What place on earth could be more appropriate to bring out May Day’s inherent ambivalence than Tibet – a place commonly associated with magic and mystery, with a kind people struggling to survive in a harsh climate by chanting, praying, sipping greasy Butter tea and celebrating picnics with Good Ole Yeti while evil Chinese communists sneak up from behind in order to spoil their fun. What could be more ambivalent on a festive day celebrated by The Left than a place that used to be a country governed by a feudal theocracy when we still loved it and is now that we don’t really like it anymore (lost authenticity!) a province governed by the Communist party of China. What’s a jaded postmodernist like us to do – what with our vague sympathy for and equally vague adherence to communist thought, or what we learn about it from TV and the movies, all whilst knowing how it does away with picturesque Buddhas and kind Tibetans. Which we also know from TV and the movies. – OK, so I didn’t exactly board my Magic Helicopter and took a May Day outing near Mt. Kailash. But something similar to that:
I went to see the exhibition “Geheimnisvolle Welt des Alten Tibet” (“The Mysterious World of Ancient Tibet”), currently held at the renaissance castle Schallaburg in Lower Austria. A couple of weeks ago, I had heard a radio programme about it that lef the impression of a well-known confrontation between The Usual Suspects: While Tibetan activists complained bitterly about an exhibition that, in their opinion, perpetrated the West’s time-honoured habit of reveling in its own fantasy about a mythical country while remaining silent about its actual political condition, and that was, as usual, organized without the involvement of real, actual Tibetans, the man in charge of the exhibition at Schallaburg castle stated that, well, the exhibition was designed to show history, to show ancient Tibet, and that for this purpose, discussions of the contemporary political situation were irrelevant.
While the one side has my sympathy, the other has my support: Western governments have left Tibet out to dry, and the situation of Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet is indeed tragic. No other word needed. At the same time, it is also necessary to create spaces where history can be exhibited and discussed without immediately being taken hostage by political sympathies and emotional gut-reactions. Solid knowledge about Tibetan history is as important, perhaps even more important, than mere sympathy with people that seem nice enough. Besides, the assumption, often implicit in exile Tibetans’ complaints, that only members of a culture are authorities in all matters pertaining to it is no less idiotic than the ideology it is designed to combat – that only Europeans are autorities in all matters pertaining to non-European cultures.
After watching the exhibition, the same side still enjoys my sympathy, perhaps even more of it than before, and no side enjoys my support. From the man in charge’s description, I had expected an exhibition focusing on history, on placing Tibetan culture with all its magical and mysterical aspects that it indeed possesses, in a solid historical context – yep, I thought, gimme charts’n maps, tell me all about differences in nomads’ life conditions between Eastern and Western Tibet, between the 10th and the 15th century, explain, teach, reveal [groans of educational ecstasy removed].
Alas, history, in this exhibition, is visible at best in the occasional date in the description of your odd bronze statue of a Buddha, Bodhisattva or Tara. Nothing is contextualized, nothing is localized, everything is mystified. The visitor is confronted with a plethora of cultural symbols, names, and items, without being given any clues to understand their significance. Temporal change and local diversity are non-existent. Tibet, according to this exhibition, is a mythical and magical location that exists outside the realm of social and economic conditions. It’s not an ancient place, it’s not even a place. Kings, wars and structures, oh well, who needs them. Nature, spirits, and forces, that’s what counts.
And legends. From behind us we could occasionally hear explanations issued by a guide. Here she explains how the Tibetan minister Thon-mi Sambhota was sent to India by king Srong btsan sgam po (held to be the Great Unifier of the Tibetan kindom in the mid-7th century C.E.) in order to develop a writing system. There she explains how Buddhism, once introduced, merged with an original indigenous religion called “Bon” (pronounced “Bön”). If a Tibetology student in their first year were to say such things at an exam, you’d be delighted. If in their second year they wrote such things in their term papers, you’d be frustrated. If, after graduating, they said such things when working as exhibition guides, you’d ask yourself how they ever graduated. Here are legends, there are facts, and while not all might agree on what precisely the facts are, still, they are not the same as legends.
[This entry ends here rather abruptly because a stupid import bot decided it was too long.]