Two decades after first arriving in Denver as a young student, acclaimed artist, activist, and poet Tenzing Rigdol (BFA ’05) makes his return to the University of Colorado Denver this week for his first U.S. solo exhibition. Rigdol’s work is the first by a contemporary Tibetan artist to be acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its permanent collection.
“My World Is in Your Blind Spot,” a title shared with a series of buddhas at the heart of the exhibition, is open to the public from March 21 through June 7 at the Emmanuel Art Gallery. The exhibition showcases Rigdol’s masterful use of religious imagery to shed light on controversial topics.
In advance of the opening, the artist shared his thoughts on his works and creative process with CU Denver Today:
How does it feel to have your first U.S. solo exhibition at the Emmanuel Art Gallery?
[Tenzing Rigdol:] “It feels really wonderful, especially because this is the school I went to. When I look at my work, I think this is where it started, actually. All the works that I’m doing now, all the professors who have taught me – it feels very special, coming home. I’m making a complete circle now.”
You came to CU Denver through a STEM program; how did you transition from STEM to visual arts?
“I don’t think the program still exists; I was part of the last cohort in Nepal, where I was born. At the time, professors would be sent to Nepal from Colorado. It was a kind of help for Nepal, I think, and after two years of studying with the professors, the students would come over here. But then the program ended, and the university said if you want to continue then come to Denver. So, after one semester in Nepal as part of the program, in 1999 I came here.
I was always really into science. I was into chemistry and physics, but slowly I realized I was more interested in taking it out rather than taking it in. I felt like science required taking too much in, and already I’m in a new country: I’m taking in a lot of information all the time. Taking in more than I might know, taking in everything, because I’m learning.
I would take philosophy class. I would take painting, drawing, science – I would take all of this together, and my advisor would say why are you going all wild? Stop somewhere and whatever the credits, gather it and see. So slowly I moved into art. It’s interesting, when you talk about art, there will be lots of history connections. I thought I need to know history, too. And then in history you must learn about philosophy also. I stayed a total of seven or six years studying. In the end, I realized I have to keep studying, and it’s never going to end. So that was the journey.
My father would say, what do you want to do? ‘My major is life,’ I used to say.”
What realizations do you hope people might have when they come to this exhibition?
“I don’t think in a very greedy and unrealistic way. But if they can see somebody like me as an artist having some kind of a cause, some kind of a meaning, that would be wonderful. I think one should have a cause, especially being students, being young, being an artist, or being anybody, actually.
I think each individual comes with their own conditions, causes and mental dispositions. I just create a little focus point, and then everyone will react in their own way. The title of the show, ‘My World Is in Your Blind Spot,’ was taken from a series of paintings that I did, which together would be 30 feet long, and are part of the exhibition. It refers to the continuing self-immolation that’s happening inside and outside of Tibet in response to the Chinese rule.
But in the end, it’s not just Tibet. Tibet is just my prejudice. Tibet is a symbol of injustice, and injustice is in every field. Whatever an individual’s inclination toward injustice is, that should be their way of looking at the exhibition.”
Can you elaborate on the contrast between the spiritual and the political in this series?
“Personally, I don’t see a difference between political and spiritual. I think somebody who steps into any opinion field, justice field, or law field is part of a spiritual practice, no? Because they’re talking about change in a positive way. If one looks at Nelson Mandela or Dalai Lama, those individuals are very politically opinionated. There’s no spiritual and political. It’s the person who’s using the tool.
With regard to art, I think art is one of the most beautiful, one of the most poignant ways of being non-violent. It’s one of the oldest traditions of humans, not just this culture, or this country. It’s from as far back as cave-painting. Through their art, artists can say, ‘Hey! Come look at my opinion.’ Isn’t that beautiful?
