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)