Gonkar Gyatso: Excuse Me While I Kiss The Sky

Gonkar Gyatso: excuse me while I kiss the sky

Curated by Tony Scott, China Art Projects

Opening: Saturday 30 April, 2022

Gonkar Gyatso is a Tibetan-born British artist. Born in 1961 in Lhasa, Gyatso moved to London in the late ’90s on a scholarship to study at the Chelsea School of Art and Design, where he attained his MA in Fine Art. Gyatso also studied Chinese brush painting in Beijing, attaining a BFA, and Thangka painting (traditional Tibetan scroll painting) in Dharamsala. The artist is the founder of the Sweet Tea House, a contemporary art gallery dedicated to showing Tibetan work, based in London, which he ran from 2003–10. The artist was the recipient of a Leverhulme Fellowship in 2003 and was an artist-in-residence at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Gyatso’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA), the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, USA), Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Israel), The City Gallery (Wellington, New Zealand), The Institute of Modern Art (Brisbane, Australia), the Rubin Museum of Art (New York, USA), the National Art Museum of China (Beijing, China), the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (Scotland), the Courtauld Institute of Art (London, UK), the Burger Collection (Switzerland), the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam (the Netherlands), and the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane, Australia). Gyatso has participated in the 53rd Venice Biennale, the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, and the 17th Sydney Biennale. Hiswork has also been collected by important institutions around the world.

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Gonkar GYATSO (b. 1961-) 

Holy Moly – Burgundy 


Silk Screen. Stickers, Gold & Silver Leaf on Paper

Gonkar Gyatso: Tradition and Change in the 21st Century

When I first met artist Gonkar Gyatso in Beijing in 2006, we talked about an exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art I was planning with my  American co-curator and Fulbright scholar, Leigh Miller Sangster for  presentation at Red Gate Gallery, located at that time in the corner watchtower of the old Beijing city wall. Leigh had been living in Lhasa for some years, researching Tibetan art and culture, whereas my focus had been the bustling world of contemporary art in Beijing. Our exhibition was titled Lhasa – New Art from Tibet and it would prove to be the first viewing of contemporary Tibetan art in the Chinese capital, selected by independent curators and held in a private commercial gallery. The exhibition was to showcase the exciting and surprisingly innovative art practices originating in Tibet.

According to Miller:

Tibetan artists, particularly in urban Lhasa, are fully engaged with global twenty-first century challenges and opportunities without disconnect from their cultural identities. In the process, they raise crucial questions about the articulation and transmission of heritage, memory and authenticity, and the role of non-traditional artists in cultural sustainability in the age of globalization.  

Leigh’s comments highlighted aspects of artistic practice that were especially apparent in Gonkar’s work. And as one of the few artists from the Tibetan diaspora to gain international recognition, and an already recognized international figure in the contemporary art world, Gonkar’s work really needed to feature in our exhibition in Beijing. 

Gonkar Gyatso’s work reflects what he calls ‘hybrid identity’. Born in Lhasa, in Tibet, to a family who served as officers in the People’s Liberation Army, he studied art at the Central Institute of National Minorities 1980 – 1984 followed by traditional Tibetan ‘thangka’ painting in Dharamsala, in India from 1992 to 1996. Between 1999 and 2000, Gonkar was a student at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London and he now lives and works between England, China and the United States of America. 

As art critic and curator Damian Smith suggests:

To illustrate this concept Gyatso has taken to working with stickers. These ephemeral

candy coloured ‘peel-offs’ depict everything from Homer Simpson to Betty Boo, from Shrek to Tiger Woods and beyond. There are Chinese, Japanese, American and English stickers. There are logos and pop stars, lamas and layabouts, all eagerly vying for attention. 

One recent fine art print from Gonkar, The Buddha isn’t Smiling, 2022 is emblematic of this technique. The composition features a classic image of a Buddha seated within a halo of traditional Tibetan iconography including fruits and foliage. Yet crowded around the Buddha are irreverent texts in English, Chinese and Tibetan script featuring social media, and cryptic slogans interspersed with cartoon and comic figures. Also apparent are figures from popular sports and social activities, all appearing to have a sardonic edge – many of the figures and portraits, including that of a Buddha head are wearing masks, possibly an allusion to the last difficult years in a global pandemic. The Buddha isn’t Smiling!

Gonkar Gyatso’s life has been one of transcultural fusion and multiple, often mutually contradictory influences. In 2003, Gyatso completed his first series of photographs, ‘My Identity’, in which he explored his own personal ‘re-births’ across the political, social, and national boundaries that constitute Tibet and the Tibetan diaspora. Within the series, he presents four images of the self: a traditional Tibetan figure; a state painter in Mao era China; a poster painter in exile, living in Dharmsala, India and a contemporary western artist in London. Four incarnations of a transcultural man of the world.

The series titled Holy Moly is Gyatso possibly at his most playful – Crazy Cat wearing what appears to be a sheriff’s badge surrounded by a myriad of other cartoon figures and iconic Tibetan cultural images – playful but always partnered with an ironic humor, especially when one looks more closely into the images.

In Gonkar’s 3-metre scroll Keep Calm, 2011-2014, a suite of Buddha heads is presented before a graphical rendering of famous song lyrics – Excuse Me While I Kiss The Sky - from American Rock legend Jimmy Hendrix’s 1967 song ‘Purple Haze’. While the religious iconography and pop culture quote both point to modes of transcendence, the third element of the work is Mandarin language quotes taken from social media, presenting social commentary that is entwined not with religion but rather with the state of the world on a daily basis. 

Gyatso has been included in many important and prestigious exhibitions and biennial’s since he was selected into the 53rd Venice Biennial in 2009, including the 17th Biennale of Sydney and 6th Asian Pacific Triennial, Brisbane in 2010, Singapore Art Museum in 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2014 the New York Public Library, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and featured at Art Basel, Hong Kong in 2018. His work is held in many major international art collections including White Rabbit, Sydney, Crocker Art Museum USA, Art Gallery of South Australia, Burger Collection Hong Kong, Griffin University Australia, Emory Collection & Art Museum USA, National Gallery of Australia and QAGOMA Queensland Art Gallery. 

Tony Scott, Melbourne April 2022

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