Dugu Choegyal Rimpoche

The difficulty of understanding another, distinct culture without simply assimilating it to one’s own has been a topic of intense interest for years now. And it is perhaps the central problem faced by visitors to this exhibition of watercolors on paper by Dugu Choegyal Rimpoche. The artist is a Tibetan lama, recognized as the eighth reincarnation of the abbot of the ancient monastery of Dugu, who was also a painter. Choegyal is using the proceeds from the exhibition for numerous initiatives intended to fight the disappearance of Tibetan culture, which is threatened by the Chinese occupation of his country. The works in the show balance a respect for the traditional devotional iconography of Tibetan art with an expressive immediacy and the free manifestation of the artist’s individual energy. There are recurring themes: imaginary animals, hermits, lotus flowers, landscapes that vanish in the distance, ascetics who have received enlightenment. In Radiating Light (all works 1999), two tiny figures (perhaps a yogi master with his disciple) carry on a dialogue or meditate in silence, as if lost in an infinite space, in the immense landscape that surrounds them and of which they are part. The bright, luminous, and transparent colors are applied to the surface with impressionistic vivacity. In keeping with Eastern spirituality, the universe of Choegyal’s painting is a resounding Whole, an extremely dense interweaving of musical chords traversed by a fluid and immaterial continuum. Nothing here is coarse, sterile, or deathlike. For example, in Snow Leopard the long curling tail of the imaginary animal descending from a mountain creates a series of surrounding echoes, represented by darker lines that repeat its trajectory. The part is in the whole, the whole in the part. The same principle prevails in other works, like Sky Dancer or The Moon, the Mother Shining Inside Myself, where shapes and colors are both caught up in a dynamic vortex in which the boundaries and identities of the depicted concrete elements grow faint.

Perhaps the most intense and convincing work here is Dakini. In Tibetan religious culture, dakinis are enlightened women. According to one belief, upon death their bodies become smaller, diminishing little by little and unleashing rainbows of light. In Choegyal’s stunning watercolor, a small body (neither masculine nor feminine) is stretched out on a blue mat, its head slightly bowed, in calm expectation of its terrestrial end. A bunch of flowers and a bowl are next to the dying dakini. In the space that opens up above the body, indeed originating from it, as called for by doctrine, a great variety of colors—from intense yellow to red, from green-blue to violet—explodes in an astonishing and momentous pyrotechnic phantasmagoria. Something mysterious is occurring: The dakini, the enlightened woman in the midst of terrestrial death, restores to the universe all the energy that she had been given at birth, and she reenters the perpetual dance of Shiva, no longer an individual, no longer an ego. The image conveys this extraordinary event with intensity and grace, power and tenderness, even for viewers for whom this particular belief remains foreign.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.