Lhasa-based painter Gade is well known for his artistic practice that melds traditional symbolism and the contemporary capitalist iconography that has come to permeate Chinese and Tibetan society. His astute perceptions of his environment ask us to consider the implications of rapid and radical social change. Born to a Tibetan mother and a Han Chinese father, the artist has a unique perspective from which to view and comment on the society around him.
Gade draws ordinary objects of daily life in Lhasa—cartoons, beer bottles, Chinese dumplings—into the spotlight, where they can be celebrated, condemned or dispassionately noted. Social life as told through these objects witnesses a comingling of Chinese imports, Communist memorabilia, Western fashions and traditional secular and religious indigenous items.
Despite the prominence of Western and Chinese cultural symbols in his work, the artist’s compositions are influenced by narrative structures found in Tibetan art, and he considers his work a product of his own native tradition.
In Bodhi Leaves and the Little Red Book,Gade delivers two new series of paintings. While one takes the spiritually symbolic leaves of the Bodhi tree as a backdrop, the other uses the pages of Mao Zedong’s ubiquitous, glossy red book of quotations, commonly known as the ‘Little Red Book’.
As referenced in the exhibition title, the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, plays an important role for Buddhists of all traditions. In the painting The New Icon (2015), seven familiar Western figures—Santa Claus, Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, among others—are painted on the tree’s dried leaves, each mimicking various poses of the Buddha. This provocation is intended to make us realise just how much traditional religious iconography has been replaced by secular imagery. Unlike the deference we pay to religious figures, we embrace and befriend secular icons.
This sense of gullibility is also present in Fatal Attraction I–IV (2015), a set of paintings also on Bodhi leaves, each depicting a butterfly half-engulfed in flames. Here, the artist addresses environmental concerns within his compositional style.
A group of forty-nine small paintings on paper collaged to canvas compose the Little Red Book series (2015). Influenced by Tibet’s mural painting, Gade’s style possesses a narrative quality, with its flatness of imagery, emphasis on detail and incorporation of the patterns and formal structures of religious art. He also depicts themes of death, warfare and daily life interchangeably with Tibetan, Chinese and Western motifs, alongside Mao’s quotes, some famous, others mundane. Painted onto the page that opens the chapter titled, ‘To Correct Wrong Thought within the Communist Party’, a pole with four security cameras takes the central image; a snake wound tightly around its central axis gleans towards a nearby Buddha. On another page, the words ‘It only takes a spark to start a prarie fire’ are encircled by a red road sign with the universal message, ‘No Entry’. Dead animals, body parts and weaponry abound in Gade’s imagery. A magnificent tiger, a symbol of greedy and corrupt public officials in China, is shown with six fresh and bleeding arrow wounds. The intricately painted de-bodied wing of a vulture reminds viewers of Tibetan sky burials, a once-sacred cultural practice that today has been all but forgotten.
The wrathful deity Mahakala appears in one of the most dazzling examples, Little Red Book No. 22 (2015), with deep blue paint replacing the god’s traditional black skin. Gold paint accents his ritual accessories, and, reaching to the sky, he holds a smart phone, emblazoned with the universally familiar bitten-apple logo in silhouette. Flashy, colourful, shiny consumer products, both cheap and practical, play the role of ritual objects—once used as a means of communicating with the gods—in Tibetan society today.
One characteristic Tibetan influence in Gade’s artwork is the use of worn textures and a warm, aged colour palate that exudes the feel of eroded, decaying antique murals. These techniques can be seen in the epic painting Red Sea(2015), which reconstructs imagery found in both the Bodhi leaves as well as in the Little Red Book into a tableau of exquisite savagery. Here, the Biblical scene of horror is re-created on the Tibetan plateau: with the Himalayas in the near distance, brutality ensues in a sea of blood between warring, gas-masked body forms, as both real and mythological animals engage in the mayhem.
Presaged death and destruction, prominent in Gade’s recent work, indicate a tonal shift in his oeuvre—from a pessimistically witty take on consumerism and objective observation of cultural degradation, towards bleak futurism under misaligned spiritual and political identities. Through observation of the artist’s morphing imagery, we gain insight into the changing experience of Tibet, which is resolutely embodied in Gade’s art.