Q&A with Tobi Wilkinson - Art Collector

Tobi Wilkinson, from the series Mindful Practice. Courtesy: the artist

Jessa Melicor chats with photographer Tobi Wilkinson ahead of her solo exhibition Mindful Practice: The Gyuoto Monks Summer Retreat at Bondi Pavilion gallery in Sydney.

Your show Mindful Practice: The Gyuoto Monks Summer retreat is opening soon at Bondi Pavilion gallery - congratulations. What started your journey in documenting the lives of Gyuoto monks through your photographs?

I met the monks in 2008 at a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The monks were running a stall and chanted for His Holiness and I was particularly taken by the older monk who lead them, Gen Lama. We’ve had a special bond ever since.

You have travelled to monastries in Dharamsala, India and photographed on location in destinations across Australia, how have these first-hand experiences observing the spiritual practice of Gyuoto monks shaped your work and art practice?

What they show and teach in their workshops exactly matches how they live in the monastery and this is inspiring because they are authentic. We come across so few authentic people in our lives but when you do, it is inspiring and uplifting to know that such a goal can be attained.

Would you be able to describe your current series of works that will be part of the exhibition? How do you feel your art practice has evolved since your previous exhibition at Bondi Pavilion gallery?

There is a story, which I tell about this body of work - when the Buddha emerged from the forest fully realised, he wandered the Indian countryside giving talks on enlightenment and this new religion called Buddhism. As more people flocked to hear him, it became increasingly difficult to move about with large numbers in tow. The Indian summer was also the monsoon season which was not only difficult to travel in for his sangha, or spiritual community, but Buddha also worried about the large numbers of people potentially stepping on the insects forced to the surface because of the rains. When one wealthy prince offered him a large parcel of his land to settle on, Buddha decided to build a monastic retreat where the monks could deepen their practices while sheltering from the rains for the duration of the wet season.

This retreat became a fixture on the Buddhist calendar and is a ritual still practiced by the Gyuto Monks some 2,500 years on. Known as their Summer Retreat or Yarney, the monks spend 45 days within the monastery grounds where they undergo intensive learning in all aspects of their spiritual life.

For my evolution, the last one was in the studio where I had a vision of what I wanted to capture. It still surprised me along the way as all bodies of work do but I was clear on what I wanted to the output to look like. Photographing a monastery is a much more raw and organic environment to work in. Generally speaking I prefer this way of working as you have to create and catch things in nanoseconds of time which forces me to be present with them.

I gave a lot of thought to how I edited for the show, as I wanted the images to reveal the story of the Gyuto Monks Summer Retreat in layers, which is much like it happens in the monastery itself. On first sighting, the monastic life appears to be a routine of chanting, eating and sleeping, but with more time I spent there, the more it began to reveal itself as a very complex place where education, communal living and spiritual practice mix with the 500 men, teenagers and boys who call it home. The Summer Retreat brings out these dynamics in a particularly unique way, which I have tried to capture in this exhibition.

In 2009 you were the official photographer on the Australian tour of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. How did this opportunity come about? What was this experience like?

Truly amazing. Someone described being around His Holiness as like being in the eye of a hurricane. While you are with him all is eerily calm and nobody else comes near you and you have his full attention. Then, as he moves on, this swirl of activity happens which is wild and there this crazy mix of different interest groups all vying for a piece of him.

What do you feel is the most challenging thing about photographing what you do?

I think it would be trying to work the multiple aspects of the monks and monastic life and everything it involves into different bodies of work that tell of something more than just a nice shot of a robed, shaven headed monk.

You predominantly work in black and white film, hand crafting your prints on fibre-based paper in a traditional wet darkroom. What do you enjoy about this process?

Well these images were taken in black and white and also in colour as I had originally intended the exhibition to be a combination of both, but as I started editing the work I realised that for this story, it was much stronger if told only in black and white. So I converted some of the colour images. Usually my black and white work is produced in a traditional wet darkroom but as some of these images were shot in colour using my Nikon DS4 (and more recently I have enjoyed using a Lecia Monochrome), I needed to rethink the possibilities of how to express the work. After much exploration that included trying to make 20x30 inch contact prints in a wet darkroom, I came to see that printing this body of work suited the pigment on rag feeling.

This type of printing, though not uncommon given the advances in digital technology, was new to me. With the help and persistence of two friends who were also moving into this area, we began to explore the look of this type of printing method with the images I had chosen for this exhibition until we arrived at a place where a modern printing technique met with an ancient tradition and looked beautiful and harmonious.

Even with this experience and thoughts of how I’ll mix the two in the future, my heart will always lie with the wet darkroom. I really enjoy the solitude, the quiet and seeing the image emerge in the tray.

What is next for you? Any travel plans to photograph on location in the near future? Are you planning other exhibitions this year?

I’m planning to go to the monastery in June as I’m working on two new exhibitions. One of them is just focused on the younger monks and their early monastic life. There is this fascinating interplay between their childhoods on the one hand and their move towards being fully ordained monks.

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