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February 19, 2012

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Tibetan paper meets inkjet art printing

PHOTOGRAPHER Jin Ping combines inkjet printing technology and handmade Tibetan paper - once used only for sacred sutras - resulting in images that appear magically illuminated. Wen Chihua reports.

Documentary photographer Jin Ping is not obsessed with technology, innovation or making a name for himself in Chinese photography. But his use of Tibetan paper for printing photos is a milestone.

For years the Chengdu-based photographer has explored new methods of image presentation. Integrating aesthetics, the visual arts, printing technology and rough-fiber, hand-crafted Tibetan paper, Jin has developed a hybrid process using modern inkjet technology and a paper-making process that dates back 1,300 years.

The paper, which is anti-microbial, moisture- and pest-resistant, once was used only for Buddhist scriptures, images and prayer flags. Printing photos and other images on the fiber lends depth and texture, especially for black-and-white photos taken in Tibetan villages.

For the past eight yeas, Jin has traveled deep into southwest China, exploring the disappearing craftsmanship of traditional paper making in remote ethnic areas.

He has tested various techniques and adopted Giclee printing, or fine art digital prints with inkjet printers, to print his own photos on the handmade papers of six ethnic groups, including Tibetan, Dai, Miao and Bai, mostly from Yunnan Province.

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

Conceptually, one of the most intriguing pieces Jin created in this medium is 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 of China.

The original monochrome woodcut stamp shows Mao Zedong in a dark green uniform, standing on the gate tower of Beijing's Tian'anmen Square as he proclaims the founding of the new nation. It's an iconic image.

One of the first plates was bought by a stamp collector named Yang Shaoming, son of Yang Shangkun, who once held a senior position on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Yang Shaoming obtained Mao's autograph on the plate of stamps - the three Chinese characters "Mao Zedong" were signed vertically across the entire plate, turning an otherwise ordinary plate of stamps into a piece of conceptual art.

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

Before Jin started using Tibetan paper in his own art, the high-quality paper was used solely for printing Buddhist classics.

In 2006 Jin went to photograph the Dege Sutra Printing House in Ganze Tibetan Nationality Autonomous Prefecture of southwest China's Sichuan Province.

In the printing house, Jin discovered that the techniques of writing, carving and block printing remain unchanged since the 13th century. And paper-making techniques are also unchanged.

"Tibetan paper makes an image look like it has been mysteriously illuminated," he says.

"I realized that this age-old medium could create an unexpected visual effect for digital images."

Tibetan paper is made of the root-hair of the Stellera Chamaejasme plant, a medicinal herb related to the Daphne shrub. Known locally as agyiaorugyiao, Tibetan paper is antiseptic, mothproof, moisture-proof and long-lasting. Well cared-for sutras can stay intact for several hundred years.

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

Agyiaorugyiao grows in the Hengguan Mountains about 3,000 to 4,000 meters above sea level on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It is used in Tibetan medicine. It is slightly toxic, germicidal and antiviral. Paper made from its root-hairs is poisonous to rats and bugs.

The paper is also extremely strong, very soft and absorbent.

"Since it's completely handmade, each sheet is unique, making it an ideal medium for contemporary art creation," Jin says.

Inspired by the Dege Sutra Printing House, Jin reconfigures a traditionalist and mystic medium with the 21st century eyes. He connects 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," he says.

Jin's endeavors paid off. His "Dege: Impressions" depict paper making, sutra woodblock engraving and classic printing. The images have a surreal clarity and have been described as having a tranquil, ethereal and melancholy quality.

In his private life, Jin smokes Cuban cigars, enjoys fine tea and keeps a private wine cellar.

In his work, he is compassionate, humble, and is highly respected by his photo 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 in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Jin and his team stayed in the village below a mountain for a week, without getting approval to photograph in the monastery.

While he was waiting, Jin noticed that the village children were poorly dressed. He spent 60,000 yuan (US$9,520 today) to buy two suits of clothes for each of some 600 students. His kindness moved parents and the lamas of the monastery, who granted Jin permission to shoot inside the monastery.

The thangkas housed in the monastery were created during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Those in Jin's photos have only been seen in public three times. The first was for local Buddhists after the paintings were completed.

The second time was during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when, in order to preserve the religious art, the monastery had them numbered, registered and stored in the homes of local Buddhists. The third time was for Jin.

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 stores an abundance of Tibetan paper. 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 paper making. In Dege today, there are only six artisans who have a mastery of the craft. They can make only 600 sheets a year.


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