The Secular and the Sacred: CMYK at Jebumgang Lu Mingjun I In 1985, American artist Robert Rauschenberg returned to China to hold solo shows in both Beijing and Lhasa. This was his second trip to the country; three years prior, he had visited China and the famed xuan paper mill in Jing County, Anhui Province. The idea for the ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange) stemmed from this trip to China. However, the motivation behind his exhibition at the Tibet Revolutionary Exhibition Hall in Lhasa as part of the ROCI program remains a mystery. A simple cultural exchange “between old and new, East and West, parochial and international” clearly does not explain this extraordinary gesture. The aspect of this project most worthy of further contemplation is the collision between the worldliness of Pop Art and the sacredness of Lhasa, a holy city of Buddhism. The secular world has always been the core of Pop Art, but scholars noticed early on that the work of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and other Pop artists had sacred or religious aspects. We are familiar with Warhol’s The Last Supper or Eggs works, which took on religious subject matter. For Russ Shumaker, The Big C “brings to mind the crass marketing strategies used to sell Americanized Christianity […] much like a multinational corporation capitalizes on consumer information to sell us those potato chips, all for a single low price. Motorcycles are symbolic of freedom, power, sensuality, and rebellion, yet Christ is often typified as the antonym of these terms.” Turning to Eggs, he notes that, “in the Byzantine Catholicism Andy had been raised in, colored eggs represent immortality and resurrection.” If some obvious traces of religion remain in these two works, then there are others in which he completely abandons symbolism and narrative. In No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art, Thomas Crow wrote, there is now “an imperative that any modern work of genuine theological import abjure conventionally religious signs, symbols, and narratives.”Gold Marilyn Monroe is a classic example. Because of the gold background, it is clearly reminiscent of a medieval icon painting. For Warhol, Monroe is like the Virgin Mary, an icon venerated by thousands. However, the icon is a commodity, not the Virgin, so what is truly sacred is our secular commercial society, rather than anything religious. In other words, this work exudes the tension between the worldly and the sacred. Moreover, Caroline A. Jones believes that Warhol had a Buddhist side—he was not a true Buddhist, but the repetition of Marilyn Monroe or an electric chair has a Buddhist sensibility. The secular and the sacred also appear in Rauschenberg’s work, particularly in his visual interpretations of Dante’s Inferno. From 1958 to 1960, Rauschenberg created his Dante Drawings, some of the few illustrations he made in his long creative career. In these transfer drawings, he portrayed cantos from Dante’s famous poem using mass media images, visually reorganizing the secular landscape of American society. His particular entry point into Dante’s Inferno was Simone Weil’s discussion of the burdens of the concept of sacred space in Christianity. For Rauschenberg, this series also embodied the tension between the secular and the sacred. At the very least, this shows that the sacred has always been an element in Rauschenberg’s work. Li Xinjian, who worked on bringing Rauschenberg’s exhibition to Lhasa, recalls that the Tibetans were more interested in the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck characters in his video pieces than in his silk-screen prints. Conversely, Rauschenberg was truly fascinated by how local audiences reacted to his work; he had expected that some Tibetans would apply a bit of butter to certain pieces. According to Li, Rauschenberg believed that “the mysteries of the spirit are hiding in the highest places, and this is the highest place in the world.” He wanted to “explore mysterious and unknown worlds” and “find new motivations in unfamiliar environments.” The exhibition venue, the Tibet Revolutionary Exhibition Hall, embodied this complexity—it was a symbol of secular revolution, but it still retained a sacred air. I think that this was the mysterious motivation for Rauschenberg’s exhibition in Lhasa. II. Forty years later, Yang Mian is bringing his work to Lhasa. He has traveled here several times, but this is the first time he has made the pilgrimage in the name of art. Coincidentally, he is also, strictly speaking, a pop artist—although he is not likely to admit it. However, both Warhol and Rauschenberg were once his heroes and idols. Because of their influence, popular culture and pictures