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Tsherin Sherpa - Tibetan Spirit - Rossi & Rossi

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<strong>Tsherin</strong><br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

<strong>spirit</strong>


<strong>Tsherin</strong><br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

<strong>spirit</strong>


Blind Spirits (detail), 2012, Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen,122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)


Of Icons and Elvises:<br />

‘<strong>Tibetan</strong> Spirit’ in <strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s New Art<br />

Katharine P. Burnett<br />

(Fig. 1)<br />

Mu Qi (Chinese, early thirteenth century–after 1279)<br />

Six Persimmons<br />

Ca. 1250<br />

Ink on paper; album leaf mounted as a hanging scroll<br />

38.1 x 36.2 cm (15 x 14 ¼ in)<br />

Daitokuji, Kyoto, Japan<br />

Image reproduced from Akiyama Terukazu, Genshoku Nihon no<br />

bijutsu, Tokyo, 1966–1972). Not on view in the current exhibition<br />

1<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.<br />

2<br />

Many versions of Marcel Duchamp’s<br />

(1887–1968) repurposed urinal sculpture exist, but<br />

the original, now lost, was titled Fountain and signed<br />

‘R. Mutt’. It was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz<br />

(1864–1946) in 1917.<br />

3<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.<br />

4<br />

Chinese artist Liang Kai (active early thirteenth<br />

century) once painted the subject. A hanging scroll<br />

attributed to him is The Sixth Chan Monk Huineng<br />

Tearing Up the Sutras (Private Collection), reproduced<br />

in To So Gen Min Meiga Taikan (Tokyo: Otsuka<br />

Kogeisha, 1929), Vol. 1, Fig. 76.<br />

5<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.<br />

As <strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong> contemplated making his newest set of<br />

paintings, he found himself asking, “What happens when<br />

a deity from an altar or a monastery is taken out of context?<br />

Is it still sacred or does it become secular? When an object<br />

or even a whole temple is placed in a museum, is one to<br />

engage with it as a sacred object or as a work of art? For<br />

that matter, what really is the difference between the image<br />

of a Buddha in a monastery and one in someone’s garden<br />

with artificial waterfalls? Or on the shelves of Costco?” 1 Just<br />

as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal raised new questions about the<br />

nature of art and expectation in the early twentieth century, 2<br />

and Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Campbell’s Soup cans and<br />

celebrities-in-multiples asked another set of questions for art<br />

later in the century, <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s new art interrogates the way we<br />

understand objects today as works of art or for devotion.<br />

Mindful of these issues over religion, art and context whilst<br />

feeding on a steady diet of updates from the news, <strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

created a series of new works, many of which are illustrated<br />

here, for his first solo show in London. Most are painted in<br />

acrylic with gold or platinum leaf on linen or canvas whilst<br />

some are small works on paper. Each has layers of meaning.<br />

Themes<br />

Initially, <strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s new works can appear simple,<br />

straightforward and secular, yet several themes run through<br />

them. Few are blatantly obvious. With explication, however,<br />

each can be deciphered.<br />

Though brought up on a strict diet of <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhism,<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong> increasingly feels the need to break away from<br />

staid expectations and fossilised formulae for living. A<br />

Buddhist ‘identity’, he points out, can be as restrictive as a<br />

uniform. As his teacher used to explain, “When you understand<br />

the essence of the teaching, [it is as if] you have been<br />

wearing this jacket for a long time, and you have been<br />

soaking it in acid, and then everything is gone”. 3<br />

Just as Huineng (638–713), the sixth patriarch of Chinese<br />

meditational Buddhism, felt free to rip up the sutras once he<br />

became enlightened, 4 <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s constricting formal intellectual<br />

attire has worn away. More and more, he appreciates the<br />

philosophical aspects of Buddhism, and values the intellectual<br />

freedom that comes with a deep understanding of the<br />

Buddhist dharma. For <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s art, the result is paintings<br />

that are infused with profound meaning stabilised by<br />

Buddhist principles.<br />

This suggests an approach similar to meditational Buddhism<br />

(Sanskrit: dhyana; Chinese: chan; Japanese: zen), and in<br />

the art world, an intellectual syzygy with the monk Mu Qi<br />

(Chinese, thirteenth century) and his iconic Six Persimmons<br />

(Fig. 1). In Mu Qi’s small monochrome ink painting, six<br />

persimmons in various phases of definition can prompt the<br />

devotee into a meditation on the concepts of being and<br />

nothingness. Similarly, the more <strong>Sherpa</strong> depicts seemingly<br />

secular topics and forms, the more his devout Buddhist ideals<br />

emerge, and the more his ‘secular’ works can be read as<br />

Buddhist meditations.<br />

Each work in <strong>Tibetan</strong> Spirit probes aspects of ‘<strong>Tibetan</strong>-ness’:<br />

from <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhist deities, to the concepts that the deities<br />

represent, to a questioning of what <strong>Tibetan</strong> <strong>spirit</strong> is generally.<br />

Likewise, each work also investigates the concept of ‘<strong>spirit</strong>’,<br />

a term of many meanings. Amongst other things, ‘<strong>spirit</strong>’ can<br />

indicate a good attitude, a ghost or a deity. At the same<br />

time, <strong>Sherpa</strong> notes that <strong>spirit</strong> can also indicate an alcoholic<br />

drink or, for that matter, gasoline or kerosene. 5<br />

To be sure, an essential ‘<strong>Tibetan</strong> Spirit’ is impossible to<br />

define. Yet, with the recent spate of <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhist<br />

self-immolations hastened by a drenching of the body<br />

with a volatile <strong>spirit</strong>, <strong>Sherpa</strong> believes the world’s perception<br />

of what is ‘<strong>Tibetan</strong>’ is being affected. What is more,<br />

these auto-cremations are challenging traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

notions of right conduct, thoughts, words and deeds in<br />

the face of social upheaval. They are affecting <strong>Tibetan</strong>s’<br />

<strong>spirit</strong> around the globe.<br />

Much of <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s new work deals with the topic of<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> self-immolation. As such, he joins a growing list of<br />

