TENZING RIGDOL, Melong, 2013, collage and silk brocade on canvas, 167.6 × 152.4 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, London/Hong Kong.  

“Change is the Eternal Law”

Tenzing Rigdol

Rossi & Rossi
Hong Kong Tibet China

“I’m the artist who gets trouble from both the Tibetan and the Chinese sides,” Tenzing Rigdol confides with characteristic equanimity. We are standing in the middle of “Change is the Eternal Law,” his first one-person exhibition in Hong Kong, at Rossi & Rossi gallery in the neighborhood of Wang Chuk Hang. The area is both a bustling arts district and a hive of industry; but within Rigdol’s show that external world falls away. You could hear a pin drop in the gallery—and yet, though Rigdol and I are alone, I am straining to hear the soft-spoken artist.

The “trouble” that Rigdol is referring to is the scrutiny that his method of skeptical probing has attracted from the Tibetan-Buddhist community, as well as from the Chinese government, who has had administrative control over Tibet since 1951. Though Rigdol is based in New York City, he was born to Tibetan refugees in Nepal in 1982. He later immigrated with his family to the United States when they were granted political asylum. His work investigates notions of place as an emotional construct, the impact of governmental policies on creative freedom, and the philosophical essence of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine: issues that are at once deeply personal and politically incendiary. “The word ‘politics’—I don’t understand [it],” Rigdol says. Indeed, in expressing the impact of world politics on one’s life, how is it possible to separate the external from the internal?

Rigdol’s investigative impulse underlies his diverse works, which include such pieces as Landscape (2015), a vast, three-panel acrylic painting of a reclining Buddha; Melong (2013), a mandala-inspired composition of silk and paper collage; and Scripture Noodle (2008), a performance piece involving the artist’s literal consumption of Buddhist scripture cut into noodle-like threads, represented in photographs and video. The installation at Rossi & Rossi is conducive to intimacy; the works are lit like jewels and hung in a formation that maximizes the impact of vivid large-scale works and invites examination of the smaller and more aesthetically nuanced ones.

TENZING RIGDOL, Landscape, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 178 × 453 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, London/Hong Kong. 

Landscape opens the exhibition. It is a striking work painted in vibrant tones using a meticulous stippling technique. A cloud-filled sky is seen above the reclining Buddha, and that alone took Rigdol several months to complete. The symbolism in this painting was inspired by the writings of Tibetan scholar Gendun Chopel, himself an outspoken figure of Tibetan Buddhism. Chopel noted that images of reclining Buddhas, while common in other parts of Asia, are conspicuously absent in Tibet. Rigdol posits that the omission may be due to local superstition against seeing the Buddha in this final stage of earthly existence. In his work, Rigdol offers a corrective to this denial of mortality by inserting the image of a Buddha in repose into a symbolic Tibetan landscape. The three panels represent the three provinces of Tibet. A horizontal red band, on which the Buddha lies, symbolizes Chinese occupation of the land. And the clouds are a stylistic amalgam of those found in Sino-Tibetan art from the 15th century onward.

My World is in Your Blind Spot (2014) is the largest work in the exhibition. It consists of five two-by-two-meter panels collaged with wood-block Tibetan Buddhist scripture and various patterns of silk brocade, which is typically used for framing traditional Tibetan thangka paintings. The work is a sumptuous combination of materials that belies the theme of annihilation that underscores the work. Rigdol prizes the wood-block scripture for its inherent tonal variations in the ink and paper. He laments that it is a dying medium in an age of computer-generated scripture, which is more economical to produce. The purposefully antiquated backdrop is suitable for the abstracted and timeless image of the seated Buddha that occupies the center of each of Rigdol’s five panels. The artist has activated this ordinarily serene motif by collaging photographic reproductions of flames onto where the Buddha’s flesh would normally be seen.

TENZING RIGDOLWaves, 2015, ink on paper, 77 × 56 × 3.5 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, London/Hong Kong. 

Fire is a consistent emblem throughout much of Rigdol’s body of work. It alludes to the practice of self-immolation, which has recently gained currency among Tibetan monks as a form of protest against the Chinese occupation and systematic eradication of Tibetan culture. It is a shocking gesture of extreme conviction and self-sacrifice and one that Rigdol believes is “non-violent.” It is easy to argue that the act is essentially violent—toward the self, and as a motive—but Rigdol, who has studied such subjects, points out that the martyrs conduct these acts with calm, not restless, minds. He grapples with this topic overtly in My World is in Your Blind Spot and in the photographic print of a video still from Match Stick (2012), which features a dorje (ritual object), resting on folds of crimson fabric typically worn by Tibetan monks and intermittently illuminated by a burning match.

A more subtle use of fire as an actual medium is seen in Waves (2015), a spare and delicate double drawing of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, faceless and floating on a bed of clouds. Hovering over one drawing, which is mounted flat, is a second identical work, cut to form concentric rings with singed edges. The construction introduces shadow as an active element of the work. With evidence of burning and formal lines as delicate as wisps of smoke, the mind conjures visions of incense coil and mysterious interiors, and is urged to consider the state of centeredness that Rigdol has inferred from the ritual of self-immolation.

