Zangmo Alexander in conversation with art historian Tania Harrington:
the story behind the work

Tania:
How did you get into art?  You said some­thing hap­pened when you were 13?

Zangmo: 
I was pretty screwed up at the time. I had a traumatic childhood and was having a difficult time at the grammar school I was at. I be­friended a sixth for­mer who I could talk to about deeper things. One day I watched her do a paint­ing – it was fairly il­lus­tra­tive, but it flicked a switch in me. It was like an on-off thing – I just got it. I wanted to do that and knew I could. I went off and I just painted. It was one of the biggest light bulb mo­ments in my life.

Tania:
Did you then go on to do GCE  in art at school?

Zangmo:
I did O-level and went on to start A-level but my brother com­mit­ted sui­cide and I was  in a very bad way. All the emo­tional  trau­mas of the past 18 years, from the dys­func­tion of my fam­ily back­ground and the so­cial rigid­ity around me, be­gan to show and I became very disruptive at school. For­tu­nately an understanding art teacher took me un­der her wing and arranged for me to do Art A level in one year.

Tania:
So was art a type of ther­apy for you in those years?

Zangmo:  
I think it was. It was the one place where I could be my­self and ex­press my­self and feel accepted.

Tania:  
What sort of art were you do­ing? Were you just do­ing what were you told?

Zangmo:
I was very into Rem­brandt, an ex­pres­sive style and free brush­marks, full of soul. Mostly rep­re­sen­ta­tional and I loved chiaroscuro. I was asked to do a fig­u­ra­tive mural on the school can­teen wall and a mural on the entrance hall. 

Tania:  You worked in a rep­re­sen­ta­tional way then. Could you say any­thing about the works around me here now which are ab­stract? I was very im­pressed by them – they are so pos­i­tive, colour­ful and lu­mi­nous. How did you get to this stage?

Zangmo:  By about 30 I’d got fed up with do­ing il­lus­tra­tive work. I ground to a halt. By then I’d also been through a whacky freewheeling twen­ties work­ing as a cabaret dancer, a model, experimenting with LSD and marijuana, mar­ried to an al­co­holic who com­mit­ted sui­cide – this was the seventies.

Tania:  
How did you get out of this dark­ness?

Zangmo:
I was very lucky. I met a Jun­gian psy­chother­a­pist who later be­came a friend. She opened my eyes to the in­ner world of mem­ory, re­flec­tions, dreams, cre­ative imag­i­na­tion and ar­che­types and helped me to come out the other side. Getting involved for a few years with western esoteric teachings and colour healing helped awaken a sense of the spiritual. I also had psy­chother­apy my­self and at­tended a 6 month art ther­apy group when I was work­ing as a nurse a in psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal This com­pletely turned me round. It gave me the sub­ject mat­ter, gave me a way to ac­cess­ing my in­ner world. Now most of my paint­ings are mind­scapes – in a sense that’s what they re­ally are.

Tania:  
I can see how they’re like in­ner states. There’s a feel­ing of emo­tions and thoughts com­ing and go­ing and the light be­yond them. As well as colour they also have a lot of tex­ture.

Zangmo:
One of the ways I work (I have sev­eral) is lay­er­ing – there’s a com­pul­sion to build up lay­ers – it’s al­most like build­ing up lay­ers of ex­pe­ri­ence but also scrap­ing them away. It’s as much tak­ing stuff off as putting things on. Some­times I can do a re­ally lively, ac­tive paint­ing then want to cover it all in white. I did that on this paint­ing here (Med­i­ta­tion no. 11) and on Joy­ful Light.

Tania:
What as­pect of med­i­ta­tion are they ex­press­ing?

Zangmo:
How things ap­pear and dis­solve. Things can be solid yet not solid at the same time. Es­sen­tially noth­ing is find­able. There are lumpy bits (of paint) which dis­solve into the white. It’s try­ing to ex­press the ex­pe­ri­ence that es­sen­tially noth­ing is find­able - in Bud­dhist terms, the un­gras­pa­bil­ity of every­thing. The con­cep­tual mind has great prob­lems with that but in med­i­ta­tion it’s pos­si­ble to ex­pe­ri­ence it. The ques­tion is how do you ex­press it through art?

Tania: Is do­ing art it­self a spir­i­tual prac­tice for you?

Zangmo: Yes – it’s a med­i­ta­tion and a spir­i­tual prac­tice in the sense that I’m learn­ing about my­self and timelessness through it. It helps me to con­nect with my essence.