4<br />

5


contemporary <strong>Tibetan</strong> artists who are critically responding<br />

to this trend in their art, including Karma Phuntsok, Phuntsok<br />

Tsering, Tenzing Rigdol, Tashi Norbu, Ngawang Jorden,<br />

Tenzin Jigme and Sonam Dolma. 6<br />

Making this set of paintings exhibited in the Rossi & Rossi<br />

show helped <strong>Sherpa</strong> to work through the fraught issues surrounding<br />

self-immolation. Within the Buddhist and scholarly<br />

communities, some see self-immolation as an enactment of<br />

an event in the Lotus Sutra. 7 Others, however, even those<br />

sympathetic to the Lotus Sutra, consider it to be a loss, as<br />

it prohibits the body from being a final karmic gift to other<br />

sentient beings. (Insects and animals, for example, could<br />

benefit by eating the corpse). 8<br />

Though the Lotus Sutra is a seminal text for Mahayana<br />

Buddhism, it is not central to <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhism. Consequently,<br />

it seems <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhists are reaching out to<br />

forms of Buddhism and social activism practiced outside<br />

of the <strong>Tibetan</strong> social context. As cultural anthropologists<br />

Carole McGranahan and Ralph Litzinger note, “Tibet has<br />

no history of self-immolation as sacrifice, religious offering,<br />

or political protest”. 9 Nonetheless, rhetoric scholar Tenzin<br />

Mingyur Paldron explains,<br />

It is not a standard of loss or hopelessness that<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong>s are rallying around, nor are these acts<br />

simply a call to conscience. At stake is a harm<br />

threatening not only <strong>Tibetan</strong>s but also others under<br />

occupation, as well as those seeking to break from<br />

social and political cycles that seem never-ending<br />

in the suffering they reproduce. The story of the<br />

Buddha is a lesson about how one responds as<br />

a witness to suffering, rather than an argument<br />

against or justification of suffering. In order to enact<br />

breaks in certain cycles of suffering, there must<br />

be a willingness to endure some of the pain one<br />

witnesses, rather than mere desire to manage pain<br />

without ever touching it.<br />

She continues,<br />

It is in the cultivation of a particular attitude of possibility,<br />

one based on a readiness to suffer, that acts of virtuous<br />

pain may re-order our sense of how the world might<br />

be perceived. Such acts of self-suffering must not<br />

be oversimplified, for they underscore the harm in<br />

structures of knowledge and power that would rather<br />

ignore than reconsider; contain instead of imagine<br />

the crossings. Beings can be trapped within many<br />

kinds of patterns and walls—political, legal, and<br />

philosophical—all of which may pose obstacles<br />

to deeper understanding. Yet we all know, at least<br />

theoretically, that certain acts are capable of casting<br />

fissures into walls, even of leaping outside them. 10<br />

Along with the concept of self-immolation evoked in <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s<br />

works is the notion of prayer flags and, by extension,<br />

prayer. As such, these paintings also indicate a corollary<br />

topic: the potential for compassion and mercy. The subtext<br />

of these works, therefore, seems to be to remind us of the<br />

possibility of an end to suffering (Buddhist enlightenment),<br />

and ultimately, the extinction of suffering through cycles of<br />

reincarnation (nirvana).<br />

Along with these ideas, however, are other goals for <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s<br />

art. He explains,<br />

Firstly, in my work, I [want] to refrain from sounding<br />

like a Buddhist teaching. I feel that much of the<br />

Buddhist view is very relevant in today’s world but<br />

I also understand that so many people’s minds turn<br />

away when I begin using unfamiliar Buddhist<br />

terminology. In a way, humanity already has so<br />

many distinctions or forms that keep us separate<br />

from understanding one another, I try to use skillful<br />

means to make my paintings accessible in [the]<br />

day-to-day life of many types of people, not just<br />

Buddhists or <strong>Tibetan</strong>s but [also] Atheists, Christians,<br />

etc. For example, when the Dalai Lama gives talks,<br />

he usually gives a more public talk that is accessible<br />

to everybody than a more dharma-specific<br />

talk for practitioners. Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed<br />

that some of the younger generation of <strong>Tibetan</strong>s [are]<br />

jaded and bored by traditional Buddhist thangkas<br />

and teachings. I hope to find a way so that they can<br />

relate to my imagery by its being somewhat familiar<br />

yet secular and different at the same time. 11<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong> continues to create a new and transformed <strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

art steeped in traditional Buddhist philosophy whilst being<br />

responsive to contemporary events and needs.<br />

A brief biography of the artist<br />

<strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong> was born in Nepal in 1968 to a family of<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> heritage painters working in the religious traditions<br />

