An Appearance and an Encounter
Concealment as a refusal is not simply and only the limit of knowledge in any given circumstance, but the beginning of the lighting of what is lighted. But concealment, though of another sort, to be sure, at the same time also occurs within what is lighted. One being places itself in front of another being, the one helps to hide the other, the former obscures the latter, a few obstruct many, one denies all. Here concealment is not simple refusal. Rather a being appears, but it presents itself as other than it is.
-Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”
Yang Mian’s working methods, when focused on Tibetan mural painting, engender a tense relationship with the philosophy of technology. He develops digital murals on a computer screen, and every part is reconstructed in a CMYK matrix, which might take several months. Both the fierce and gentle faces are diffused in a sea of countless cyan, magenta, black, and yellow dots. After arranging the colors based on experience and intuition, Yang creates four boards with holes corresponding to each of the colors, then applies the colors to the canvas one after another and transforms the image into CMYK.
If you look at the paintings from a distance, the Buddha images in Five Tathāgatas at the Shalu Monastery and the Hevajra Tantra and Dakini at the Choide Monastery are still solemn and dignified, but if you examine them at close range, the brushstrokes disappear. Yang’s paintings seem even and smooth—a part of the media industry—and viewers discover that they are looking at something else entirely.
Traditionally, whether a thangka had transcendental value was largely dependent on the vitality injected by the painter—the investment of physical and spiritual energy. Many painters moisten the tips of their brushes with their saliva and develop eye strain after years of painting, which are physical offerings to the Buddha and bodhisattvas. The brushstrokes and details are imbued with the artist’s vitality. A serious thangka work often requires several months to complete, and some painters spend years. In theory, painters could endlessly adjust the composition and polish the details, achieving a spiritual peak as they complete the final steps in the painting—the “opening” of the faces and eyes—much like a religious ceremony.
Now, the question becomes: How could the Buddha images that Yang Mian has made using this technique have transcendental value, if they have any at all?
This potential conflict is what gives art energy in the contemporary moment. Prior to modernism, the primary task of art was mimesis. In Tibetan Buddhist painting, there are two facets to mimesis. The first is the imitation of past classic paintings, which is common in other artistic traditions. The second is the attempt to approach an ideal image of the Buddha—when gazing upon this perfection, the sacred comes to earth. In addition to the Thirty-Two Characteristics and the Eighty Secondary Characteristics of a Great Man, Tibetan Buddhist painting uses the Three Sutras and One Commentary as a blueprint, facilitating systematized and standardized painting and offering a foundation in faith for that ideal image.
However, the times have already changed. Even though the butter lamps remain lit, glittering screens take up more space in people’s minds and artificial intelligence has started to make art. Images of the Buddha are still holy, but thangka prints are ubiquitous on Barkhor Street, a key commercial street in Lhasa. Their precision makes it difficult to differentiate them from hand-painted works. In this circumstance, Walter Benjamin’s century-old interrogation of the aura of a work of art still applies. Yang must engage with the question: Why make Buddha images in an era of digital replication?
In other words, how is a Buddha image for our times produced, and where does it exist? Obviously, for any viewer’s retina, the works are a synthesis of a four-color dot matrix. Yang Mian’s cold approach to the visual production of images is akin to deconstruction on the atomic level. This also encapsulates the underlying logic of CMYK: In printed images, the boundless universe and the mortal world are essentially layers of those four colors. Now, Yang has fully and directly placed these four colors before you—telling you that this is the visual truth. Finely detailed Buddha images that, for several hundred years, were physical offerings have become millions of clicks of a mouse on a computer screen, such that the Buddha images fundamentally exists digitally. This is the destruction of an image, but it is also a rebirth in the digital world; they may be two sides of the same coin that engage with our current discussion of the internet, data, virtuality, and reality.
As in history, the closer you get, the less you see; the truth requires a bit of distance before it appears. When we take a few steps back to view Yang Mian’s Buddha images, the Buddha and bodhisattvas are still descending to earth: Five Tathāgatas at the Shalu Monastery, Hevajra Tantra and Dakini at the Choide Monastery, and Padmasambhava at the Jebumgang Art Center. The atomic dots of CMYK color still present to us the dignity of the Buddha.
This is the appearance of a Buddha image, rather than the result of logical and visual inferences. Drawing on phenomenology, we may be able to say that this is because we have the ability to perceive these images fundamentally and directly. The thing and its visualization manifest an ontological difference. In this case, the CMYK dot matrix as a visualization leads us toward the Buddha.
To a certain extent, this answers the question I posed earlier. Yang uses the visual grammar of our times to preserve the truth of the Buddha’s image in prints, on screens, and in data.
Yang Mian’s work inspires us to contemplate the media’s influence on our understanding of the world. In addition to printing technologies, consumerism, the industrialization of media, and other issues that critics have addressed previously, this exhibition may present a special connection between data and the sacred. Yang Mian’s inexhaustible, even distribution of CMYK dots reflect the homogeneity of time and space. Only with a common understanding of time can the entire world operate as a precise machine, and only with a common understanding of space can North American physicists verify research results from a Beijing laboratory. This evenness and atomization are Yang’s response to the characteristics of our times. We may not believe it when these dot matrices become limitless; localized chaos transcends logic, opening for us some of the truths in this world as encounters.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, 143-187. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
【1】Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 175-176.
【2】 The Three Sutras and One Commentary are Buddha’s Manual of Ten-Span Dimensions (Foshuo shizha liangdu jing), Buddha’s Manual of Sculptural Dimensions (Foshuo zaoxiang liangdu jing), Painting Pictures (Huaxiang), and Commentary on the Buddha’s Manual of Sculptural Dimensions (Foshuo zaoxiang liangdu jingshu).
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