Digital Images on Sutra Paper

By Wen Chihua (ChinaFeatures)

Jin Ping is not obsessed with technology. He does not cling to innovation, and does not care about being crowned with eternal glory in history of Chinese photography. But his Tibetan paper methods have significance for the Chinese photographic community.

Unlike the legions of documentary photographers inChina, who try to parse the today’s most urgent questions about truth and reality, the Chengdu-based Jin has long been charmed with exploring new methods of image presentation.

Integrating a talent for aesthetics, the visual arts, and printing technology, documentary photographer Jin Ping has developed a distinctive representation method, a hybrid process using modern inkjet technology and an age-old Tibetan paper, thus making the image appears a new age music like charm, mix of originality and modernity.

Conceptually, one of the most intriguing pieces Jin Ping has created in this medium was a recreation of a plate of 24 commemorative stamps issued in 1959 to mark the 10th anniversary of the inauguration of the People’s Republic ofChina.

The original monochrome woodcut stamp shows Mao in a dark green uniform, standing on the gate tower of the Tiananmen Square as he proclaims the founding of the newChina. The image frames an important historical moment when Mao held sway overChina.

One of the first plates of the stamp was bought by a stamp collector named Yang Shaoming, the son of Yang Shangkun, who then held a senior position in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Shaoming had Mao autograph the plate of the stamps — three Chinese characters Mao Zedong was signed vertically across the plate, turning an otherwise ordinary plate of stamps into a piece of conceptual art.

In Jin Ping’s representation, the powerful Mao looks warm and graceful. The fiber of the Tibetan paper underlying the digital image creates a special surface texture with complex characteristics that subdue the sharpness of Mao. The paper’s rough grain makes the simple color relationships look rich without looking exaggerated.

This conceptual work deeply impressed the British stamp community, and they invited Jin Ping to create them similar two pieces. One is a reproduction of a plate of 12 Penny Black stamps, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public system. The other is a recreation of the Penny’ Black’s sister stamp, a plate of the 18 Penny Red stamps.

Printed on Tibetan paper, the work lends a Far Eastern flavor to the august QueenVictoria’s relief profile image.

Previous to Jin Ping’s 2006 incorporation in his art, the over 1,300-year-old Tibetan paper of high quality was used solely for the printing of Buddhist classics.  In 2006 Jin Ping went to shooting Dege Sutra Printing House inGanzeTibetanNationalityAutonomousPrefectureof southwestChina’sSichuanProvince.

In the printing house, one of the things that Jin discovered was that the techniques of writing, carving, and block printing remain the same as they were in the 13th century. And the tradition of Tibetan papermaking has been passed down undisturbed through those centuries. It is a priceless living example of folk craftsmanship.

Jin Ping, who has more than 10 years of experience in printing industry, is very sensible of papers.  He recalls, “Tibetan paper makes an image look like it has been being mysteriously illuminated. I realized that this age old medium would be able to create an unexpected visual effect for digital images.”

Tibetan paper is made of the root-hairs of the Stellera Chamaejasme plant, a medicinal herb locally referred to as “Agyiaorugyiao”. Tibetan paper is noted for being antiseptic, mothproof and moisture-proof, and possessing a long shelf life.

The paper made of the inner layer of the root-hairs is the best with color and fine texture, which is for important sutras. Whereas the paper made of the outer layer is thick and coarse, mostly for the printing of prayer flags, and Buddhist pamphlets.

Agyiaorugyiao is used in Tibetan medicinal practice. The plant, which grows in the Henguan Mountains about 3,000 to 4,000 meters above see level on the Qinghai- Tibet Plateau, is slightly toxic, germicidal, and an antiviral. Paper made from its root-hairs is poisonous to rats and bugs. Tibetan Buddhists (Vajrayana Buddhism) use it to print classic sutras, which can stay intact in perfect condition for hundreds of years.

Additionally, Jin Ping noted that Tibetan paper is extremely strong, very soft, and absorbent. The latter makes it particularly useful for printing. “As it’s fully handmade, each sheet is unique, making it an ideal medium for contemporary art creation,” says Jin Ping.

For the past eight yeas, Jin has traveled deep into southwestChina, exploring the disappearing craftsmanship of traditional papermaking in remote ethnic areas.

He has tested various kinds of techniques, and adopted Giclee printing, printing fine art digital prints on inkjet printers, to print his photos on the handmade papers of six ethnic groups, including Tibetan, Dai, Miao, and Bai, most fromYunnanProvince.

“These papers all have a wonderful ability to enhance the expression of the artist,” notes Jin Ping, “However, I favor Tibetan paper above the rest. It gives the digital image an extremely profound, touching, and warm expression.”

Filled with inspiration acquired at the Dege Sutra Printing House, Jin reconfigures a traditionalist and mystic medium with the 21st century eyes. He launched a quiet revolution in his studio to connect the sutra paper with modern micro-dispenser technology. It took him more than half a year just to get the inkjet machine to print properly.

Unlike standard industrial print paper, Jin says, each piece of the handmade Tibetan paper has an uneven edge with different characters. “Without the fixed memory, the machine doesn’t know from where to start printing an image.”

Jin’s endeavors paid off. His “Dege: Impressions”, group of pictures documenting how Tibetan paper is made, the sutra woodblock engraving, and the Buddhist classic printing, embodied in Tibetan paper appear simple and unsophisticated with surreal clarity.

In these images, Jin has created visual poetry on Tibetan paper. The “Dege: Impressions” have the resonance of the love songs of the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso — tranquil, ethereal and melancholy.

These pictures not only capture the external charm of workman carving and printing sutras, but also the workmen’s secular spirit – optimistic and sacred devout. These two worlds are so finely captured that the photos convey something soul-catching, simple, and dignified.

In his private life, Jin Ping smokes authentic Cuban cigars, enjoys fine tea, and keeps vintage wines in his private cellar. In his work, he is compassionate, humble, and is highly respected by his shooting subjects.

In 2007, he took part in a national project to rescue traditional cultural practices. He led a team to the monastery in Dege county to photograph Thangka: Tibetan silk painting, usually depicting a Buddha, a famous scene, or a mandala, and often done in embroidery.

When he arrived inTibet, Jin and his team stayed in the village below the mountain for a week, without getting approval to photograph in the monastery. While he was waiting, Jin noticed that the children in the village were poorly dressed. He spent 60,000 yuan to buy two suits of clothes for each of some 600 student. His behavior moved parents and the lamas of the monastery, who believed Jin is a photographer with a benevolent heart.  They granted him permission to shoot inside the monastery.

The Thangkas housed in the monastery are historically significant. They were created during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Thangkas framed in Jin’s photos have only been seen in public three times.

The first time was for local Buddhist followers when the paintings were completed. The second time was during the Cultural Revolution, when, in order to prevent the Thangkas from being destroyed, the monastery had them numbered, registered, and then stored them in the homes of local Buddhists. The third time was for Jin Ping.

Later, Jin had the Thangka photographs digitized, and printed on Tibetan paper. The visual effect of the process shows the luster of the Thangkas and the delicate nature of their original creation.

Jin Ping keeps an abundance of Tibetan paper in storage. He is concerned that the paper may disappear from the market in the future. He is also helping the Dege Sutra Printing House, which is confronted with the challenge of industrial printing papers, and striving to preserve the tradition of the papermaking. In Dege today, there have only six artisans who have a master of the handicraft. They can make only 600 sheets annually.

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