have always been important creative motifs and concepts in his work, from his early Beauty Standards to his later CMYK. Moreover, sacred images have been part of his creative lexicon for quite some time. A few years ago, he applied his CMYK technique to a reinterpretation of The Procession (Chaoyuantu) at the Yongle Palace in Shanxi, and the series made specially for this exhibition in Lhasa will be based on images taken entirely from Tibetan Buddhist murals. In a sense, Yang is retracing Rauschenberg’s steps, raising the issue of the secular and the sacred, but in his own way. Of course, unlike in the mid-1980s, globalization has now introduced modern secularism into the sacred city of Lhasa. For Yang Mian, this is the true challenge. Yang is neither an art historian nor a Buddhist, so he has not the slightest trepidation in confronting Tibetan Buddhist history and the long-standing mural tradition. Of course, as an artist, understanding history is one part of it, but he must also make rapid judgments and choices based on his own experiences. After months of study and deliberation, he decided to begin with the eleventh-century Buddha Teaching at the Dratang Monastery, before moving on to the fourteenth-century FiveTathāgatas at the Shalu Monastery in Shigatse, the fifteenth-century Green Tara at the Palcho Monastery in Gyantse and Hevajra Tantra and Dakini at the Choide Monastery in Konka, the sixteenth-century Southern Ratnasambhava and Bodhisattvas in the Old City of Guge, the eighteenth-century White Tara from the Gaisang Pochangat Norbulingka, and culminating in a painting from the venue for this exhibition: Padmasambhava from the nineteenth century. This concise history of Tibetan Buddhist murals serves as the framework for the exhibition. Despite this, contemporary artists like Yang Mian have no need to verify the meaning and historical origins of every mural. He may not even need to view the original work, because the starting point for his work is always a picture, and not an actual painting. Moreover, only pictures can be decomposed into CMYK dots—this is impossible with an actual painting. Yang Mian’s CMYK has already been extensively discussed. Simply put, CMYK is a common way of printing colors, in which the “C” stands for cyan, the “M” is magenta, the “Y” is yellow, and the “K” is black. These four colors clearly make up the basic palette of Yang’s work. All of his printed picture sources are different, but after enlargement on a computer, they are all reduced to CMYK dots in those four colors.” In the last ten years, he has used this technique to create many different series. In addition to popular images, he has turned his attention to familiar art historical classics. There is a hierarchy to the originals of these images. For example, a classic work of art is optional for viewers, and not everyone will understand it. However, when we return it to the standard CMYK color system, it is equal for everyone. Yves Klein claimed that the “focus on a single color entailed a fundamental challenge to the prevailing cultural hierarchy.” Yang Mian calls this “visual democracy.” Jacques Rancière’s conception of equality may be the most fitting explanation of visual democracy. Rancière traces a freedom of mind that could be shared by all people to Hegel’s description of Murillo’s beggar boys, writing: It is not the representation of these ordinary objects that makes for the value of the painting, but the glimmerings and reflections that animate its surface, “the pure appearance which is wholly without the sort of interest that the subject has.” [… Painting] is also the art that manages to prove itself fully once it no longer serves any faith nor celebrates any self-perpetuating greatness: a village scene is something in which no social power seeks its image, it is thus what we look at for the pure “disinterested” pleasure of enjoying the play of appearances. And it is this play of appearances that is the very realization of freedom of mind. Due to this freedom of mind, Rancière believes that everyone is equal. He appeals to the surface of the painting or picture, which is, coincidentally, the source of Georges Didi-Huberman’s dissatisfaction with Panofsky’s structured conception of images. In contrast, Yang Mian’s visual democracy or equality does not appeal to the surface; it deals with CMYK, the deeper structure or technological source of the picture. However, when we are confronted with Yang’s work—and not the pictures—the surface of the image is CMYK. Here, what truly gives people a freedom of mind is the deeper structures of the pictures, rather than the surfaces of Yang’s images. Both the significance and painting process of Tibetan Buddhist murals rely on strict procedures