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Murals of Tibet

Pho­to­grafer Tho­mas Laird

Tho­mas Laird deve­lo­ped his inte­rest in Tibeaton Murals when he first tra­vel­led to Tibet in 1986 

BETWEEN 1998 AND 2000, HE SOUGHT A PROFOUND DIALOGUE WITH THE DALAI LAMA AND DISCOVERED THAT THE MURALS HAD ALREADY SHAPED THE DALAI LAMA’S WORLD AS A CHILD, EVEN BEFORE HE WAS TAUGHT TO READ.

Yet the con­ver­sa­ti­ons bet­ween him and His Holi­ness were most­ly hea­ted dis­cus­sions becau­se they were con­duc­ted from two dif­fe­rent cul­tu­ral per­spec­ti­ves: ‘The more time I spend with Tibe­tan murals, the more it seems that old Tibe­tan ide­as about art are not so far from our essence. It’s kind­ness rising to the sur­face, our moti­va­tions that give mea­ning to art. Cul­tures are always dif­fe­rent and always the same over time. Mud or gold… the phy­si­cal natu­re of what allows our mind to move… that’s not real­ly important. Pig­ment or pixel: they don’t mat­ter, eit­her,’ Tho­mas Laird descri­bes his epi­pha­ny after the talks with the Dalai Lama.

For cen­tu­ries, few peop­le in Tibet knew how to read, and so the tal­king walls beca­me a vital medi­um from one genera­ti­on to the next. It’s worked so well that some of the mea­nings that were embed­ded in wall pain­tings cen­tu­ries ago are now ali­ve in Tibe­tans‘ minds. This is pre­cise­ly whe­re the pho­to­gra­pher knew he had a respon­si­bi­li­ty: to export the won­der­ful Tibe­tan fres­coes out into the world and ther­eby docu­ment them for future genera­ti­ons. He fol­lo­wed the poi­gnant words of Ame­ri­can pho­to­jour­na­list Dia­ne Arbus, who once said: ‘I’m con­vin­ced that the­re are things that nobo­dy would see if I did­n’t pho­to­graph them.’

A signi­fi­cant con­tri­bu­ti­on not just to Asi­an art, but to the humanities. 

Max­well K. Hearn, The Metro­po­li­tan Muse­um of Art

More than 30 years after Laird’s first jour­ney, he has suc­cee­ded in doing so in the form of a SUMO book publis­hed by TASCHEN. Bene­dikt Taschen per­so­nal­ly took care of this pro­ject and no efforts and cos­ts were spa­red to crea­te a new inde­pen­dent work of art to show man­kind a tre­a­su­re that would other­wi­se have remai­ned hid­den. The volu­me in the SUMO, i.e. extra-lar­ge for­mat, pres­ents the­se pre­cious tes­ti­mo­nies of Tibe­tan cul­tu­re in a vibrant visu­al bril­li­an­ce and opu­lence with lar­ger-than-life details. For the first time, the­se com­plex mas­ter­pie­ces can be view­ed in bril­li­ant colours, even­ly illu­mi­na­ted and in a reso­lu­ti­on faith­ful to the original.

To sup­port the work, the Dalai Lama signed all 998 copies of the artis­tic edi­ti­on of the book and archi­tect Shi­ge­ru Ban desi­gned a table for it. For the first time ever, a repre­sen­ta­ti­ve collec­tion of the lar­gest Tibe­tan mural pain­tings of the last thousand years has been crea­ted. Ever­ything in this work, accord­ing to reports by Tho­mas Laird, aro­se from a dia­lo­gue with the murals them­sel­ves and the sto­ries of Tibe­tans, inclu­ding the Dalai Lama, about this world cul­tu­ral heri­ta­ge: ‘The murals and the voices of the Tibe­tan peop­le gui­ded me when I crea­ted the­se pic­tures, alt­hough they’re ulti­mate­ly com­ple­te­ly modern. Peop­le keep asking if I would have chan­ged anything with Pho­to­shop. No, that was just one of the tools I used to make the invi­si­ble visible.’

A book accom­pany­ing the SUMO edi­ti­on pres­ents the oldest lar­ge-for­mat murals still pre­ser­ved in Tibet and takes the view­er and rea­der on a geo­gra­phi­cal jour­ney that begins in Drat­hang and leads to the most important monas­te­ries in cen­tral and wes­tern Tibet (past the holy moun­tain Kailash), whe­re important mural pain­tings can still be seen today. The book is struc­tu­red accord­ing to an iti­nera­ry that could also be cho­sen by pil­grims. Tibe­tan mural pain­tings on site are con­si­de­red living spi­ri­tu­al tea­chings and not an object of stu­dy in histo­ry of art. Older murals are the­re­fo­re regu­lar­ly res­to­red to ensu­re that the mes­sa­ge remains visi­ble to users wit­hin the over­all com­po­si­ti­on. The res­to­rers attach impor­t­ance to res­to­ring only what was still pre­sent, so that the ori­gi­nal state­ment isn’t fal­si­fied. The pre­ser­va­ti­on of the­se cul­tu­ral monu­ments, which are of uni­que impor­t­ance for Tibe­tan Bud­dhist cul­tu­re and histo­ry of art, remains a chal­len­ge, alt­hough nume­rous res­to­ra­ti­on pro­jects have been car­ri­ed out sin­ce the 1990s. The Tibe­tan murals often cover ent­i­re halls, but some­ti­mes only a small black­board in a chapel.

Tho­mas Laird sur­mi­ses, after deca­des of expe­ri­ence in Tibet, that tho­se who seek mind­ful­ness and won­der­ful grace in art, and for Tibe­tans who stu­dy spe­ci­fic know­ledge about an exact aspect of Tibe­tan cul­tu­re, it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter whe­ther the art that dri­ves their jour­ney is the ori­gi­nal work in Tibet, a high-reso­lu­ti­on digi­tal image, a life-sized print in a muse­um or a book: ‘Art in our minds isn’t inter­pre­ted as mud or gold, pages or pixels. Our spi­rit is the river through which art flows through us from genera­ti­on to genera­ti­on. To ensu­re that it’s the­re, here, becau­se this and all future genera­ti­ons are part of what makes us human.’’ (www.thomaslaird.com)

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