of Tibet (Fig. 2). Well trained by his father, Urgen Dorje<br />

(born 1948), an acclaimed thangka painter, <strong>Sherpa</strong> knows<br />

the intricacies of Buddhist scripture and iconography. Skilled<br />

in painting traditional thangkas, he creates nontraditional<br />

works that can provide the same meditational function as<br />

his more obviously religious works.<br />

Since 1998, <strong>Sherpa</strong> has lived and worked outside of San<br />

Francisco, California. He has exhibited his work internationally<br />

to much acclaim in important galleries and museums around<br />

the world. His reputation is strong and growing.<br />

<strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s new work<br />

Whilst 8 Spirits (Fig. 3) does not obviously depict<br />

self-immolation, self-immolation assuredly is the topic. The<br />

repeated form of Buddhist <strong>spirit</strong>s, in traditional and new<br />

colours of prayer flags, represents Buddhist prayers and<br />

other concepts.<br />

The renderings of the figures in 8 Spirits is deceptively<br />

simple; the meaning of the painting multilayered. On one<br />

hand, the colourful <strong>spirit</strong>s stand almost cheerful, exposed in<br />

tighty-whities and brightly coloured socks, their mouths open<br />

and almost smiling. They stand in a pose suggestive of John<br />

Travolta’s iconic stance in Saturday Night Fever.<br />

(Fig. 2)<br />

<strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong> in his Oakland, California, studio<br />

2012<br />

Photograph by the author<br />

6<br />

Leigh Sangster, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of<br />

Self-Immolation’, Hot Spot Forum, Cultural Anthropology<br />

Online, 11 April 2012, http://culanth.org<br />

/?q=node/526, accessed 20 August 2012.<br />

7<br />

James A. Benn, Burning for the Buddha:<br />

Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism, Honolulu:<br />

University of Hawai’i Press, 2007, p. 3.<br />

8<br />

Benn, Burning for the Buddha, p. 4.<br />

9<br />

Carole McGranahan and Ralph Litzinger, ‘Introduction’,<br />

Hot Spot Forum, Cultural Anthropology<br />

Online, 11 April 2012, http://culanth.org/?q=node<br />

/526, accessed 20 August 2012.<br />

10<br />

Tenzin Mingyur Paldron, ‘Virtue and the Remaking<br />

of Suffering’, Hot Spot Forum, Cultural Anthropology<br />

Online, 11 April 2012, http://culanth.<br />

org/?q=node/526, accessed 20 August 2012.<br />

11<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 5 September 2012.<br />

6<br />

7


Yet, it is not Travolta that <strong>Sherpa</strong> is referencing, but Andy<br />

Warhol and his paintings of Elvis Presley (Fig. 4). <strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

appreciates the iconic turn of Warhol’s work, noting,<br />

In contemporary culture, Elvis began to have such a<br />

mythology and worship surrounding him that even after<br />

his death people still have sightings as if he were a<br />

<strong>spirit</strong>. [With] Warhol’s repetition of the image and<br />

degradation through silk-screen mistakes, he begins<br />

to erode that projection of fame.<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong> continues,<br />

In a similar manner, <strong>Tibetan</strong> deities have various<br />

meanings projected upon them. People who have<br />

not been properly initiated might be missing the<br />

essence behind the painting, thereby attaching<br />

themselves to a…simpler [and] incomplete meaning. 12<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>’s goal in repeating a <strong>spirit</strong> image is to force viewers ‘to<br />

see their own perceptions’, which he hopes will create a<br />

dialogue that comes closer to his intended view for the piece. 13<br />

Warhol’s eight repetitions of Elvis have a particular<br />

resonance for <strong>Sherpa</strong>. The number 8 is a potent signifier in<br />

(Fig. 3)<br />

8 Spirits<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

127 x 228.6 cm (50 x 90 in)<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhism. It refers to the Eight Auspicious Symbols,<br />

bkra shis rtags brgyad (the lotus, endless knot, golden fishes,<br />

parasol, victory banner, golden treasure vase, right-spiraling<br />

white conch shell and dharma wheel). 14 As well, it refers to<br />

the Eight Worldly Concerns, Jigten Choe gyed (the desire<br />

for wanting what one wants, for happiness, fame and<br />

praise, and the fear of the opposites of these concepts).<br />

Most powerfully, it refers to Sakyamuni Buddha’s Noble<br />

Eight-fold Path 15 : the path of progressive detachment that<br />

leads to the extinction of the self and escape from the cycle<br />

of rebirth into nirvana.<br />

With this in mind, <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s explanation of why he has<br />

grouped the <strong>spirit</strong>s together in this painting is poignant:<br />

The figures…stand together in unity since we are<br />

currently seeing more cohesion around the world<br />

of the <strong>Tibetan</strong> diaspora. The self-immolations<br />

have created a shared awareness throughout<br />

the community who are now keeping that focal<br />

energy alive. 16<br />

Consequently, the fundamental reference of this work is not<br />

a Warholian Elvis but a popular culture of a different order:<br />

the Buddhist faith of <strong>Tibetan</strong>s. The ultimate meaning of the<br />

eight <strong>spirit</strong>s’ pose is one of victory; specifically, the victory<br />

of the god, and the victory over negative emotions, in this<br />

case, self-immolation. This painting is a representation of the<br />

triumph of the Buddhist doctrine, and through it, the release<br />

of the soul from the world of suffering.<br />

Still, the painting has yet another undercurrent running<br />

through it, and that is the theme of commercialism. The record<br />

price brought in a recent sale of Warhol’s Eight Elvises<br />

resonates for <strong>Sherpa</strong> with the sale of thangkas as souvenirs<br />

or artworks rather than for their meditational and devotional<br />

properties. For <strong>Sherpa</strong>, this is yet another instance of the<br />

secular world putting a price on the iconic.<br />

Where the theme of self-immolation was not immediately<br />

obvious in 8 Spirits, in 49 Gas Cans, it is clear (Fig. 5).<br />

49 Gas Cans features seven rows of seven multicoloured<br />

gasoline cans. Each can is in a different colour, and each<br />

bears the face of a wrathful protector <strong>spirit</strong>. The <strong>spirit</strong>s’ faces<br />