and hierarchies. Yang Mian’s CMYK translations dissolve this superficial order, while also remaining highly reliant on it. This is the difference between his paintings and works by artists who use similar techniques, such as Yayoi Kusama and Damien Hirst. Even though all of them can be categorized as pop artists, Kusama also has a religious sensibility. Of course, the paradox of CMYK implies that Yang Mian’s visual democracy is decided by our viewing distance, or in other words, it only achieves this equality on a conceptual level, without being fundamentally able to withdraw from the original pictorial order and structure. We also cannot overlook the fact that the basis for the picture is a Buddhist mural and Yang is relying on a digital picture—a secondary image—or more precisely, the technology that generates CMYK, instead of the original mural. In this sense, visual democracy is underpinned by technological hegemony; even (beauty) standards may be a form of hegemony. This time, Yang wants to express or reveal a kind of visual democracy, so there is a secular technological hegemony behind that democracy. In fact, when disseminated around the world as digital images, the sacredness of these Buddhist murals confronts an unprecedented secular challenge. This time, we are captured by the screens and data, rather than by the murals or their sacred content. The “hegemony of visual democracy” is just a turn of phrase, but if we look at it from a viewer’s perspective, it becomes more like pictorial (technological) fetishism. Yang Mian’s CMYK is significant because it reveals and magnifies this new religion. In this sense, CMYK is closely aligned with the religious and sacred aspects of pictorial motifs. The tension between the secular and sacred on that surface is not the goal of Yang’s CMYK. At least here, this is just one aspect of the series; what he truly cares about is the interaction between and inversion of the secular and the sacred, which encompasses layering, circulation, and proliferation. III. As we have noted, CMYK relies on—and even protects—the originals structural order of the picture, but it also, particularly when we look closely, dissolves the structural order of the picture (even if not completely). The “random” arrangement of evenly sized dots in four colors blur the boundaries between the figure and the ground, moving toward Georges Bataille’s l’informe (formlessness) in a way that resists realism. In 1996, the Centre Pompidou held the major exhibition “Formless” curated by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss. The theme and structure of the exhibition was directly inspired by Bataille’s term. Bois noted: Rather, with regard to the informe, it is a matter instead of locating certain operations that brush modernism against the grain, and of doing so without countering modernism’s formal certainties by means of the more reassuring and naïve certainties of meaning. On the contrary, these operations split off from modernism, insulting the very opposition of form and content – which is itself formal, arising as it does from a binary logic – declaring it null and void. However, Bois and Krauss’ formlessness was still just formalism; more precisely, it was an anti-formalist formalism. In a recent paper on Bataille’s theory of formlessness, Wang Chunming noted that formlessness is not mere anti-formalism; there is a sacred foundation to it. This inherent characteristic of the sacred is, in the final analysis, a characteristic of death. Bataille wrote that the separation between the sacred and the transcendent re-opens a realm for death. Yang Mian’s departure from the original picture using CMYK could be understood as an experiment in transcending the physical, and on the surface, a departure from the sacredness of the image itself. Here, we could posit that Yang’s CMYK is also a practice of formlessness. Even though it is unrelated to Bataille’s interests in divinity and scatology, the series has many ties to death. In my view, death as defined here can touch a given Buddhist image, as well as the picture itself. This also indicates that formlessness in Yang Mian’s work is not just an expression of a given pictorial form; it is also a conception of death. However, death does not mean the end of the picture. Instead, it endows the picture with a new potential energy, or reveals energy it always possessed. In addition to the base picture and the standardized structural order of CMYK, this fluid energy opens up a different path for transcending what we have experienced. Leibniz wrote about monads as the basic elements in pictures, and these dots in Yang’s paintings seem to be internally driven by appetition. The interactions among collapse, withering, creation, and rebirth produce perception and further drive appetition, a larger perception comprised of countless pure substances. The self-sufficiency of dots in four colors echoes the entelechy made up of monads. Their forms are what Leibniz considered to be “incorporeal Automatons,” and here, his use of “incorporeal” echoes Bataille’s idea of formlessness. For Yang, this larger perception returns to the total perception of Buddhism, which in turn corresponds to the conception of life and death suggested in Tibetan Buddhist imagery. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition incorporates the twelve links of dependent origination (nidanas) which are foundational to early Indian Buddhist views on the cycle of life and death and the Hinayana Buddhist conception of samsara—all of which holds that life is one large cycle. These two conceptions of death, or of life and death, may differ, but we can still find an inherent affinity between monadology (and formlessness) and Buddhist ideas of dependent origination. As a result, Yang Mian’s CMYK could be considered the rebirth of a picture, rather than its technological recovery; the series does not convey symbolic imagery—it may even be eliminating the image and its symbolism—but it does convey the infinite potential to be derived from pictorial elements. IV. For this exhibition, Yang Mian has brought CMYK to the sacred city of Lhasa and to the Jebumgang Art Center, which is a sacred site in Tibetan Buddhism. Jebumgang (meaning “the holy place of the Hundred Thousand Tsongkhapas”), located between the Jokhang Monastery and the Ramoche Monastery in Lhasa, has always been viewed as the energetic center of the city. The present temple was built in the nineteenth century, and the central government has provided funds for the renovation. Since the 1960s, it has been concealed within the city and used as grain storage. In 2017, the Nirvana team started to renovate and transform the building as part of a commission from the local government, which was completed in 2020. The renovation project was intended to restore and preserve the historic religious function of the building, while also adding contemporary utility. Yang sees Jebumgang as an energy super-field; CMYK is also an energy field, so placing CMYK in Jebumgang is like a collision or contest between the two. Countless glittering dots in four colors are spread throughout this sacred temple in an orderly way, creating an almost dynamic relationship with the Tibetan Buddhist murals on the walls. Here, the CMYK images are like a multi-channel video that has been ordered, magnified, and animated. The setting overflows with the tensions between historic and contemporary, religious and secular, but these tensions totally disappear in this immense field of religious energy. In my view, CMYK draws on the symbolism and holiness of Tibetan Buddhist imagery, while the base images and the surrounding murals activate the formless or monadic desires and sacred potential of CMYK. Thinking back nearly forty years, when Rauschenberg came to Lhasa and placed his own work in this energy super-field, he was not merely challenging or responding to this sacred city in a secular way; he truly wanted to learn how to activate sacred power in his work using these methods, because his artistic practice involved formlessness and its sacred foundations. He also participated in Krauss and Bois’ “Formless” exhibition in 1996 with Dirt Painting. This series is obviously closer to his Dadaist side, but to a significant extent, it was inspired by Zen Buddhism. It is important to note that, when he studied at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg encountered Zen ideas through John Cage. As a Pop artist or a Neo-Dadaist, the religious and the sacred has been an undertone in Rauschenberg’s work. Coincidentally, in making the trip to Lhasa, Yang Mian’s CMYK does not simply respond to a sacred space like Jebumgang in a secular way or critique technological fetishism. He wants to liberate CMYK from the interpretive frame of the mere restoration of past pictorial elements, and instead see the series as a new energetic entity that moves between, or even transcends, the secular and the sacred. Perhaps this is what makes presenting CMYK in Jebumgang so significant.
