Curators's Concepts : Heather Stoddard

Golden Buddhas from Tibet
»Reconstruction« of the Façade of a Stupa from Densathil

The Tibetan monastery of Densathil was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-1978. During that violent period, and over the last two decades, hundreds of superb, shining golden images from the eighteen stupas in the assembly hall were carried or thrown down the steep mountainside into the valley below. They were sent by yak or truck out of Tibet and China, and sold on the international market to museums and private collections all over the world. The tragedy of the destruction - in the mid-20th century - of this ancient royal monastery is but one example among thousands all over the Tibetan plateau.

The central part of the installation »Golden Buddhas from Tibet« is taken up by a partial re-construction of a facade of one of the eighteen heavily gilt solid copper stupas. In contrast to other sites, the large number of recognizable Densathil images that have arrived in the West, together with old photos from the 1940s, may allow one day for a more ambitious attempt at reconstruction.

The richly adorned stupas were made in »Nepalese style« over three centuries, during the reign of the Phagmodru myriarchy of Tsethang [late 14th-early 17th century]. A new one was designed and smelted after the passing away of each of the princes, and their cousin abbots of the monastery. Each stupa was festooned with splendid golden images, and the monastery itself was considered to be among the great religious treasures of Tibet. During the 14th century, the Phagmodru became vassals of the Mongol emperors, receiving substantial gifts from the court in Beijing. The two most splendid stupas for which we have photographic documentation date to that time. One was a reliquary for the founding myriarch, Changchub Gyaltsen [1302-1364], in ca. 1365; and the other made following the death of his successor, Jamyang Shakya Gyaltsen [1340-1373], in ca. 1374. According to historical records, the first was adorned with 2800 freestanding images [average height : 30 cm], while the second had 3900 images of a similar size. The sixteen other stupas also had large numbers of gorgeous shining gilt copper statues.

The creation of these »Hundred Thousand Image« stupas is even more astonishing than the ideological hysteria and greed that destroyed them. The site of the original »reed hut« hermitage, founded in 1158 by a great yogin from Eastern Tibet, Dorje Gyelpo [1118-1170], nestles in a perfumed forest, in magnificent rocky arena, at 4500 m. above sea level, a good two hour vertical walk above the Tsangpo [Brahmaputra] River. The geomorphic configuration of the valley, creating a strong upward funnel of wind, together with the abundant supply of juniper wood, allowed no doubt, for the extraordinary technical feat of smelting and casting thousands of metal images while perched on a cliff face, 4500 m above sea level, at a considerable distance from any human settlement. It all began in 1192, when six hundred built a huge temple in memory of their spiritual master. It was said to have had 140 pillars, and even today the ruins of the walls measure an impressive 37.80 x 32.80 x 8 m. The monastery was intact until the Cultural Revolution, as witnessed by three well known travelers.

Sarat Chandra Das, the Bengali explorer, wrote in his diary on the 23rd of November 1882: »This temple differs somewhat from all other buildings of this kind I have seen in Tibet, the plan of it approaching rather that of a modern public building in Bengal. I noticed here eighteen beautiful silver and copper chorten, the finest specimens of such metal work I have ever seen. Six tablets of gold, each six feet long and six inches broad, hung from the ceiling, besides six piles of similar but smaller tablets in a corner...Of all the monasteries in Tibet, this is perhaps the richest in religious treasures, and the Government of Lhasa takes particular care of it.«

Giuseppe Tucci, the Italian scholar explorer, wrote in 1946, in his book, To Lhasa and Beyond: »The Tsetang princes must have gathered the pick of available architects and sculptors...These chortens are rightly termed ‘Kumbums’, i.e. hundred thousand the architectural lines of those buildings were smothered with a wealth of carvings and reliefs that knew no limit. The whole Olympus of Mahayana Buddhism seemed to have assembled on those monuments. As I cast the light of my torch on the chortens, the multiple figures sprang to life, glittering with gold outlined and set off by darker hues and deep shadows.« [1]

Was it the glittering gold, the mysterious »degenerate« forms of deities, the »greed« of the clergy, the »blind devotion« of the Tibetans that triggered the violent reaction of Mao and the Communist Party? Was it the impetuous fury of the Cultural Revolution, the slipping out of control of the »broad masses« of adolescents? Did the sweeping away of »harmful insects« provide the much-needed space for the creation of a new man, a model society, an international movement against all the oppressive ruling classes of the world, new art forms to serve the people? To what extent did China succeed in creating that ideal image of mankind? What is behind the intense use of imagery on both sides? Where does the strength of a »religious« image lie, in relation to images of education and art that are used to mediate human existence in the 20th -21st century? How is it that the »religious« image comes rushing back, the minute »political« pressure is released? How is it that »lay« collectors the world over cherish even broken images taken brutally out of their original context?

- > further information about the project


Sarat Chandra Das, 23 November 1882; Kathog Situ [1880-1924], »Guide to the Holy Places of Central Tibet«, dBus.gTsang gNas.yig, Lhasa Gangs.can Rig.mdzod vol. 33, 178-185 trip to Central Tibet, 1918-1920; and Giuseppe Tucci, in 1946, in his book, To Lhasa and Beyond, Rome 1956, 126-127.


+ Biography

Tibetologist, Researcher at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales [CNRS], Paris, France

The main research of Heather Stoddard-Kamay concentrates on Tibetan literature and theological image theory and –practice as well as on the adoration of images in Buddhism.

Among her most important publications are:
Le mendiant de l'Amdo, Paris 1985; Tibetan Vernacular Architecture: Namseling Manor, in: CIAA-Circle of Inner Asian Art, Newsletter #6, November 1997; The Development in Perceptions of Tibetan Art: From Golden Idols to Ultimate Reality, in: Thierry Dodin/Heinz Rather (Ed.s): Imagining Tibet : Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies, 2001.



curatorial concept
artists and exhibits

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Peter Galison
Dario Gamboni
Joseph Leo Koerner
Bruno Latour

Adam Lowe
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Peter Weibel

Hans Belting
Boris Groys
Denis Laborde
Marie-José Mondzain
Heather Stoddard

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Last update: Tuesday, April 23, 2002 at 5:15:11 PM.