Born in Tibet in 1961, Gonkar Gyatso studied at the Minzu University of China in Beijing, and later at Central St. Martins College in London. His current show at SCAD’s Moot Gallery, “Meditations of Irony” is a combination of collage works and site-specific installations. He tells Evelyn Lok about how his upbringing influenced his work and gives advice to aspiring artists.
HK Magazine: What went through your mind as you were putting together the new works for this site-specific exhibition?
Gonkar Gyatso: I’d say I was inspired by the space. When I first saw a photograph of the carpets in one way I was annoyed, but then I started to think of ideas to say “let’s fix this.” I invented the text [used in the installations] a few years ago. The text are half-Chinese, half-Tibetan characters put together. This time, because I knew I was coming to Hong Kong—I came up with this idea to make the text look like it could be in sentences, and in banners. I grew up in Mainland China, so I’ve been seeing these banners since I grew up—with propaganda, and then later with commercialization. So this is really an idea for Hong Kong—I tried to take two different cultures and see how these two could coexist. Somehow I think it worked out. It’s also kind of a trick—when people come to see it, they might think they’re Chinese words, but they look closer and they can’t read it.
HK: Would you say that corresponds to your own identity as well?
GG: Absolutely. I spent over 30 years in Tibet, and of course I was also in China. Then I was in Europe. The Chinese influence and also my Tibetan heritage are always there, and it’s always an interesting issue for me to play around with.
HK: What led you to work with imagery of Buddha?
GG: The shape is how I deliver my own vision of the harmonious coexistence of a lot of different things. For instance, when you look at the outline of one work it is [the form of] a reclining Buddha, but when you look inside there are 10 or 20,000 stickers in one piece. And these stickers come from different places, represent different meanings, and I try to put them all together—it’s kind of like Hong Kong, really. But they’re all living quite happily together, very harmoniously. It’s also related to the Buddhist idea of tolerance—you have to be open, you have to be kind, and tolerant of anything.
HK: Did you grow up with Buddhism?
GG: I’m sure you’ve heard what happened with the Cultural Revolution, so there were no Buddhist influences at all in my house. Before the 80s I was actually very influenced by Communist ideology. But when I finished at art college in Beijing, I went back to Tibet: that was really more about exploring my own self and trying to know the place where I was born. Then in the early 90s, I went to India to study Tibetan culture, and after three years I went to London, where I was more interested in the themes I’m doing now: identities, political and social issues, as well as different cultures—it’s about race, women’s rights, about human rights, even about gays and lesbians, globalization and the environment… I try to present all of that in my work.
HK: Is this one of your first exhibitions back in the east? Do you foresee more of your work being shown in Asia?
GG: Yes, absolutely. I’m currently based in London, but I am actually in the process of setting up a studio in Chengdu. But Hong Kong is a very important place for contemporary art in Asia. Beijing and Shanghai can definitely relate to these ideas of diversity [in my work]. But compared to Hong Kong, they still have a long way to go.
HK: What is your best advice for art students in Hong Kong?
GG: One of the questions a student might ask is: “How do you survive as an artist?” Sometimes artists can give a really good tip—say, just get welfare benefits and don’t go to work! But in my experience, whatever you do, you really need to have a long-term plan, a lot of determination. I think a good way to start is to get a good part-time job to take care of your finances, while you do your art. It’s discipline—that’s the word. The problem is that inspiration doesn’t happen all that often. You need to make sure you’ll go to your studio at least four hours [on the weekend], and on Monday, you go to work. That’s how lots of artists made their name.
“Meditations of Irony” runs through Mar 16 at the SCAD Moot Gallery, 292 Tai Po Rd., Sham Shui Po, 2253-8000. Gyatso is holding a free public talk on Feb 18 as part of SCAD’s Define Art series. On Feb 20, SCAD’s Open Studio night features an exhibition of student works, a book launch for local artist Marianne Lau and a talk by local artist Lee Kit.