, Gyatso says he decided to highlight their hidden meaning by decorating the Chinese characters with gel, colourful stickers, and "lots of flashing, shiny things".

The latter reflects the artist's impression of modern China. "Everything is very glossy and shiny, but it's glossy in a different way. A 'British shiny', for example, is very different to how it's done in China."

Despite his experience of living in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution, the artist says he does not aim to cause offence. "I want to make my work fun. I hope people see the humour, yet appreciate the serious aspects at the same time," he says.

Gyatso's works are noteworthy for their technical complexity. The artist was one of the first Tibetans selected to study traditional Chinese traditional brush painting at the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing from 1980 to 1984. "Despite the school's name, there was absolutely nothing on Tibetan art," he recalls. "It was very strict. The whole four years was focused on skill and discipline but it was an amazing time. China was hungry to learn during that period, and even though there was no creativity inside the school, I began to learn more about Western art."

In Beijing, Gyatso realised that he knew very little about traditional Tibetan religion and culture, as it had been tightly controlled by the Chinese government. Keen to learn more, he moved to Dharamsala in India, where he studied thangka painting. There, he developed his knowledge of the theory of iconometry, which is the basis of the traditional perfectly proportioned form of the Buddha, using exact measurements and a precise grid.

The cultural shock of moving to London in 1997 to take up a scholarship to study at Central Saint Martins led to the juxtaposition of the traditional imagery of Buddha with Western iconography in his work. The Royal Academy "Sensation" art show in 1997 — an exhibition of Charles Saatchi's contemporary art with highly controversial works by young British artists such as Tracey Emin and Marcus Harvey — proved to be an epiphany.

"London is an amazingly creative place. I was confused at first, but I started to appreciate its tolerance. That was when I started using stickers on a Buddha statue. Before that, my world view was very serious," he says.

"Pop Phraseology" features several works on the theme of Buddha. Meditation In and Out of Love, a mixed media collage, is particularly striking. But the tone of the Hong Kong exhibition is gentle and does not impose judgment, he says. "That is what I am about. I am not aggressive. I want to be subtle. even if the message is quite harsh," Gyatso says.

He is also an optimist. "Some of the phrases may be a bit provocative, but even the official Chinese newspapers use those quite openly. One day I may even be able to have a show in Tibet. That really would be something," says Gyatso.

Pearl Lam Galleries, 6/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Monday-Saturday, 10am-7pm, September 18-October 31. Inquiries: 2522 1428