are painted in ghostly white outline, enmeshed in the starshaped<br />

thik tse grid measurement. This grid is an element<br />

taken from the traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong> painting technique for<br />

establishing the correct scale and form of icons.<br />

The separate paper sheets for the cans represent traditional<br />

square or rectangular <strong>Tibetan</strong> prayer flags. The cans’ repeated<br />

order from yellow, purple, red, green, orange, blue and<br />

pink, and back again in alternating rows, suggests the flags<br />

flapping in the wind, disseminating prayers through space.<br />

As the colours are not strictly traditional, however, they<br />

represent an adjustment to the iconography. Whereas traditional<br />

prayer flags are always in yellow, blue, red, green<br />

and white colours, 17 here, the purple, orange and pink are<br />

new additions to the form. That the white flag is not present<br />

is not a comment on what white can symbolise, but rather a<br />

comment on shifting <strong>Tibetan</strong> needs. Nonetheless, <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s<br />

reference is more ideological than specific, and as such<br />

represents the concept of a new and modern prayer flag<br />

responding to new and modern prayers. 18<br />

The new iconography of the prayer flags cum gas cans is<br />

a clear-cut response to <strong>Tibetan</strong> self-immolation. Moreover,<br />

in this painting, <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s forty-nine gas cans represent the<br />

forty-nine days of formal Buddhist prayer ceremonies that<br />

are held after a person dies and whilst waiting for the soul<br />

to decide to reincarnate or attain nirvana. 19<br />

The phenomenon of self-immolation is new to <strong>Tibetan</strong> society.<br />

It was only in 1998 that the first <strong>Tibetan</strong> auto-cremated. 20<br />

Yet, at the time of writing, already more than fifty <strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

monks, nuns and laity throughout the world have<br />

extinguished themselves in flame. As <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhism<br />

scholar Janet Gyatso explains, “Today the target of Tibet’s<br />

recent self-immolations is an outer enemy: an intrusive, repressive,<br />

unsympathetic state” of the People’s Republic of<br />

China. This is in contrast to the traditional form of ascetic<br />

practice, which “targeted an inner enemy: selfish clinging,<br />

vanity, enmity”. 21<br />

(Fig. 4)<br />

Andy Warhol<br />

Eight Elvises<br />

1963<br />

Silk-screen ink, silver paint and spray paint on linen<br />

208 x 358 cm (82 x 141 in)<br />

© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society<br />

(ARS), New York/DACS, London 2012. Reproduction taken from Phaidon<br />

Editors, Steven Bluttal & Dave Hickey, Andy Warhol “Giant” Size, London:<br />

Phaidon Press, 2006, p.197.<br />

Not on view in the current exhibition<br />

12<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 5 September 2012.<br />

13<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 5 September 2012.<br />

14<br />

Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of <strong>Tibetan</strong> Symbols<br />

and Motifs, Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.,<br />

1999, pp. 171–87.<br />

15<br />

Sakyamuni Buddha preached that the Noble<br />

Eight-fold Path is attainable through the Right Views<br />

(i.e., the understanding of suffering and its cause), Right<br />

Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct (moral life), Right<br />

Livelihood (preferably the monastic life), Right Effort<br />

(the maintenance of will power), Right Mindfulness (the<br />

examination and evaluation of one’s progress) and<br />

Right Meditation, where meditation is the final step and<br />

the only means leading ultimately to enlightenment.<br />

16<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 5 September 2012.<br />

17<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong> explains that the five colours of the<br />

traditional prayer flag represent the Five Enlightened<br />

Buddha Families (Nampar nangdze/Nam namg<br />

[Sk: Vairocana]; Mitrugpa [Sk: Akṣhobhya],<br />

Wöpakme [Sk: Amidtābha], Rinchen Jung ne/Rin<br />

jung [Sk: Ratnasaṃbha] and Dön yö drub pa/Dön<br />

drub [Sk: Amoghasiddhi]); the Five Directions and<br />

the Five Elements (earth, space, fire, air and water).<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 24 August 2012; Beer,<br />

The Encyclopedia of <strong>Tibetan</strong> Symbols and Motifs,<br />

pp. 90–93.<br />

18<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 24 August 2012.<br />

19<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.<br />

20<br />

Thubten Ngodup, a <strong>Tibetan</strong> layman living in exile<br />

in India, put himself to the flame in New Delhi in<br />

1998. Edward Wong, ‘<strong>Tibetan</strong> Who Sets Himself<br />

Afire Dies’, The New York Times, 17 March 2001,<br />

www.nytimes.com /2011/03/18/world/<br />

asia/18tibet.html, accessed 4 September 2012.<br />

21<br />

Janet Gyatso, quoted in Asia Sentinel, 3 September<br />

2012, http://asiasentinel.com/index.php?option<br />

=com_ content&task =view&id=4789&Itemid =189,<br />

accessed 4 September 2012.<br />

8<br />

9


(Fig. 5)<br />

49 Gas Cans<br />

2012<br />

Archival ink, gold leaf, gouache and pen on Hahnemuehle fine art paper<br />

Each 20.3 x 17.8 cm (8 x 7 in)<br />

22<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 5 September 2012.<br />

Self-immolation has transformed traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong> practices. In<br />

changing Tibet’s religious practices, it has radically altered<br />

traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong> responses to social and political pressures.<br />

In consequence, it has also forced a change in <strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

culture. These changes are rocking <strong>Tibetan</strong>s’ <strong>spirit</strong> around the<br />

world. <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s 49 Gas Cans addresses these issues.<br />

