To coincide with this Autumn’s Asian Art in London, Rossi & Rossi is delighted to announce In-Between, an exhibition featuring a choice group of Tibetan carved wood manuscript covers dating from the 12th - 15th centuries. Assembled over several decades by private European collectors the covers will be shown alongside nearly thirty contemporary Tibetan sculptures and paintings which have been created as a direct response to, and a commentary on, these remarkable survivors. The show, curated by Tenzing Rigdol, features works by Benchung, Marie-Dolma Chophel, Gade, Tulku Jamyang, Kesang Lamdark, Tashi Norbu, Nortse, Nyandak, Penpa, Tenzin Phakmo, Tenzing Rigdol, Tsering Sherpa, Sodhon, TaNor, Chungpo Tsering, Rabkar Wangchuk and Palden Weinreb.
It is difficult to underestimate the importance to Tibet and the Buddhist faith of these types of classical manuscript covers. As objects that once acted as the entrance to, and enabled the protection of, sacred Buddhist texts, they are regarded as part of the Dharma (The Teaching), one of the Triratna (The Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha– meaning the community) and as such to be revered as greatly as one would the Buddha. They would have been specifically commissioned by monasteries or wealthy families to protect the sacred texts of the Buddhist canon, and fashioned from hardwood, a material difficult to obtain in Central Tibet, no expense was spared in their construction: often intricately carved, sumptuously painted and gilded, they are the products of the finest early Tibetan craftsmanship and artistry.
Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951, it was said that there were between 3,000 and 5,000 monasteries in the region, all of which would have aspired to have the complete Buddhist canon in their libraries. During the Cultural Revolution myriad aspects of traditional Buddhist culture such as Tibetan manuscripts were declared forces of evil (niuguisheshen) and destroyed. Some, however, escaped destruction when they were taken by Tibetans fleeing their country, in the wake of the invasion, but the desirable and rare hardwood material of the covers meant that some were re-fashioned and re-used; as washing boards, chopping boards and pastry moulds. Many of the early manuscript covers that can be found today survive without their scriptures and, now devoid of their initial function, these striking carved works serve as reminders of the reverence for sacred texts in Tibetan culture, as well as symbols of the conflict, known all too well in Tibet, between survival and loss.
It is this rich and varied history that the contemporary artists have reacted to and departed from; attempting to replace what has been lost with a new reality, an interpretation of themselves and their ‘Tibetan-ness’. The aim is to create a coherent dialogue between past and present, preservation and development, tradition and modernity and between national and individual identity.
All of the living artists have approached the covers and their layered meanings, as a springboard for ideas concerning, amongst others, the history of Tibet, loss and displacement, their own and their families’ histories. Sometimes, the focus is on the covers’ cultural aspect and their power as objects; sometimes the artists see them stripped of meaning and reverence. However, regardless of the approach and personal aesthetics, hovering invisibly over all of them, is the smoky, acrid cloud of protest and self- immolation, that most terrifying manifestation of a people stripped of nationhood, identity and meaning, and feeling powerless.