Fragile Grandeur

Exhibition essay by Kate Gorringe-Smith

In the exhibition, Postcard from the Roof of the World, Sarah Tomasetti’s heroic and delicate works have about them a great silence. The subject of her current body of work, Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash, appears solid at a distance yet on closer inspection the surface of the paintings seems fragile, as if one could put out a hand and, pressing, cause it to craze and fall in flakes to the ground like snow.

This fragility is actually an illusion – one of the many paradoxes that characterise Tomasetti’s work. The fresco surface, she says, is remarkably robust, its making based on a centuries-old technique she learned in Italy in 1995 and has honed ever since: ‘I make a mixture out of slaked lime putty and marble dust and lay this onto a damp wall with a plasterers trowel, over a layer of muslin which then allows me to detach the surface from the wall once cured…It's like making an image of stone on something stone-like’. 1

The paradoxical nature of Tomasetti’s work speaks to the challenge that she has set herself to evoke both the physical presence of this most sacred of mountains and its spiritual and cultural significance. For Mount Kailash is the most sacred place for many of the world’s religions: ‘To Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpos, Kailash is a sacred peak, a living Deity possessed of immense spiritual power. Pilgrims travel to Kailash in order to take up the Kora: holy circumambulations around the base of the mountain, believed to cleanse the soul and lead to enlightenment.’ 2

This tension between the mountain’s physical and metaphysical presence is prefaced by the row of portraits hanging in the gallery’s reception area. The portraits depict Pelmo, a young Tibetan Australian and her brother Nyishe, interspersed with self-portraits of the artist. This sleep/wake sequence is divided from the main body of work by a literal wall, and the portraits face away from the main gallery. Tomasetti is a western woman, not of the faiths for which Mount Kailash is sacred; Pelmo is a young woman born in exile in India, culturally and physically divided from her homeland, which she only knows through image and story. The sequence of portraits and its separation from the main works evokes dislocation and possibility, a sense of a place existing in the conscious or subconscious, beyond the senses.

Moving into the gallery’s main room, the peaks and valleys of the route around Mount Kailash rise and fall, beautiful and chill. At opposite ends of the gallery hang two works that sit in contrast due both to the manner in which they are hung and the images they present. On the north wall, Eastern Valley Triptych presents a pathway into the mountains. The ground before us is level, manageable, and the mountains lie ahead, inviting us to enter the landscape. The texture of the ground is visible, tangible; the path ahead clear.

Hovering just before the south wall, opposite the triptych, hangs Kailash, North Face. Its base obscured, the peak floats unreachable against a white background, the work’s apparent solidity fading to the insubstantiality of muslin, which falls to the floor, lying in a soft spiral that evokes the rhythm of its human ritual of worship.

The other major works in the gallery hover between these states of the tangible and the mythical. Gauri Kund -The Lake of Compassion leads the eye from ground to peaks. The pool’s icy blue waters evoke the plunge of devotees who, having completed their circumambulations, may choose to plunge into its icy melt waters. In Silver Mountain the mountain looms, central and iconic, the sky is grey; in Kailash Northface IV, and Through the Pass, the mountain is veiled or partly so, fading into mist, snow or time.

If one can manage to be alone with the works in the gallery, the only sound to be heard is water falling from the fountain in the next room – a fitting accompaniment, as the story behind Postcard from the Roof of the World is as much one of water as it is of a great mountain and the people who worship it.

As well as being one of the world’s most venerated holy places, Mount Kailash is the source of fresh water for much of South Asia: ‘High up on the Roof of the World, in the clear thin air of the Tibetan Plateau, six major rivers begin their journey into South Asia, spawning thousands of tributaries on their way to the sea. Four of these rivers, the Indus, Karnali, Sutlej and Brahmaputra, have their headwaters at Mount Kailash in Tibet’s southwest…The Plateau’s ice sheets represent a giant natural water tower in the hydrologic cycle of the region. Countless distinct ecological systems and over 1.5 billion people live downstream…It would seem that research into the climate dynamics on the plateau increasingly aligns with the centuries old practice of reverence for the holy peak, as the navel of the world, and the source of all life’. 2

For nearly twenty years, Tomasetti has been drawn to mountains. She has visited mountains, invented mountains and, for this body of work, has created a reverent homage to a mountain so remote and significant it hovers on the brink of mythology. Her growing and deepening investigation into these most symbolic landforms, which loom as large in our collective imagination as they do in the landscape, has more recently run parallel to a burgeoning awareness of climate change and climatology research. Informed by this, Tomasetti’s deep interest in Mount Kailash is heightened by anxiety, for ‘the plateau is melting, in some places up to ten times faster than the poles’4 and the 46,000 glaciers that store the life-bringing waters for almost a third of the planet’s population are threatened by the impact of a future, dramatically different, climate.

What then, in this possible future, will become of its sacred identity? If the rivers of Kailash no longer flow, if it is no longer the life-giver, will its mighty and ancient significance for so many of the world’s religions, be diminished or even end?

There is no way to definitively answer this question. Instead, Tomasetti offers us her own meditation on this remarkable place at the roof of the world – a meditation that begins with the painstaking creation of the fresco surface and continues through the act of tracing the rock face with a ‘devotional fidelity’1, using a sequence of precise stippled, drawn and etched marks that are nonetheless constantly interrupted by the random cracks and fissures in the gradually curing surface.

And so in contemplating these monumental and fragile works of eternal yet rapidly changing ecosystems, we, the viewers, are also called to pilgrimage, and to consider the larger task of once more relocating the sacred within the natural world on which we so depend.

  1. Sarah Tomasetti, email to author, 31 March, 2018
  2. Sarah Tomasetti, Notes on Kailash, North Face for Flow exhibition as part of the Climate+Art=Change Festival 2017, Counihan Gallery, 2017.
  4. Sarah Tomasetti, invitation text for Postcards from the Roof of the World, 2018.