The theme of self-immolation is also active in DOI 1 and<br />

DOI 2 (Figs. 6 and 7). As in some of <strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s other<br />

works, however, in these paintings this theme is not immediately<br />

apparent. It helps to know that ‘DOI’ stands for ‘Death<br />

of Innocence’, the parenthetical titles of the two paintings and<br />

a homonymic play on DUI, ‘driving under the influence’.<br />

In DOI 1 and DOI 2, innocence is represented by toys that<br />

fall around or on a centrally placed grey <strong>spirit</strong> with a head<br />

resembling a <strong>Tibetan</strong> deity. The toys suggest the innocence<br />

of childhood and the state of being uninformed, untaught<br />

and inexperienced. The death of this innocence, especially<br />

as indicted by the inclusion of silhouetted figures in DOI 1,<br />

seems to indicate full acknowledgment of world events.<br />

Of these works, <strong>Sherpa</strong> explains,<br />

I feel that the self-immolation of <strong>Tibetan</strong>s has begun to<br />

disintegrate much of the world’s naive perception that<br />

[<strong>Tibetan</strong>s] are all peaceful enlightened beings who<br />

almost gracefully accept any torments or condition<br />

placed upon them. As [the] <strong>Tibetan</strong> diaspora evolves,<br />

the world will see various viewpoints emerging that<br />

can’t be easily summarised. 22<br />

Some of the silhouetted figures at the lower edge of DOI 1<br />

are religious, some secular. Anchored in the right corner is<br />

a Thai Buddha seated in meditation and representing<br />

enlightenment. In the left corner, representing the physical<br />

and cosmic extinction attainable through nirvana, is a<br />

representation of Yamantaka, Lord of Death. In between,<br />

are women workers of different realms of existence:<br />

in corporate business (carrying a briefcase) and in sex (a<br />

Playboy Bunny), as well as women engaged in sexual acts.<br />

Along with many other figures, <strong>Sherpa</strong> has depicted a<br />

leaping child, a photographer shooting his camera and a<br />

soldier firing a gun.<br />

For a painting of a large grey <strong>spirit</strong> in his underwear, a title<br />

such as Untitled suggests some ambiguity of meaning (Fig. 8).<br />

Ambiguity, however, is far from the case. Rather, it signals<br />

the artist’s conflicted response to problematic world events,<br />

especially those concerning self-immolation. What is the<br />

right response for him? For each of us? How should we<br />

respond to those who are killing themselves? Which is the<br />

correct path: Introspective meditations on being and reality?<br />

Extrospective radical activism? Sympathetic self-immolation?<br />

Untitled is dominated by a grey-skinned figure with the face<br />

and appurtenances of a deity, standing in the victory pose.<br />

The dull grey is easy to read against the colourful elements<br />

in the circular mandorla behind him. The skin is neither the<br />

colour of traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhist deities, nor quite bluntly,<br />

is it either black or white, or only sacred or exclusively<br />

profane. Its indeterminacy underscores the artist’s conflicted<br />

response to the right (Buddhist) conduct for living.<br />

The mudras are new, too, indicating another break with<br />

traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong> iconography. The figure’s right hand is<br />

raised too high for any abhaya mudra (the mudra signifying<br />

‘do not fear’); its left hand is naturalistically at its waist.<br />

(Figs. 6 and 7)<br />

DOI (Death of Innocence) 1<br />

2012<br />

Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)<br />

DOI (Death of Innocence) 2<br />

2012<br />

Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)<br />

10<br />

11


Instead of the tiger skin, symbolising overcoming fear, 23 this<br />

figure wears polka-dot underwear. The polka dots provide<br />

a reference to the spot paintings of commercially successful<br />

British artist Damien Hirst (born 1965). Here, however, they<br />

also signify the contemporary art view about art education, 24<br />

and its goals for enabling a student to earn not just a living<br />

but also fame through commercial success.<br />

What <strong>Sherpa</strong> has painted is not a deity but rather a <strong>spirit</strong><br />

infused with Buddhist precepts; that is, the <strong>spirit</strong> of a philosophical<br />

Buddhism. With this image, yet another theme for<br />

this new set of paintings emerges. Here, ‘<strong>Tibetan</strong> Spirit’<br />

refers to a <strong>Tibetan</strong>’s <strong>spirit</strong> that remains resiliently Buddhist<br />

whilst under social and cultural pressures to secularise.<br />

In Untitled, the <strong>spirit</strong> stands in front of a circular mandorla<br />

filled with a myriad of people, cartoon characters, symbols<br />

and signs, some as innocent as a Snoopy dog, others laden<br />

with emotion and freighted with politics. These multitude<br />

images, <strong>Sherpa</strong> explains, are a miscellany that he found on<br />

the Internet or heard about on radio news whilst he painted.<br />

Just as he listened to the steady patter of conversations<br />

between his father and visitors to his father’s studio when<br />

he was growing up, he now finds he paints best with the<br />

relaxing hum of talk shows, the news and interviews about<br />

current events on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. He explains,<br />