Tania:  
Does that mean you get your­self into a calm, spir­i­tual state be­fore work­ing?

Zangmo:  
No - in Ti­betan Bud­dhism every­thing is ma­te­r­ial for work­ing with. It’s not that we have to be in a calm spir­i­tual state – not that at all. Aware­ness is the essence of med­i­ta­tion, and a calm state may be the re­sult of prac­tis­ing aware­ness, but try­ing to be calm is not med­i­ta­tion it­self, aware­ness is. So be­fore work­ing, while work­ing and af­ter work­ing, my prac­tice is learn­ing to be pre­sent and aware, learn­ing to be sim­ple.

Tania: I can re­late to that. Of­ten in med­i­ta­tion prac­tice the tran­scen­dent state be­comes an aim in it­self and all the stuff of life gets passed by. It’s not very healthy.

Zangmo:
I want both move­ment and the still­ness in my art. You can see this in some of my pas­tel work in the next room.

Tania: 
You ob­vi­ously now work in a great va­ri­ety of me­dia. Do you have a par­tic­u­lar re­la­tion­ship to paint­ing on can­vas though?

Zangmo:
I feel very raw, very naked when I’m paint­ing.

Tania: Are you aware of an au­di­ence when you work? Is the viewer im­por­tant to you?

Zangmo:
Yes – it’s a bal­ance of it be­ing ac­ces­si­ble but not dumb­ing it down, au­then­tic­ity is very im­por­tant to me. I don’t want to over ex­plain my work be­cause that can kill it stone dead but at same time a lot of peo­ple can’t con­nect with con­tem­po­rary art – there’s no bridge for them to walk over and I can un­der­stand their frus­tra­tion. It’s got to be made ac­ces­si­ble with­out dumb­ing it down.

Tania:
What ef­fect can cur­rent artists hope to have on the con­tem­po­rary viewer?

Zangmo: 
That’s too gen­eral a ques­tion I think. It de­pends on the in­di­vid­ual artist and the con­text of their work.

Tania:  I sup­pose what I’m re­ally try­ing to ask is, do you feel part of a larger body of artists?

Zangmo: 
That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion . . . I do find a lot of con­tem­po­rary art is speak­ing about neu­ro­sis. That’s part of the hu­man con­di­tion. Per­son­ally, and I can only speak per­son­ally,  I feel I need to be say­ing, ‘Yes - here is this hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, this suf­fer­ing, what way could there be some­thing pos­i­tive in this, some mean­ing or part of a jour­ney?’  Also there’s a big anti about the spir­i­tual in cer­tain cir­cles and an is­sue over lan­guage – West­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions are of­ten dif­fer­ent.  So I need to ask - where do I place my­self in re­la­tion to that?

Tania:
You run a lot of courses and groups. Is this work im­por­tant for your own art in the sense it pro­vides a con­nec­tion with oth­ers, with the world out­side?

Zangmo:
I have a need to give to and in­ter­act with oth­ers. Do­ing my own work all the time can be­come very self in­dul­gent. It's a bal­ance be­tween help­ing oth­ers and cul­ti­vat­ing my own art prac­tice. The art prac­tice nour­ishes me, and helps me stay con­nected with process, so that I can help oth­ers with their process.

Tania:
You said ear­lier the Post Mod­ernism you en­coun­tered dur­ing your M.A in­spired you in that it felt more so­cially en­gaged, less up its own back­side and pre­sents more op­por­tu­ni­ties for di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion.

Zangmo: Yes, it was a great eye opener, as I got into pho­tog­ra­phy and other me­dia I might not have oth­er­wise en­gaged with. Re­cently I re­alised there are sev­eral themes like threads of mean­ing run­ning through my work which are evolv­ing into dif­fer­ent, on­go­ing pro­jects. One is a se­ries of faces or heads done in dif­fer­ent me­dia. A face is a very pow­er­ful thing for hu­mans and a pow­er­ful con­veyor of self and iden­tity. It’s also quite an ac­ces­si­ble theme for a lot of peo­ple.

Tania: Is there a chronol­ogy to these im­ages of heads or a de­vel­op­ment over time?

