IAN BOYDEN & TSERING WOESER



Ian Boyden—artist, writer, translator, and curator—investigates relationships between the self and the environment, in particular how art and writing can shape our ecology. He studied for many years in China and Japan, and holds degrees in the History of Art from Wesleyan University and Yale University. In recent years, he has worked extensively with dissidents in China, including Ai Weiwei and Tsering Woeser. He is the author of A Forest of Names: 108 Meditations (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), and his artist books, paintings, and sculptures are found in many public collections including Reed College, Stanford University, the Portland Art Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Boyden first reached out to Woeser in 2015 to discuss the relationship between catastrophic forest fires in Cascadia where he lives and the self-immolation protests of Tibetans. Boyden and Woeser quickly became close friends, communicating in Chinese, their shared second language. In particular, Boyden became interested in Woeser’s poetry, which is written in Chinese, and how she uses the language of the occupier to give voice to the experience of her culture being erased. In 2019, he received an NEA Literature Translation Fellowship to translate a set of her poems. Out of their conversations, other collaborative art works began to emerge, including a film titled The Birds Might Not Come, which meditates on the names of 165 Tibetens who have self-immolated since 2009 in protest over China’s occupation of their country. These collaborations are being debuted here for the first time.


Ian Boyden


Self-portrait2018







The Birds Might Not Come


2020

Color video w/ sound

Duration: 15:49 minutes

Directed and edited by
Wilbur Drake

Courtesy of the artists
Much of my work in recent years has dealt with names, specifically the names of people whose deaths have been wrapped up in the machinations of state power. In this film, I extended this project to contemplate the names of Tibetans who self-immolated in protest to the cultural genocide of Tibet at the hands of the Chinese. Woeser has meticulously documented every self-immolation in Tibet since 2009, and is one of the foremost authorities on the subject. A prominent aspect of Tibetan visual culture is what is known as the sokshing, or life-force tree. Images of these trees appear on thangkas and temple walls and their branches are often filled with groups of people, the image thus being a representation of a spiritual lineage. In one of my conversations with Woeser, I suggested that when the first Tibetan set himself on fire, he started a new sokshing—the life-force tree of self-immolators. In this film, you will see me create this life-force tree, hanging the names of the self-immolators in the branches. And you will hear Woeser recite the names of the 165 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire. Since this film was made, another self-immolation was reported from 2015, bringing the confirmed number to 166. We invite you to listen to their names. Say them yourself, if so moved.

—Ian Boyden








Flames of My Homeland


2020

Medium: paper, ink, sound

Sound recording of Woeser reading
her poem “Flames of My Homeland”

Recorded December 21, 2020, Beijing

Duration: 2:19 minutes

Dimensions: 16 x 12 x 5 feet

Courtesy of the artists

︎︎︎Read a translation of this poem

When I made the film The Birds Might Not Come in June of 2020, I created two sets of names of the 165 Tibetans who have self-immolated. I designed them such that the name would open and close with humidity and heat, forming something that would whirl in the air like a maple seed, or turn like a prayer wheel in the wind. One set I hung from the tree, which was then burned. The second set is hanging here to spin in the relative peace of this gallery

The voice you hear is Woeser reading her poem, “Flames of My Homeland.” This poem was written on May 25, 2017, on the occasion of the 152nd self-immolation. One by one by one, Woeser has carefully documented each self-immolation—their name, age, location, last words. At the time of writing this text, that number has now reached 166. It is important to remember that these individuals are more than a number, each one of these names belonged to a person with hopes and dreams, they had families, were parts of communities. And each one of them engaged in this act, because the assault upon their dignity was so grave that they felt they had no other choice. Woeser argues strongly that we not understand self-immolation as suicide, but rather as something else, as a form of protest that has a long history in the Buddhist world. These individuals lit themselves on fire in the hope of achieving a greater good for their compatriots, their culture, and their country. 

—Ian Boyden 







Dearest Elephant


2021

Medium: fossilized stegomastodon tusk, subwoofer, sound

Two-track sound recording of Woeser reading her poem “The Entire Night I Dreamt of Langchen-la”

Recorded December 21, 2020, Beijing

Duration: 9:08 minutes

Dimensions variable

Courtesy of the artists

︎︎︎Read a translation of this poem

One of the reasons I love translation is because it is so often full of surprises. For me none surpass my experience while translating Woeser’s poem “All Night I Dreamt of Langchen-la.” Langchen-la is the name of an elephant that belonged to the Dalai Lama. In this poem, Woeser relates an extraordinary dream she had about this elephant, and she then goes on to relate the tragic fate that befell this creature after the Chinese occupation in March 1959. Near the end of her dream, she writes:
At that time, when danger lurked everywhere,
              it stepped into the bardo.
But before it arrived at the Kalachakra Mandala,
its body white as snow, its six tusks pure and clean
as one might see painted in a thangka,
Langchen-la, like a vyākaraṇa fallen from the sky,
turned into the written word.

A vyākaraṇa is an explanation of metaphysical truth through words. As I translated these lines, I experienced a deep truth, I had the overwhelming experience that I was witness to a type of hidden teaching known as a terma. This cherished elephant that had long since died was still very much alive in Woeser’s voice, that it was taking new bodily form in the written characters of the poem.


One of the ironies of written consciousness is that it constantly concretizes what is otherwise fluid. What I saw in Woeser’s poem was a very fluid truth. How to give this truth material form? Here, I have taken Woeser’s voice and shifted the pitch into the range heard by elephants. And I use her modified voice to create a constantly shifting mandala composed of pulverized fossilized elephant tusk. 

—Ian Boyden







Absent, or Not Absent


2021

Medium: dye-sublimation print on synthetic silk, sound

Sound recording of Woeser reading her poem “Absent, or Not Absent”

Recorded December 24, 2020, Beijing

Duration: 11:01 minutes

Dimensions: 22 x 3 x 3 feet

Courtesy of the artists

︎︎︎Read a translation of the poem
Woeser and I share a fascination with absence, with the forces of erasure and censorship. In her poem “Absent, or Not Absent” from which this installation takes its name, Woeser meditates on the absence of the Dalai Lama from Tibet. She focuses on three sites central to the Dalai Lama’s life: a dharma throne where he once sat and taught in front of the Potala and which was later demolished by the Chinese; a room in the Jokhang where he used to sleep; and the sacred lake where he used to go to receive visions

The dharma throne is one of the most ancient Buddhist images, and it harkens back to the mat which Sakyamuni sat on under the Bodhi Tree on the night he achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. And it was also under a tree where he first taught about the nature of fundamental emptiness. Every tree presents an invitation for spiritual transformation, for the blossoming of empathy for the plight of others—human and non-human alike. Here, I have taken a photograph of a tree burned in a catastrophic forest fire, inverted it, and printed it on a synthetic silk tube reminiscent of the victory banners found hanging in many Tibetan monasteries. The tree is both empty and full, absent and present. Woeser herself is prohibited by the Chinese government from leaving China. But her voice can travel. So she is both present and absent within this piece. And we have placed a chair near its base as an invitation for the viewer to rest.

—Ian Boyden





Life-force Tree Reliquary


2020

Medium: paper, ink, carbon, ash

Dimensions variable

Courtesy of the artists
Fire is a great eraser. But it doesn’t erase everything. And what remains often holds a peculiar power. In Tibet, the bones and ashes of monks are mixed with clay and pressed into molds to create votive tablets known as tsa-tsas. These reliquary objects are understood to contain some aspect of the spiritual essence of the deceased. I present here some of the remains of the life-force tree that can be seen in the film The Birds Might Not Come also on view in this exhibition.

—Ian Boyden