The news stays in the background in my head all<br />

day long. Something is happening in Syria. I can’t<br />

visually see it—I don’t watch TV—but from the words,<br />

I picture it a certain way. It is like a shadow in the<br />

back of my mind. 25<br />

These ‘shadows’ work themselves into <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s imagination<br />

and out of his paintbrush. In Untitled and other paintings,<br />

they represent the distractions of everyday life, some more<br />

serious than others, but all representative of the craving for<br />

pleasure, power and continued life, the Historical Buddha’s<br />

Second Noble Truth.<br />

Of the colourful ‘shadows’ encircling the grey <strong>spirit</strong>, some<br />

represent newsworthy events, such as a protester holding<br />

(Fig. 8)<br />

Untitled (2012)<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen<br />

147.3 x 122 cm (58 x 48 in)<br />

a Syrian flag and an incomplete face of political activist<br />

Aung San Suu Kyi. Others, also representing world news,<br />

are more specific to Tibet. In the top right quadrant, these<br />

include images of the Dalai Lama, a pair of monks physically<br />

locked in debate, activist rapper Tenzing Tsundu and<br />

Jamphel Yeshi, who set himself on fire and ran through the<br />

streets of New Delhi earlier this year.<br />

Camouflaged amongst the disruptive elements of everyday<br />

life, however, is a butterfly. This is <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s telltale emblem,<br />

symbolic of chaos theory and the potential for even small<br />

movements to effect large-scale change. With the large-scale<br />

<strong>spirit</strong> standing over them all, we are reminded that the potential<br />

of a (Buddhist) victory over suffering is possible.<br />

Where Untitled features a fully transformed <strong>spirit</strong>, Blind<br />

Spirits shows deities undergoing secularisation (Fig. 9). As<br />

in some of <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s earlier paintings, such as Two Spirits<br />

(2010), 26 the figures’ special colour seems to drip off their<br />

bodies, even as their heads (thinking aspect), hands and<br />

feet (acting and doing aspects) retain their full colour and<br />

snake-jewellery. (In the <strong>Tibetan</strong> tradition, snakes symbolise<br />

overcoming anger.) Without the proper iconography,<br />

(Fig. 9)<br />

Blind Spirits<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen<br />

122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)<br />

23<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 24 August 2012.<br />

24<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, August 4,<br />

2012. <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s references to Damien Hirst are<br />

discussed more fully in Katharine P. Burnett, ‘<strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

Buddhist Art in a Globalized World of Illusion: The<br />

Contemporary Art of Ang <strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong>’, ‘ 西 藏<br />

藝 術 在 跨 國 化 清 淨 的 世 界 : 安 才 仁 的 當 代 畫 ’, in<br />

Elizabeth Childs-Johnson and Ying-Ying Lai, Guest Eds.,<br />

Special Issue: ‘Art and Politics in Today’s China and<br />

Taiwan’, Modern Chinese Studies [ 當 代 中 國 研 究 ],<br />

Vol. 18, No. 2, 2011, pp. 17–18.<br />

25<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.<br />

26<br />

Two Spirits is reproduced in Burnett, ‘<strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

Buddhist Art in a Globalized World of Illusion’. It is also<br />

currently available at www.tsherinsherpa.com and<br />

www.rossirossi.com/contemporary/artists/tsering.<br />

sherpa#slide-red-<strong>spirit</strong>.<br />

27<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.<br />

however, these figures can no longer be read as deities.<br />

They are <strong>Tibetan</strong> <strong>spirit</strong>s.<br />

Troublingly, however, in this painting the addorsed forms<br />

crouch down, as if in defeat. Their faces are anguished,<br />

and the snake bracelets, anklets and armbands appear<br />

more as shackles than jewellery. The <strong>spirit</strong>s appear to have<br />

closed their eyes to the world’s events being played out in<br />

miniaturised silhouette along the lower edge of the composition.<br />

They give the impression of being overwhelmed<br />

and unable to help the tormented.<br />

Looking closely at the silhouetted forms, mixed in with<br />

the sabres and swords, a strafing airplane and armed<br />

soldiers, as well as birds, bats and spiders, are hands in<br />

threatening gestures to others (as if shooting a gun) and<br />

ultimately to themselves (holding a cigarette). The motif of<br />

two fingers at the far left in the shape of a gun was motivated<br />

by the recent murder in Sanford, Florida, of unarmed<br />

seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, killed by a vigilante who<br />

felt justified in his actions by Florida law. <strong>Sherpa</strong> has also<br />

included some children playing, a flying witch inspired by<br />

the Harry Potter books and movies, and a howling wolf<br />

invoking OR7, the lone wild grey wolf that has recently<br />

been ambling northern California and Oregon looking for<br />

a mate. “Overall”, he says, this painting is more generally<br />

“about what we see or hear in the world”. 27<br />

Nonetheless, towards the right is a representation of<br />

Chinnamastā, the deity who cuts off her own head to drink<br />

her blood. She is recognised here by a figure holding a<br />

head whilst blood spurts out of her neck. The wrathful form<br />

of a benevolent deity, Chinnamastā symbolises cutting off<br />

one’s ego and attachment to oneself. Towards the left is a<br />

lithe dancer with one leg raised, similar in form but not exactly<br />

like iconographic representations of Shiva as Nataraja, the<br />

Hindu Lord of the Dance, who dances this exhausted world<br />

out of existence and ushers in the next vital period of hope.<br />

Though it is tempting to read cynicism and despair into this<br />

painting, cynicism and despair are far from the point. <strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

is simply aware that life is complex and transformation<br />

12<br />

13


is inevitable, whether in (<strong>Tibetan</strong>) society, in (<strong>Tibetan</strong>) art or<br />

in art made for (<strong>Tibetan</strong>) Buddhist purposes. “If one studies<br />

traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong> Buddhist artworks”, he points out, “transformations<br />

occur there too, with the gradual inclusion over<br />

time of landscape and other elements into what first were<br />

paintings exclusively of the deities”. If anything, <strong>Sherpa</strong> is<br />

cynical that change hasn’t happened more quickly.<br />

He explains,<br />

Because sometimes when we look at the Buddha<br />

image, we are too attached to the images. We are<br />

not able to bring the essence of the image into our<br />

day-to-day life….‘Compassion’ has become a<br />

symbol like Batman or Guanyin. Static. The essence<br />

has to flow in our day-to-day lives so we can function<br />

[compassionately]…. I am trying to envision that<br />

flowing in our day-to-day secular life. 28<br />

grew up in Nepal or America and have never set<br />

foot in Tibet? The cultural influences differing amongst<br />

the diaspora can make different <strong>Tibetan</strong>s seem<br />

almost foreign to each other.<br />

For that matter, he continues,<br />

[I]f a sacred object is removed from its natural or<br />

original environment, does it still remain the sacred<br />

object or will it begin to form a new identity? The two<br />

paintings actually attempt to explore this issue. 29<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong> developed the Protectors’ forms from wrathful deities.<br />