I think there should be more artists, especially in America. If there’s more art where people can pour out whatever feelings they have, where people can see other opinions with a buffer zone, it reduces anger and violence. [Referencing other works in the Emmanuel Gallery at the time of the interview:] They’re all talking about their opinions, and some, maybe, about war, but without going to war. They’re dismantling the idea of war. I think it’s beautiful.
There’s a saying in Sanskrit, it says truth is beautiful. I would say honesty is beautiful. In my practice, I try as much as possible to be honest. Truth may be too arrogant, but honest with my experience. And to see this experience, can I structure it into a composition with colors? With poetry? With words? Music? Film? These are all the same. It’s just a form you give to your unquiet emotions.”
Can you elaborate on the contrast between the traditional and the modern in your art?
“There are two ways to approach it: One is looking at the work and then trying to see the differences. Another is looking at the thought behind the work in which, from a traditional point of view, you would only see just the outline of it.
I use the images like the stage for an idea; the Buddha’s image would be just a grammar, but I create my own sentence. What you see is the moment of his enlightenment, and traditionally the image of the Buddha is always used like this. It’s that moment from ignorance to wisdom, this transition, and it is a kind of clarity.
In a way, the series also works like a prayer flag. In Tibetan, we call it wind horse, a horse which, at one single instance, can run in 10 directions represented in five different elemental colors, the elements that constitute everything.
Everything is experiential. Not just constructive thought or forms or color. When you’re honest, when you’re really there and trying to pay attention, somehow it consecrates the painting. Attention gathers attention. From that point of view, it is very now, because attention can only happen now. In a sense, it talks about what’s happening right now in Tibet. For me, that makes it contemporary.”
Regarding your 2011 installation “Our Land, Our People,” when you brought 20 tons of Tibetan soil to Dharamsala, India, were you afraid of potential backlash from the Chinese government? It seems like one of the most overtly political artistic expressions in recent memory.
“Now I have American citizenship, so if I go anywhere I will be protected, but at that time I had a Green Card. It was like only having a visa. It took 17 months, the whole project. And it was not …
I would say it became political. It started gathering momentum and somehow more people’s emotions coincided in that one dot. But it began as a very simple project among a son and his father, a father who was very sick with cancer, and all the doctors said he couldn’t live more than six months. And he started missing his home. He was stateless in America – he was not a citizen or anything, so he could not go. And in that process he passed away. Then, one night, I had this idea. There are so many fathers like my father, so many mothers, too, who cannot go back. So, I thought, what if I bring soil from Tibet to them?
I didn’t tell many people about this, but that’s how it started. When the soil and everything arrived and everybody started working, it was like [snaps fingers] some made it political. But it started off at a very human level, with my father’s dying wishes. It became political later. Initially, they just cried. They all were. There was no anger, nothing. It was just like a reunion. Some made it too political. Everybody did that. Then there is honest emotion. Thought kills it. Tears. This fractured sentence, which is sometimes very powerful, more powerful than a very crisp sentence.
It was a very spiritual, emotional experience.”
Do you see your work as a means of preserving Tibetan culture by translating it into contemporary art?
“You can never repeat. Since the Big Bang, nothing is repeated. Everything’s expanding. So in a way, even if we say we are traditional, we are contemporary. It’s just that we’re being too stubborn to accept it, or our movement forward is so small that we don’t notice it.
I pick one issue so that it’s easier for me to pay attention. It takes 60 percent of my time doing research, actually. I see issues and I feel moved and I want to see if it’s really true or not. Tibet is as much an issue, as relevant as any other issues in the world, but my prejudice, my upbringing, and my cumulative experiences gave me more opportunity to gather more experience and information. That is why it is much easier for me to compose things about Tibet.
But then, at a deeper level, I see Tibet in every other injustice. It is not really preserving a tradition as a tradition, but preserving a tradition of questioning. I think art is about question, and answer is arrogance. Sometimes I feel that answer is like somebody walking who got so tired and then takes a chair and sits. And that becomes an answer. The moment you pay attention to the answer, it starts getting up and walking. That’s human progress.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.