Zangmo:
They are a doc­u­men­ta­tion of my in­ner jour­ney over the years from the con­crete state of the ear­lier faces, ex­press­ing the so­lid­ity of masks and per­sonas, through to a more en­er­getic state where de­fences start to crack and crum­ble to a state of more aware­ness, alert­ness some­how in the last one.  There’s an­other pro­ject called ‘The Strip­per’.

Tania:
Yes, that’s a great ti­tle as it works well on two lev­els – the worldly and the spir­i­tual.

Zangmo:
Ex­actly…  I worked as a strip­per in my 20’s (a pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion!). One of my teach­ers com­pared spir­i­tual and med­i­ta­tion prac­tice to peel­ing away the lay­ers of an onion. It’s about strip­ping, peel­ing away or al­low­ing lay­ers of neu­ro­sis and fix­a­tion, hopes, fears, all that kind of thing, to dis­solve.

Tania:
There’s an im­age here of you as a glam­our girl. It’s re­ally quite stun­ning.

Zangmo:
You can see how heav­ily the glam­our’s con­structed. I don’t know how many lay­ers of grease paint, Max Fac­tor, false eye­lashes, red lip­stick, a wig – all very care­fully put on. No­body like that ac­tu­ally ex­ists.  It's a com­plete fab­ri­ca­tion. The jour­ney I want to show is from this heavy con­struc­tion to the shed­ding of my dress­ing up days, drop­ping all that. This later photo of me from the rear (makes a chal­leng­ing change from a frontal view) shows me in or­di­nary clothes but stripped down in a sense – there’s an awk­ward­ness about the pose and an hon­esty. Com­pare this to the ‘glammed up’ im­age.

Tania: It’s a pow­er­ful jux­ta­po­si­tion. It makes you won­der where the per­son is?  It ex­presses yourin­ter­est in things be­ing there and not there at the same time. Jux­ta­po­si­tions are key in a lot of this por­trait based pro­ject work. Au­then­tic­ity is ob­vi­ously re­ally im­por­tant to you as well.

Zangmo:
Yes – au­then­tic­ity is ex­tremely im­por­tant in my work

Tania:  
I’ve just no­ticed an eye-catch­ing  im­age among 'The Strip­per' se­ries - a wig against a black ground. I find that very haunt­ing, pow­er­ful. That one could ex­ist sep­a­rately.

Zangmo:
I like it too. An­other im­age I like is this photo I took in Paris. I was shar­ing a room and you can see the lay per­sons’ clothes in the back­ground - colour­ful gar­ments, com­pared to my plain bur­gundy nuns robes in the fore­ground. In the mid­dle, be­tween the two, there’s my bare leg and foot – me naked, a metaphor for au­then­tic­ity.

Tania: I’ve now seen the short film you did as your M.A. piece “Let­ter to my Mother” which is an in­ti­mate and deeply mov­ing ex­pla­na­tion of your de­ci­sion to be­come a nun. It shows the jour­ney from wear­ing the ‘uni­form’ of a strip­per to that of a nun. What’s it like be­ing in the garb you’ve cho­sen in later life? (You be­came a nun in 2007 when you were 54? )

Zangmo:
When wear­ing robes in pub­lic I’m rep­re­sent­ing Bud­dhism. It’s a re­spon­si­bil­ity. So on the one hand there’s the for­mal robes, then there’s the lay clothes I of­ten wear for work­ing and in the mid­dle there’s pure naked­ness. Be­com­ing naked psy­cho­log­i­cally or spir­i­tu­ally is an im­por­tant part of med­i­ta­tion prac­tice. So for me it is quite a sig­nif­i­cant im­age with many lay­ers.

Tania:
I can see how you bring lay­ers into the film and pho­tos as well as the paint­ings – I find that very skil­ful and also very eye-open­ing.  Tell me about this other pro­ject – ‘The Fam­ily’.

Zangmo:
My own ex­pe­ri­ence of fam­ily life is that a fam­ily can be dys­func­tional but I also need to feel part of a tribe at quite a bi­o­log­i­cal level. There's a lot of love there too. Be­ing a nun one is sup­posed to leave at­tach­ment to fam­ily be­hind, but I hon­estly won­der if this is pos­si­ble for me be­yond a cer­tain point, yet it is an op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve my mind in this. There’s the pain and the chal­lenges but at the same time a tremen­dous close­ness. But how much of this close­ness is a fan­tasy on my part, me hav­ing rose coloured glasses. A lot of this pro­ject is about am­biva­lence. Also about change over time. I ex­press this in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways. It’s based on a tra­di­tional fam­ily photo al­bum which my grand­fa­ther started in an old cash book, but I’ve made some jux­ta­po­si­tions - stuck in a pho­tos of my mother’s pre­sent chin and neck next to the photo of her as a bright young thing to show the change over time for ex­am­ple - there’s also text from yo­gic songs by Mi­larepa about Bud­dha’s teach­ings on the im­per­ma­nence of things. There’s a tremen­dous amount of love but also a tremen­dous amount of am­biva­lence.