References Bois, Yve-Alain, and Rosalind Krauss. Formless: A User’s Manual. New York: Zone Books, 1997. Crow, Thomas. No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art. Sydney: Power Publications, 2017. Didi-Huberman, Georges. Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art. Translated by John Goodman. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. Gangla, Dolma. “Zangchuan Fojiao Shengsiguan Yanjiu” (A Study of the Tibetan Buddhist Conception of Life and Death). Qinghai Shehui Kexue (Qinghai Social Sciences) no. 6 (2012): 177-180. Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. “The Monadology.” In The Philosophical Works of Leibniz. Translated by George Martin Duncan, 218-232. New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1890. Li, Xinjian. “Laoshenboge de Xizang Qingyuan” (Rauschenberg’s Affinity for Tibet). Guangming Ribao (Guangming Daily). January 9, 2016, https://epaper.gmw.cn/gmrb/html/2016-1/09/nw.D110000gmrb_20160109_5-07.htm. Lu, Mingjun. “CMYK: Experiments in Metapictures and Visual Archeology.” Translated by Bridget Noetzel, Original 2011, Translation 2021, https://www.yangmian.net/2011-lu-mingjun-cmyk-experiments-in-metapictures-and-visual-archeology.html. Lu, Mingjun. Qianwei de chengnuo——<Shiyue>Fangtanlu (An Avant-Garde Commitment: October Interviews). Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin youxian gongsi, 2023. Morley, Simon. The Simple Truth: The Monochrome in Modern Art. London: Reaktion Books, 2020. Rancière, Jacques. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Translated by Zakir Paul. London: Verso, 2013. Shumaker, Russ. “Andy Warhol’s Religious Pop Art.” April 13, 2017, https://www.periecho.com/single-post/2017/04/13/andy-warhol-s-religious-pop-art. UCCA. “Rauschenberg in China.” Accessed February 18, 2023, https://ucca.org.cn/en/exhibition/robert-rauschenberg-2. Wang, Chunming. “Buchengxing de Wuzhi shi Shenshengde——Bataye “Budingxing” Gainian de Neihan Xintan” (Formless Objects Are Sacred: A New Exploration of Bataille’s Concept of Informe). Zhexue Dongtai(Philosophical Trends) no. 1 (2023): 61-68. Xia, Tian. “Danding zai 1960: Laoshenboge <Diyu> Zuhua yu Houxiandaizhuyi Yishu” (Dante in 1960: Rauschenberg’s Dante Drawings and Post-Modern Art). Meiyu Xuekan (Journal of Aesthetic Education) no. 4 (2021): 76-82. 【1】 UCCA, “Rauschenberg in China,” accessed February 18, 2023, https://ucca.org.cn/en/exhibition/robert-rauschenberg-2. 【2】 UCCA, “Rauschenberg in China.” 【3】 Russ Shumaker, “Andy Warhol’s Religious Pop Art,” April 13, 2017, https://www.periecho.com/single-post/2017/04/13/andy-warhol-s-religious-pop-art. 【4】Shumaker, “Andy Warhol’s Religious Pop Art.” 【5】 Thomas Crow, No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (Sydney: Power Publications, 2017), 5. 【6】See Lu Mingjun, Qianwei de chengnuo——<Shiyue>Fangtanlu (An Avant-Garde Commitment: October Interviews). Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin youxian gongsi, 2023. 【7】See Xia Tian, “Danding zai 1960: Laoshenboge <Diyu> Zuhua yu Houxiandaizhuyi Yishu” (Dante in 1960: Rauschenberg’s Dante Drawings and Post-Modern Art), Meiyu Xuekan (Journal of Aesthetic Education) no. 4 (2021): 76-82. 【8】 Li Xinjian, “Laoshenboge de Xizang Qingyuan” (Rauschenberg’s Affinity for Tibet), Guangming Ribao (Guangming Daily), January 9, 2016, https://epaper.gmw.cn/gmrb/html/2016-01/09/nw.D110000gmrb_20160109_5-07.htm. 【9】Lu Mingjun, “CMYK: Experiments in Metapictures and Visual Archeology,” trans. Bridget Noetzel, Original 2011, Translation 2021, https://www.yangmian.net/2011-lu-mingjun-cmyk-experiments-in-metapictures-and-visual-archeology.html. 【10】 Simon Morley, The Simple Truth: The Monochrome in Modern Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), 61. 【11】 Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, trans. Zakir Paul (London: Verso, 2013), 31-32. 【12】 See Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, trans. John Goodman (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005). 【13】Morley, The Simple Truth, 72-82. 【14】Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Manual (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 16. 【15】See Wang Chunming, “Buchengxing de Wuzhi shi Shenshengde——Bataye “Budingxing” Gainian de Neihan Xintan” (Formless Objects Are Sacred: A New Exploration of Bataille’s Concept of Informe), Zhexue Dongtai (Philosophical Trends) no. 1 (2023): 61-68. 【16】Here, death brings us back to Warhol’s The Big C. As Shumaker writes: “Warhol copied the Big C graphic from an article about cancer. Multiple meanings emerge as we contemplate cancer as foreboding and death, even as we are reminded that the last supper was Christ's final meal before he was crucified.” Shumaker, “Andy Warhol’s Religious Pop Art.” 【17】 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, “The Monadology,” in The Philosophical Works of Leibniz, trans. George Martin Duncan (New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1890), 218-232. 【18】 Gangla Dolma, “Zangchuan Fojiao Shengsiguan Yanjiu” (A Study of the Tibetan Buddhist Conception of Life and Death), Qinghai Shehui Kexue(Qinghai Social Sciences) no. 6 (2012): 177-180.