“The act of resistance has two faces. It is human and it is also the act of art.
Only the act of resistance resists death, either as a work of art or as human struggle.”
On February 27, 2009, the third day of Losar (the Tibetan word for New Year), a young monk by the name of Tapey set himself on fire. In an act of protest against China’s Tibet policies, Tapey ran into the streets and lit his gasoline-soaked robes. While in flames, he raised a Tibetan flag with a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Then he was shot by Chinese military police.
153, Lodoe Laura’s solo show at the Ryerson Artspace, addresses the events that occurred that day in February and the subsequent deaths of more than 150 Tibetans that have chosen the path of self-immolation, following the steps of Tapey. Collecting images of those who sacrificed their lives as desperate acts of protest against the Chinese violent rule in Tibet, Laura makes them visible to Western audiences through a series of hand printed in incense images. In this body of work the young Tibetan-Canadian daughter of a refugee prevents us from forgetting them and stresses the importance of art as an act of resistance.
I reached out to Lodoe Laura to learn more about her work and the process she followed to create 153. The following is a conversation that took place over email.
Claudia Pretelin: What got you into art? How did it all start?
Lodoe Laura: Initially, I was interested in documentary photography and photojournalism, but through my studies at the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University, my work has shifted to be more conceptually based. So in addition to photography, I also work in video, installation, and sculpture.
CP: How do you choose the topics you want to explore?
LL: I explore themes of cultural crossover, collective memory, and the intersection of cultural and political practice. At times my work is highly political and I am trying to work through the representation of conflict and of community. Then, other times it can be highly personal. For example, the last work I made was a two-channel video piece of my dad teaching me the Tibetan alphabet. I choose to make work about what I’m thinking about, and I use my artistic practice to communicate my thoughts and things that I feel are important.
CP: What sort of processes do you use to create your work?
LL: It starts with an idea. Usually it comes from conversations, experiences, or from my reading. Then, I spend time researching whatever it is I’m interested in. I look at other artists of many media – poets, writers, visual artists, and performers – who may have responded to similar events or experiences. Then, the process develops and changes as the work starts to form. I work across many media, which allows me the freedom to experiment and to use the right method for the topic I am addressing. Oftentimes, I use unconventional materials or I use traditional materials unconventionally. 153 are photographs hand printed in incense, and I’ve worked before with colored sand and concrete as materials.
CP: How do you employ new technologies and social media for your work?
LL: For 153, the images are sourced from different activist and exile groups. It can be very difficult to find photographs or information on the Tibetan self-immolations in the West. This is due in large part to the Chinese government’s communications crackdown inside Tibet. Discussing or displaying images of the people that have set themselves on fire in protest of the sociopolitical climate inside Tibet is in direct opposition to the narrative authorities attempt to present – that is, as a Shangri-la paradise in the Himalayas; an idealized, mythical, utopian land. It is far from it, and the actions of the self-immolators are just one of many ways Tibetans inside Tibet are undermining that narrative. Therefore, activist and advocacy groups in exile collecting and publishing online the photographs, dates, and stories of the self-immolated, is an act of resistance to the presented narrative. I do want to recognize Woeser, who is an author, activist, and blogger inside Tibet. She bravely posts about the self-immolations and her blog and most recent book, Tibet on Fire, were primary sources for information – names, dates, and images.
CP: Can you tell us more specifically about the materials and the process to create 153?
LL: Charcoal is used in a Tibetan Buddhist prayer ritual called Sang – a smoke offering ritual similar to incense. The first part of my project involved going to several monasteries and homes of the exile community where I collected their charcoal and incense ash from the Sang offering. Because of its use in prayer ritual, collecting this was, for me, a way of
collecting the prayers of the community. Then, with my father, I milled, dried, and sifted the mixture so that it was a fine powder. Once I amassed an archive of photographs of the self-immolators on my computer, I started going through and looking at them. Because of the lack of free flowing information from inside Tibet, this number varies depending on your source, but through my research 153 was the most complete list I could compile.
Most of the images the activists were able to recover were from cell phones, and were of a very low resolution. So I turned each image into Bitmap files – what this did was turn the images from full color photographs into an image made only up of black or white dots. Then, I printed them onto transparency film, which was used to print onto silk-screens in the darkroom.
Once the silk-screens were made, I went back to the incense I collected from the exile community. I mixed the fine charcoal powder with traditional ink making gum medium to create handmade ink. Then, using the screen as a negative, the charcoal and gum were pushed through to make a positive image on paper. This created the final positive images of the self-immolated, which are displayed at the Artspace. If you look closely at each image, and especially one of the heavily black images, you can see the granules and texture of the charcoal and incense ash. Because of its use in prayer ritual it was, for me, a representation not only of the burning protest, it was also a representation of the prayers of the exile community. So for this reason it was important that the texture was still visible in the final prints.
CP: And there is also a video along with the prints.
LL: I made a video, which is a database of the dates of the self-immolations. The hand printing of the prints was a very slow, labor-intensive process, and I wanted to make something that contrasted the slow repetition of the hand printed images. This video displays the dates of each self-immolation in rapid succession. It flips quickly between extreme light and extreme dark. Because it switches so quickly between the two, your eyes don’t have time to adjust to either. This is intended to create the unsettling effect of an after-image, so the dates are visible even after you’ve stopped looking. I first came across the idea of an after-image after viewing Alfredo Jaar’s Geometry of Conscience at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Art about political protest will necessarily be insufficient. My work exists only as one thread in a larger, complex conversation that is being held in Tibetan society about self-immolation, protest, and what it means when these actions are taken.
CP: I read that you are planning to graduate this year. What’s next for Lodoe Laura?
LL: One of my goals now that I’ll have more time is to improve my Tibetan language skills. I’m assisting one of my favorite professors, Clare Samuel, in some of her undergraduate classes, and am interested in teaching in the future. I’m looking into graduate programs in Canada and abroad. I’ve been in Toronto for seven years, and even though it’s starting to feel like home, I’m hoping for a change and new challenge.
Exhibition Run: September 1st- 25th, 2016
Gladstone Hotel 1214 Queen Street West, Toronto.
Lodoe Laura is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Toronto, Canada. She was a recipient of a Magnum Photo scholarship in 2015, and is completing her BFA in Photography at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. Her work has been recognized with the AIMIA AGO Scholarship Prize, and most recently was a winner of The Magenta Foundation’s 2016 Flash Forward Award.
Claudia Pretelin is a writer from Mexico City and currently resides in Rochester, New York. She holds a B.A. in Communications and received her M.A. and a Ph.D. in Art History from The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).