Tania:
I love the way you’ve adapted the al­bum. A fam­ily al­bum is full of hid­den feel­ings over time and you’ve kind of given them a voice. It makes me want to go home and do the same to mine! You’re ob­vi­ously very at home with the pho­to­graphic medium. I’ve al­ways found pho­tog­ra­phy a bit dead, a bit su­per­fi­cial but you bring a depth and move­ment. A lot of your pho­tos bring in time. It’s as though you’re ‘un­freez­ing’ the im­age.

Zangmo: 
I love do­ing film edit­ing and mov­ing im­ages but what I re­ally like about a still im­age is that the viewer can con­tem­plate it in their own time with­out be­ing dri­ven by an im­posed pace.

Tania:
I’m in­trigued by the ti­tle of this pro­ject ‘Lim­i­nal Spaces’. What does the term ‘lim­i­nal­ity’ mean ex­actly?

Zangmo:
The in- be­tween state, things be­ing there and not there. The in­de­fin­abil­ity of every­thing.  For me every­thing is lim­i­nal in the sense that it ap­pears and yest is un­find­able at the same time. This is of­ten the sub­ject of my work.

Tania: 
Have you any con­cept of the fi­nal form this pro­ject will take?

Zangmo:
I’m at a re­ally early stage with this, still find­ing my way through. I’ve taken some ho­tel im­ages but aware that the idea of ho­tel and tran­si­tion could be­come a bit ob­vi­ous and crude.

Tania:
I like this one with the lace and the dif­fused light. It’s also got the lay­er­ing ef­fect.

Zangmo:  
I stayed at a ho­tel in an ex­tra­or­di­nary room with a four poster bed with lace cur­tains around it. In­ter­est­ing light. There’s the lace which is like a bridal veil and my naked foot. I re­mem­bered tak­ing pho­tos of my fa­ther 2 years ago in his cof­fin and notic­ing the flesh con­trast­ing with the del­i­cate gown– it’s about the fragility of life, that in-be­tween state be­tween birth and death.

Tania:
Fi­nally could you say some­thing about ‘Woman of a Cer­tain Age’?  I like the am­biva­lence of this ti­tle and the dif­fuse­ness of the pho­tographs.

Zangmo:
I think this is go­ing to grow. I was in a hope­less state at the time, re­al­is­ing how youth ori­en­tated this cul­ture is. I had a feel­ing of dis­ap­pear­ing, of be­ing in­vis­i­ble. I’ve moved through that now to some­thing more pos­i­tive but think it might be help­ful to other women in this stage. It would be good to do some pho­to­graphic col­lab­o­ra­tions ex­plor­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences.

Tania: What’s hap­pen­ing here?

Zangmo:
I was stay­ing in a B & B af­ter I’d dropped off my son at Uni­ver­sity and was feel­ing re­ally up­set as I wouldn’t see him for a few months even though I was pleased for him that he was mov­ing on. I was feel­ing ill as well. On the wall you can see pic­tures of beau­ti­ful young girls in a desert with a Rudolph Valentino fan­tasy male! This made me feel re­ally an­cient! This sec­ond im­age I was in a ‘I’m so de­pressed’ feel­ing. Tak­ing this im­age was part of my prac­tice, as a med­i­ta­tion or teach­ing giv­ing me some­thing to learn from.

Tania:
(Laugh­ing at photo of Zangmo  be­hind table look­ing like death ) This one is fan­tas­tic.

Zangmo:
On its own a bit of a killer! This is where the jux­ta­po­si­tions you were talk­ing about are im­por­tant. So that I show the jour­ney – not just that I’m stuck in one de­pres­sive state!

Tania:. . . . .  the jour­ney from a great deal of suf­fer­ing to not so much suf­fer­ing which we laughed about in the first ses­sion!

 

Tania Har­ring­ton is an Art His­to­rian
cur­rently writ­ing a book on David Bomberg for Tate Pub­li­ca­tions