For Blue Protector, it was a blue-bodied Vajrapani, the<br />

Thunderbolt Bearer, symbol of the Buddha’s power. For Red<br />

Protector, it was Vajrakilaya (Vajrakila) bearing a phurba (a<br />

triangular dagger-spike symbolic of meditation) and trampling<br />

a white-headed winged figure of ignorance.<br />

(Fig. 10)<br />

Blue Protector<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)<br />

(Fig. 11)<br />

Red Protector<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)<br />

Perhaps, therefore, we should reconsider the ultimate meaning<br />

(if there is one) of Blind Spirits. Are these powerful <strong>spirit</strong>s<br />

really impotent to help, or are they just temporarily discouraged<br />

by the suffering of the world? As in Untitled, the even<br />

more apparent butterfly motif in Blind Spirits signifies the<br />

possibility for change, transformation and hope.<br />

Whilst <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s other new works respond to the theme of<br />

self-immolation, Blue Protector and Red Protector (Figs. 10<br />

and 11) more closely consider issues of an evolving identity<br />

in the <strong>Tibetan</strong> diaspora.<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong> explains,<br />

The deity used in traditional thangkas uses a rigid<br />

grid system to delineate how the body is formed.<br />

Without this proper formation, it is not considered<br />

to have attributes to be used in normal means of<br />

practice. Using this deity creation as a metaphor, the<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> diaspora is having to come to terms [with]<br />

its various identities without having a ground yet.<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong>s have become disconnected from where they<br />

should be. Is one considered a proper <strong>Tibetan</strong> if they<br />

Whilst these paintings explore issues of an evolving <strong>Tibetan</strong><br />

identity in the <strong>Tibetan</strong> diaspora, their explicit themes are<br />

protection and, by extension, asylum, shelter and refuge.<br />

Vajrakilaya, a Father-Mother deity, is an especially potent<br />

symbol of this idea. As art historian Marylin Rhie and<br />

religion scholar Robert Thurman explain of Vajrakilaya forms<br />

generally,<br />

These archetypes provide ideal templates for the subjectivity<br />

of the practitioner who must mobilize the contemplative<br />

mind and body to brave the descent into<br />

the underworld of terror and death. Only from such<br />

a subjectivity does one dare to dissolve the stable,<br />

coarse body-mind into the subtle body mind of lunar<br />

luminance, solar radiance, and pitchdark imminence,<br />

the nearest to absolute zero and therefore<br />

the most fertile and powerful and subtle mind states<br />

standing at the threshold of the transparent, predawn<br />

illumination of clear light. The development of such<br />

fierce archetypes for navigating the fearful realms of<br />

the unconscious and confronting the most dangerous<br />

aspects of reality is one of the supreme achievements of<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> depth psychology and <strong>Tibetan</strong> art. 30<br />

In his Protector works, <strong>Sherpa</strong> transforms iconographically<br />

correct renditions of Buddhist deities into whorls of paint,<br />

third eyes in polychrome, as it were, and deities into <strong>spirit</strong>s.<br />

The vertiginous compositions calm through a visual<br />

circumambulation of the <strong>spirit</strong>s’ forms. Close inspection<br />

reveals altered states of the heads, hands, jewellery,<br />

and in the case of the Blue Protector, a fleshy belly and<br />

orange flame.<br />

In <strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong>’s new work, the <strong>spirit</strong>s index the power of<br />

all wrathful deities to provide sanctuary for the tormented<br />

as they brave descent into underworlds of terror and death.<br />

The new works alert us to the fact that his constricting<br />

intellectual formal attire has worn away—or, more aptly,<br />

perhaps, just as for the pigments colouring the <strong>spirit</strong>s in his<br />

new works, his intellectual, cultural and artistic strictures<br />

have dripped off. The social responsibilities are still great,<br />

to be sure, but <strong>Sherpa</strong> is free.<br />

Katharine P. Burnett is Director of the East Asian Studies Program and Associate<br />

Professor of Chinese Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at the<br />

University of California, Davis. She researches and publishes on diverse topics of<br />

social and cultural issues, art theory and criticism, and the history of collecting and<br />

display in China and the Asian diaspora from the sixteenth century through the<br />

contemporary.<br />

28<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, interview with the author, 4 August 2012.<br />

29<br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong>, email to the author, 5 September 2012.<br />

30<br />

Marylin M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman,<br />

Worlds of Transformation: <strong>Tibetan</strong> Art of Wisdom<br />

and Compassion, New York: Tibet House New<br />

York, in association with The Shelley and Donald<br />

Rubin Foundation, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Distributors,<br />

