Composer and musician Tenzin Choegyal is well known for his haunting melodies, soaring vocals and an addiction to experimentation. So when I took a seat last night in the Rubin Museum’s acoustic theater for a sold-out show by Choegyal alongside Laurie Anderson and Jesse Paris Smith, I expected to be surprised. But nothing could have prepared me for what was to come: an hour-long journey into the great unknown, filled with visualizations of death, rebirth and the great mystery of awakening.
Choegyal and friends performed a breathtaking and sublime musical adaptation of Bardo Thodrol (The Great Liberation Through Hearing), a Tibetan Buddhist text usually read for the dead or dying by a Tibetan lama. In the process of dying, Buddhists believe, a person’s consciousness goes through several different stages, where the dying person begins to see different kinds of colors, sharp lights, and terrifying images. The consciousness, blinded by the lights and terrified by the images of wrathful deities, is often lured into the more inviting paths of softer shades that lead to lower realms of rebirth. But if the dying person can face the blinding lights squarely, unafraid of the wrathful images and sounds, she can use this ‘moment of clear light’ to attain instantaneous enlightenment. The Bardo Thodrol, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is read to the dead with the intention of guiding them through this in-between state following one’s death and before entering rebirth.
With his trademark vocals accompanied by the unmistakable twang of his dranyen, Choegyal rendered the Bardo Thodrol, magically, into a multidimensional journey for the lay audience, an awe-inspiring rehearsal for the ultimate moment of clear light that awaits us all. Laurie Anderson’s intimate and powerful narration of the book was an artwork of the highest order, holding the audience enraptured, imprisoned, and eventually released. Jesse Paris Smith and her friends, with their panoply of futuristic instruments and the perfectly timed clanking of cymbals, created a cosmic soundtrack that was by turns apocalyptic, spellbinding and liberating.
At the end of the show, when Choegyal explained that this particular performance of Bardo Thodrol was dedicated to the more than 140 Tibetans who have self-immolated in the last four years for the cause of Tibetan freedom, the audience broke into a collective gasp, followed by rapturous and emotional applause. For many, it was as if the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into its place, revealing a profound and devastating truth that had been brewing for an hour, in fact, for four years. No one left the concert hall without being moved – or transformed – by the unforgettable experience.
– by Tendor
Learn more about Tenzin Choegyal
Artist Tenzing Rigdol made a video performance piece in September 2008 titled “Scripture Noodles” during his residency at the Vermont Art Studio. The video features Tenzing walking into the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant where he cooks Tibetan Buddhist scriptures cut up into noodle-like strips of paper. He fries his ink-laden paper noodles with onions and tomatoes in a wok and then sits on a table to eat this unusual dish with a plastic fork.
Tenzing Rigdol is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work ranges from painting, sculpture, drawing and collage, to digital, video-installation, performance art and site specific pieces. Tenzing’s works are highly political and often touches on issues of exile and occupation. In the last couple of years his works have dealt with subjects such as the self-immolations in Tibet as a form of political protest (Kirti – from the ashes of agony) and in 2011, he smuggled 20,000 kilograms of Tibetan soil from Tibet to India for a site-specific art installation titled “Our land, Our People” that reunited Tibetan exiles with their homeland. (This work was the central story of the 2013 documentary film BRINGING TIBET HOME).
In September this year, the Tibetan community in exile was ripe with rumors, gossip and bad mouthing when someone from the community in Dharamsala, India stumbled upon the video of his performance piece 6 years after it was made. The person illegally downloaded the video and uploaded it on facebook under a deliberately misleading title that goes something like “Mad Artist Tenzing Rigdol eating holy Tibetan scriptures“. This lead to the video going viral on facebook until facebook took it down for copyright infringement. (The original video is available here.)
Many of these viewers, unacquainted with the world of contemporary art or even performance art, assumed that this was a video that a random man has made and was later leaked by the facebook uploader. Many instantly jumped to conclusions and claimed that Artist Tenzing Rigdol was someone who’s resolute at destroying Tibetan Buddhist culture and one poster even went as far as to say that the artist needs to be assassinated. It would seem that anyone in the Tibetan community who keeps himself informed, would know artist Tenzing Rigdol by his previous internationally acclaimed works that strive to highlight the Tibetan cause but most of these facebook critics knew very little about him or his works or of any other Tibetan contemporary artists.
Days after the upheaval on facebook, Tibetan writer Dhondup Tashi Rekjong of Karkhung.com interviewed artist Tenzing Rigdol who speaks in the following video about the origin of Performance Art and explains the meaning behind his work “Scripture Noodles”.