In March, I saw the book Murals of Tibet at Art Basel Hong Kong, and I was amazed by what was clearly more than just a book. As I turned the book’s pages, looking at every image of these fantastic Tibetan Buddhist mural paintings, I was left with a lasting impression that was at least partly as powerful as seeing the actual art that inspired the images.
Photographer Thomas Laird shot images of the murals with the mission to make the invisible visible. Even after thousands of years, most still haven’t had the chance to properly view the murals. Making us see things in a new way is one objective of an artist, and also to help people grasp the visual movements of the world around them. Through his lens, Laird documented rare and sacred Buddhist murals, passing the stories of their art to the world.
Laird’s project wasn’t easy and took a great deal of patience and hard work to accomplish. Just like all great art, the murals have stood the test of time, and Laird was passionate about preserving the sacred art in a way that could be accurately remembered in people’s minds.
“As an experienced photographer, when technique is viewed as love and passion, you can see the images moving form the India through the mind of the Tibetan artists, into my mind and onto the pages,” said Laird. “And then from there onto your mind, then you can see the images from there go into future, if I haven’t done this work, the images would not be gone in the future. That is an amazing experience.”
Laird said that every picture tells a different story. He mentioned that when the Dalai Lama was a child and learning to read, he stood in front of the murals and monks told him each story. Visual art is a sublime language, and the mural paintings spoke of transmigration and rebirth to the Dalai Lama long before he could understand words. The Dalai Lama signed 998 copies of this book. It was as if he represented the spirits of the previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama in acknowledging the Tibetan mural paintings which he was so immersed in.
Great art can nurture and inspire humanity. The Tibetan murals imparted spiritual truths to the Dalai Lama and whoever else encountered them, and hopefully will continue to do so for future generations. The conservation of great art is meaningful and important, because it is not only about the preservation of human culture, but also of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, he teachings of Buddhism, and the dedication of our ancestors who passed down such incredible art. I might not know every story behind the Tibetan Buddhist mural paintings, but I am sure that each of them have included all of the elements discussed here. That’s why Laird was enchanted by them and moved to do his part to record them visually.