1999, p. 268.<br />

14<br />

15


Blind Spirits (detail), 2012, Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen,122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)<br />

plates


previous pages:<br />

DOI (Death of Innocence) 1 (detail)<br />

2012<br />

Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)<br />

opposite:<br />

DOI (Death of Innocence) 1<br />

2012<br />

Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)<br />

20


DOI (Death of Innocence) 2<br />

2012<br />

Platinum leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

122 x 91.5 cm (48 x 36 in)<br />

22


previous pages:<br />

8 Spirits<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

127 x 228.6 cm (50 x 90 in)<br />

opposite:<br />

Lost Spirit<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic, gouache and ink on paper<br />

61 x 45.7 cm (24 x 18 in)<br />

26


Spirit (Dreamer)<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic, gouache and ink on paper<br />

55.9 x 40.7 cm (22 x 16 in)<br />

28


Untitled (2012)<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen<br />

147.3 x 122 cm (58 x 48 in)<br />

30


previous pages:<br />

Untitled (2012) (detail)<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen<br />

147.3 x 122 cm (58 x 48 in)<br />

opposite:<br />

Blind Spirits<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen<br />

122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)<br />

34


Blue Protector<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)<br />

36


Red Protector<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)<br />

following pages:<br />

Red Protector (detail)<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on canvas<br />

152.5 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in)<br />

49 Gas Cans<br />

2012<br />

Archival ink, gold leaf, gouache and pen on Hahnemuehle fine art paper<br />

Each 20.3 x 17.8 cm (8 x 7 in)<br />

38


<strong>Tsherin</strong><br />

<strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

Blind Spirits (detail), 2012, Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen,122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)


<strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong> was born in 1968 in Kathmandu, Nepal.<br />

He lives and works in Oakland, California, USA.<br />

Education<br />

1991–96<br />

Buddhist Philosophy under the tutelage of various Buddhist<br />

Masters, Nepal<br />

1988–89<br />

Computer Science and Mandarin, Taipei, Taiwan<br />

1983–88<br />

Traditional <strong>Tibetan</strong> thangka painting apprenticeship with his<br />

father, Master Urgen Dorje <strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

2002<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> Thangka, The Miyares Gallery, Sonoma Academy,<br />

Santa Rosa, USA<br />

2001<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> Thangka Painting, Oriental Museum, Durham<br />

University, Durham, UK<br />

2000<br />

Yamantaka, Fort Mason, San Francisco, USA<br />

1999<br />

Mandala of Compassion, Headlands Center for the Arts,<br />

Sausalito, USA<br />

Amitayus, Sonoma Museum of Visual Arts, Santa Rosa, USA<br />

Selected Exhibitions<br />

2012<br />

<strong>Tibetan</strong> Spirit, Rossi & Rossi, London, UK<br />

Victory!, Rossi & Rossi, London, UK<br />

2011<br />

Tradition Transformed: <strong>Tibetan</strong> Artists Respond, Hood<br />

Museum of Art, Hanover, USA<br />

Tradition Transformed: <strong>Tibetan</strong> Artists Respond, The Crow<br />

Collection of Asian Art, Dallas, USA<br />

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?,<br />

Rossi & Rossi, London, UK<br />

Beyond the Mandala–Contemporary Art from Tibet, Volte<br />

Gallery, Mumbai, India, in collaboration with Rossi & Rossi,<br />

London, UK<br />

Art Stage Singapore, Rossi & Rossi, Singapore<br />

2010<br />

Scorching Sun of Tibet, Songzhuang Art Center, Beijing,<br />

China<br />

Tradition Transformed: <strong>Tibetan</strong> Artists Respond, Rubin<br />

Museum of Art, New York, USA<br />

Buddha in the Hood, Red Mill Gallery, Johnson, USA<br />

2009<br />

Deity Thangka Paintings, Alta Galleria, Berkeley, USA<br />

2007<br />

Sacred Images, Alta Galleria, Berkeley, USA<br />

Contemporary Thangka, Smith Andersen Editions, Palo<br />

Alto, USA<br />

Culture-Mutt, The Green Lantern Gallery, Chicago, USA<br />

46<br />

Fellowships & Residences<br />

2010<br />

Rubin Museum of Art: Himalayan Fellowship, Vermont Studio<br />

Center, Johnson, USA<br />

2008<br />

Asia Alive, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA<br />

2007<br />

Asia Alive, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA<br />

2003<br />

Asia Alive, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, USA<br />

1999<br />

Sonoma Museum of Visual Art, Santa Rosa, USA<br />

Sketch 2, 2012, Pencil on paper, 20.4 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in)


First published to accompany the exhibition:<br />

TSHERIN<br />

SHERPA<br />

TIBETAN<br />

SPIRIT<br />

12 OCTober–29 November 2012<br />

Coordination: Martin Clist<br />

Editing: Eti Bonn-Muller<br />

Photography: Unless specified all photography by Matt Pia, except for pp. 27, 28,<br />

42–43 & 47, <strong>Tsherin</strong> <strong>Sherpa</strong><br />

Design: Ruth Höflich<br />

© Rossi & Rossi Ltd. 2012<br />

Text copyright © the author. Unless indicated otherwise, all images courtesy of Rossi & Rossi<br />

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be transmitted in any form or by any<br />

means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any storage or retrieval<br />

system, without prior permission from the copyright holders and publishers<br />

ISBN 978 1 906576 32 5<br />

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data<br />

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library<br />

Rossi<br />

Rossi<br />

16 Clifford Street<br />

London W1S 3RG<br />

t +44 20 7734 6487<br />

f +44 20 7734 8051<br />

info@rossirossi.com<br />

Cover:<br />

Blind Spirits (detail)<br />

2012<br />

Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen<br />

122 x 147.3 cm (48 x 58 in)<br />

www.rossirossi.com<br />

www.facebook.com/rossiandrossi

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