Painter Rabkar Wangchuk interviewed by Alex King, with help from Nic Bommarito
Rabkar Wangchuk is a Tibetan artist, thangka painter, and sculptor. Born and raised in the Tibetan exile community in India, he is currently based in Queens, New York. At the age of seven, he was admitted to the Gyudme Tantric Monastery in south India where he began twenty years of training in various types of Tibetan art. During those twenty years, he mastered and pursued perfection in woodcarving, butter sculptures and, sand mandala (for which he was awarded an appreciation certificate from the Gyudme Tantric University). He also served as the head of the art section of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Art (TIPA) in Dharamsala, India. His work has been exhibited in various venues throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States. Recently, he exhibited his unique arts at the Trace Foundation and Queens Museum in New York City. He will have work on display at Transcending Tibet, opening in New York, March 12–April 12, 2015 organized by the Trace Foundation.
How important do you think it is to understand your art that someone understand, to any degree, the history of Tibetan art? Buddhist religion and philosophy? Your own personal history?
Growing up, I was trained as a traditional thangka painter. Later, I did one thangka show in Paris, people saw the work and they said, “Oh that’s very good!” and that was it. I’d have to explain everything for them to understand and be interested. So I realized there was a big difference, even though we were the same. I’m Tibetan; they’re French. But first, we have to connect as human beings.
Shortly afterward, a friend (who’s also a contemporary artist) encouraged me to pursue contemporary art. I wasn’t sure how to do that, but he said, “Here are some acrylic paints, here’s a canvas, just do something.” So I painted a monk flying in the sky, and said, “Is this contemporary art?” He said yes, and so I started to see what it was about – no rules, just painting what comes from inside. After that, my art became much more successful.
As an artist, my responsibility is to connect people. I am a professional thangka painter, but we are in the modern world. I can’t stay insulated and paint these remote things. If I do that, people just stay isolated from each other. In this world, you have to blend cultures – every culture is very important. So I keep a part of Tibetan art, but make it modern. That way, people who don’t know Tibetan art, but they recognize, for example, that this is the Terminator or a taxi, have a way into the art.
Preserving culture is only my secondary goal. My main goal is to connect people. Once you’re connected, then it makes sense to preserve the culture. I’m not actually that into the political side of things. People suffer in many different ways: some lose their loved ones, some lose their country, some lose their jobs, and art is a way of easing that and connecting us to each other. We live together in a bigger world; if we fix those big problems, then Tibet’s problems will be solved, too. If we connect lots of people, then those people will help. It’s not just something you can fix by staying isolated but patriotic.
You are classically trained in different Tibetan art forms: thangka painting, woodcarvings, butter sculptures, and sand mandalas. How do you experience creating these traditional artworks as different from creating your own works?
Oh yeah, it’s very different! When I paint a thangka, there are lots of boundaries and rules. There’s a huge difference when I paint contemporary art. There’s so much freedom. You understand that, you live in a free country! To be honest, there’s more truth. You can paint how you feel: I want a flower here or a cloud there. When you have this kind of freedom, it’s easier to make a connection between people. We’re all human and we all share the same sorts of feelings, so when I can paint those feelings, I can more fully connect to people.
Traditional thangka painting, as well as religious art in general, has didactic, ritual, and inspirational purposes. Thangkas, for example, may aim to teach viewers about certain religious figures, deities, or cosmology, be important ritual parts of meditation practices, as well as inspire viewers to enlightenment. To what extent do you see your art as embodying these aims? Do you see some of these as more important than others?
Well, thangkas aren’t inspirational at all. It’s just like, you paint two thangkas for this person’s funeral or something. But the art I do is inspirational. I don’t want to teach people things. If they want to learn something about Tibet, the art forms, religion, philosophy, or anything, that’s good. But the main goal is to make people feel something, and to help us connect to each other and realize that we’re all the same deep down.
Your art juxtaposes traditional styles with very contemporary content, often including images of pop culture and technology alongside traditional imagery. What do you think is important about harnessing traditional religious motifs and styles to depict contemporary life?
By using traditional styles and themes, I keep some of my own identity. But pop culture and technology have very different purposes for me.
In this society, there’s very advanced technology. And I think sometimes there’s a real loss that happens. People lose their humanity. I try to wake people up with the message that – you’re a human, not a robot.
I’ve already said some about pop culture. Basically, pop culture is a way for us to understand each other. It’s a way to connect people and understand others’ feelings. So I use and celebrate pop culture in my art.
Traditional sand-painted mandalas are importantly transient. They’re meticulously crafted, then brushed away into the river. This is meant as a statement about the impermanence of not only things we create, but of all things. Do you think it is important to keep this transience in mind when creating and viewing your art?
So to give you an idea, I did a 3’ sand mandala in 2006, at the University of Michigan, with my brother who is a monk. It took us one week together. He did the rituals while I helped, and afterward we emptied it into the nearby lake.
Everybody knows that everything is impermanent. But we forget it, we lose it, because of enjoyment or distraction. But you can still make your life meaningful, despite impermanence and death. I try to make my life meaningful through my art.
And of course I get attached to my art, and I want it to survive. But I have to survive! So I have to let it go, and I try not to get attached to anything. But it’s interesting – if you don’t get attached, you can’t create something beautiful. You can’t create good art. But you have to keep a balance between being attached enough to create something and not getting too attached that you can’t let go or let it be destroyed.
Your work is clearly very skillful and very beautiful. Nowadays, though, the artworld seems to regard beauty somewhat skeptically. Do you think the visual beauty of your work is important to understanding it?
Artists have to be very different from each other. It’s not enough to be skillful. But yes, beauty is very important, in two ways.
First, beauty is for attracting. When people initially look at something beautiful, they say, “Wow, that is nice!” That is the most important first moment. Then they come closer and want to know more. Only then can you get people to care about the meaning.
Shakespeare wrote, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.” This is how I think of it. Beauty isn’t important to understanding the art; beauty is not for the mind. It’s the art itself that connects to the mind. But beauty is important for the initial attraction. It’s the same with people. When you see someone beautiful, you’re attracted, and once you spend time with someone and talk to them, then you can connect to their mind.
Second, in Buddhism, creating beautiful things is like making an offering. People are always suffering and angry, and if they see something beautiful, that eases their suffering and calms them down, even if just a little bit. In the monastery, you’re always praying for all sentient beings to be happy and all that, but here, I actually create more happiness by creating beautiful things.