Rigdol’s other photographs and videos have a documentary quality. This is perhaps a saving grace, as it balances out the abstract iconography and sensuous surfaces of his large-scale works and prevents the exhibition from being merely decorative. Soliloquy (2009) is a digitally altered, photographic double portrait. On the right side of the work, a figure enshrouded in pages of Buddhist scripture stands with his back turned toward the viewer. Facing a mirror, his reflection reveals a vividly colored portrait of Rigdol, dressed in western-style clothes and laughing ecstatically. This work is the result of a period of self-analysis that took place after Rigdol experienced a harrowing airplane ride. Confronted with the possibility of imminent death, the artist was compelled to reconcile contradictory attitudes within himself toward religion and death. Afterward, he saw the incident as an opportunity to liberate himself from habits and perspectives that had perhaps made him become too comfortable with life, and therefore limiting his possibilities.

TENZING RIGDOL,Soliloquy, 2008, digital print, 91 × 122 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, London/Hong Kong. 

Rigdol’s ultimate modus operandi is a quest for honesty. The traditions and beliefs of exiled Tibetans are not immune to scrutiny. In Scripture Noodle, Rigdol applied his critical attitude to Tibetan Buddhist dogma. According to Rigdol, there is a historical precedent of monks consuming scripture-printed paper, as a literal and symbolic means of unifying with its theological content. Rigdol’s process of slicing and cooking the scripture in a Chinese restaurant in Vermont, where he underwent a residency in 2008, speaks to that tradition. Yet separated from its temporal and cultural context, Rigdol’s act aggravated some Buddhists, who accused him of sacrilege. (Rigdol actually received death threats in response to this piece.)

This is where Rigdol’s critique of Tibetan Buddhism differs from that of China’s governmental policies: In Landscape and Scripture Noodle, Rigdol supports his critique with literary evidence that challenges, in a scientific way, inconsistencies between blind devotion to Buddhism as an identity and the actual dharma, or theoretical tenets, of the religion. Despite the fury that Scripture Noodle induced, the method of questioning explored in that performance reveals Rigdol’s desire for purity (as in un-corruptedness, rather than perfection) and was done in service to the community to which he was born. His critique of Tibetan Buddhism is, therefore, in scholarly form and one that arises from a desire to see Tibetan traditions survive.

On the other hand, beneath Rigdol’s critique of China, anger simmers in varying degrees of visibility. In Melong, Tibetan and Chinese icons are arranged to simulate the wheel of life secured in the grasp of Yama, the god of death and rebirth, as it would be represented in a traditional Tibetan thangka painting. In the center, where there would normally be the three fundamental sources of suffering (ignorance, animosity, and desire), are instead the figures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong and Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme—leaders of India, China and Tibet, respectively, at the time of China’s takeover of Tibet in 1951. The largest ring consists of a photo collage of Tibetan artists and writers who have been censored and imprisoned by the Chinese government. Meanwhile, Chinese soldiers are depicted in tight rows wearing identical green uniforms, appearing mechanical and dehumanized.

In a photograph titled Empire (2009), Rigdol is giving the finger to the Empire State Building in New York City. The coils of rosary beads around his wrist stand in sharp aesthetic and ideological contrast to the skyscraper bathed in red and yellow lights, a color scheme chosen by the building’s management to symbolize the flag of the People’s Republic of China on the occasion of the PRC’s 60th anniversary in 2009. Empire is a blatant expression of Rigdol’s disgust with political ingratiation; surprisingly, he says his work has been censored in New York more than it has been in China.

TENZING RIGDOL, Empire, 2009, Epson ink-jet print on semi-gloss paper, 16.5 × 10 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, London/Hong Kong. 

The criticality embodied in such works as Melong and Empire is clearly directed toward China and relies on polarities that are absent, or at least much less overt, in works like Landscape or Scripture Noodle. The literalness and aggression of Empire in particular is related more to Rigdol’s activism than to his artistic practice. Earlier during the run of the Rossi & Rossi exhibition, the Asia Society in Hong Kong hosted a screening of the 2013 film, Bringing Tibet Home, which documents Rigdol’s process of transporting 20 tons of Tibetan soil through Nepal and into Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the largest settlement of Tibetan refugees outside of Tibet, for an installation he called Our Land, Our People (2011). Here, through intensive effort, Rigdol channeled his concerns with displacement, exile and spirituality into a task of enormous magnitude, through what is probably the artist’s most prized medium: action.

In the era of the Umbrella Revolution, what does it mean to have Rigdol’s work exhibited in Hong Kong? As this Special Administrative Region inevitably finds itself in a position of trying to preserve autonomy and freedom of expression under China’s governmental control, Rigdol’s cause for protest against both willful ignorance and oppression may seem a little close to home.

“Change is the Eternal Law” is on view at Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong, until October 24, 2015.