Online Exhibition


Michael Wright

Buddhist art ultimately comes down to the Buddha image.  The question is: How are we to depict the Fully Enlightened One?  Modern Buddhist artists have two easy options:

  1. To return to classical examples (Gupta, Amaravati, Sukhothai etc.) that are wholly dignified and 'safe' in that they ask no questions and issue no challenge.

  2. To go over entirely to modern modes of expression (abstract, surrealist etc.) and give the works Buddhist titles, again without challenging old concepts or suggesting new possibilities.

Tissa Ranasinghe has chosen the much more difficult option of reinterpreting traditional concepts in terms of modern experience, typified 'the Crisis of Faith'.  Few people, east or west, now enjoy the confidence and comfort that faith once gave.

Tissa's work takes up this challenge and invites his viewers to confront reality.  This is not always a 'comfortable' experience, but it is precisely what the Buddha set out to do over 2,500 year ago.

Like all serious artists, Tissa refuses to 'explain' his works, which should be allowed to speak for themselves and at the same time remain open to the interpretation of the viewers.

Tissa's works are not necessarily religious; they are open to various interpretations.  For instance Self Mortification might be Prince Siddhatta (the Buddha-to-be) when he mortified his flesh, or it might be any one in an agony of striving.  Similarly Ardhanarishwara might be the god Shiva in his androgenous form; it might also represent man divided within himself; or human love with all its conflicts, complexities and ambiguities.

Tissa deals with energy or power, which can take two different directions.  In his more obviously Buddhist works, the energy is concentrated within, gathering at the centre, as in 'Self Mortification' and Enlightenment.  This also happens in his Lovers.

In contrast, in his works of Hindu inspiration (for instance The Dance and Peacock & Rider) the energy explodes outwards.  The viewer must interpret these contrasting flows of energy for himself.

Tissa does not suppose that the achievement of the Buddha was an easy one.  Enlightenment was not gained by sitting with a calm smile beneath the Bodhi tree.  It was the result of an immense and desperate struggie with himself, his fears, desires and weaknesses, of which Mara is only the symbol.  Tissa therefore dares to show the Buddha in distress and wounded as in Mara Yuddha.

Enlightenment provides Tissa's clearest interpretation of the Buddha's achievement.  His victory was not over an external adversary (Mara) but over himself.  The mask of his own features lies fallen at his feet, the illusion of self finally torn away.

Tissa's work is open to numberless interpretations.  It is not only Buddhist, or Asian, or religious.  It is universal and timeless, and the thoughtful viewer may find all sorts of meanings in it that I have missed.

Real art is not 'art for art's sake', nor for moral or social improvement.  It is a magic mirror in which one can see the most extraordinary things, some nice, some nasty, all vital to our understanding of what it means to be human.

Matichon Newspaper, Bangkok