Denise Alexander

Zangmo Alexander interview
with art historian Tania Harrington

Tania: How did you get into art?  You said something happened when you were 13?

Zangmo:  I was pretty screwed up at the time. I was at Grammar school and my behaviour was difficult  but I befriended a sixth former who I could talk to about deeper things. One day I watched her do a painting – it was fairly illustrative, but it flicked a switch in me. It was like an on-off thing – I just got it. I realised I could do that. I went off and I just painted. It was one of the biggest light bulb moments in my life – a complete turn around in my thinking.

Tania: Did you then go on to do GCSE  in art at school?

Zangmo: I did O-level and went on to start A-level but my brother died – he committed suicide and I was emotionally in a very bad way. All the emotional  traumas of the past 18 years, from the dysfunction of my family background and the social rigidity around me, began to show. Fortunately a kindly art teacher took me under her wing and arranged for me to do the art course in one year.

Tania: So was art a type of therapy for you in those years?

Zangmo:  I think it was. It was the one place where I could be myself and express myself.

Tania:  What sort of art were you doing? Were you just doing what were you told?

Zangmo: I was very into Rembrandt – an expressive style and free brushmarks, full of soul. Mostly representational and I loved chiaroscuro. I did a figurative mural on the school canteen wall. I was asked to do it!

Tania:  You worked in a representational way then. Could you say anything about the works around me here now which are abstract? I was very impressed by them – they are so positive, colourful and luminous. How did you get to this stage?

Zangmo:  By about 30 I’d got fed up with doing illustrative work. I ground to a halt. By then I’d also been through a whacky twenties working as a cabaret dancer, a model, being on drugs, married to an alcoholic who committed suicide – I’d been through the lot! 

Tania:  How did you get out of this darkness?

Zangmo: I was very lucky. I met a Jungian psychotherapist who later became a friend. She opened my eyes to the inner world of memory, reflections, dreams, creative imagination and archetypes and helped me to come out the other side. I also had psychotherapy myself and attended a 6 month art therapy group when I was working as a nurse a in psychiatric hospital This completely turned me round. It gave me the subject matter, gave me a way to accessing the inner world. Now most of my paintings are mindscapes – in a sense that’s what they really are.

Tania:  I can see how they’re like inner states. There’s a feeling of emotions and thoughts coming and going and the light beyond them. As well as colour they also have a lot of texture.

Zangmo: One of the ways I work (I have several) is layering – there’s a compulsion to build up layers – it’s almost like building up layers of experience but also scraping them away. It’s as much taking stuff off as putting things on. Sometimes I can do a really lively, active painting then want to cover it all in white. I did that on this painting here (Meditation no. 11) and on Joyful Light.

Tania: What aspect of meditation are they expressing?

Zangmo: How things appear and dissolve. Things can be solid yet not solid at the same time. Essentially nothing is findable. There are lumpy bits (of paint) which dissolve into the white. It’s trying to express the experience that essentially nothing is findable- in Buddhist terms, the ungraspability of everything. The conceptual mind has great problems with that but in meditation it’s possible to experience it. The question is how do you express it through art?

Tania: Is doing art itself a spiritual practice for you?

Zangmo: Yes – it’s a meditation and a spiritual practice in the sense that I’m learning about myself through it. It helps me to connect with my essence.

Tania:  Does that mean you get yourself into a calm, spiritual state before working?

Zangmo:  No - in Tibetan Buddhism everything is material for working with. It’s not that we have to be in a calm spiritual state – not that at all. Awareness is the essence of meditation, and a calm state may be the result of practising awareness, but trying to be calm is not meditation itself, awareness is. So before working, while working and after working, my practice is learning to be present and aware, learning to be simple.

Tania: I can relate to that. Often in meditation practice the transcendent state becomes an aim in itself and all the stuff of life gets passed by. It’s not very healthy.

Zangmo: I want both movement and the stillness in my art. You can see this in some of my pastel work in the next room.

Tania:  You obviously now work in a great variety of media. Do you have a particular relationship to painting on canvas though?

Zangmo: I feel very raw, very naked when I’m painting.

Tania: Are you aware of an audience when you work? Is the viewer important to you?

Zangmo: Yes – it’s a balance of it being accessible but not dumbing it down, authenticity is very important to me. I don’t want to over explain my work because that can kill it stone dead but at same time a lot of people can’t connect with contemporary art – there’s no bridge for them to walk over and I can understand their frustration. It’s got to be made accessible without dumbing it down.

Tania: What effect can current artists hope to have on the contemporary viewer?

Zangmo:  That’s too general a question I think. It depends on the individual artist and the context of their work.

Tania:  I suppose what I’m really trying to ask is, do you feel part of a larger body of artists?

Zangmo:  That’s an interesting question . . . I do find a lot of contemporary art is speaking about neurosis. That’s part of the human condition. Personally, and I can only speak personally,  I feel I need to be saying, ‘Yes - here is this human experience, this suffering, what way could there be something positive in this, some meaning or part of a journey?’  Also there’s a big anti about the spiritual in certain circles and an issue over language – Western interpretations are often different.  So I need to ask - where do I place myself in relation to that?

Tania: You run a lot of courses and groups. Is this work important for your own art in the sense it provides a connection with others, with the world outside?

Zangmo: I have a need to give to and interact with others. Doing my own work all the time can become very self indulgent. It's a balance between helping others and cultivating my own art practice. The art practice nourishes me, and helps me stay connected with process, so that I can help others with their process.

Tania: You said earlier the Post Modernism you encountered during your M.A inspired you in that it felt more socially engaged, less up its own backside and presents more opportunities for diversification.

Zangmo: Yes, it was a great eye opener, as I got into photography and other media I might not have otherwise engaged with. Recently I realised there are several themes like threads of meaning running through my work which are evolving into different, ongoing projects. One is a series of faces or heads done in different media. A face is a very powerful thing for humans and a powerful conveyor of self and identity. It’s also quite an accessible theme for a lot of people.

Tania: Is there a chronology to these images of heads or a development over time?

Zangmo: They are a documentation of my inner journey over the years from the concrete state of the earlier faces, expressing the solidity of masks and personas, through to a more energetic state where defences start to crack and crumble to a state of more awareness, alertness somehow in the last one.  There’s another project called ‘The Stripper’.

Tania: Yes, that’s a great title as it works well on two levels – the worldly and the spiritual.

Zangmo: Exactly…  I worked as a stripper in my 20’s (a previous incarnation!) One of my teachers compared spiritual and meditation practice to peeling away the layers of an onion. It’s about stripping, peeling away or allowing layers of neurosis and fixation, hopes, fears, all that kind of thing, to dissolve.

Tania: There’s an image here of you as a glamour girl. It’s really quite stunning.

Zangmo: You can see how heavily the glamour’s constructed. I don’t know how many layers of grease paint, Max Factor, false eyelashes, red lipstick, a wig – all very carefully put on. Nobody like that actually exists.  It's a complete fabrication. The journey I want to show is from this heavy construction to the shedding of my dressing up days, dropping all that. This later photo of me from the rear (makes a challenging change from a frontal view) shows me in ordinary clothes but stripped down in a sense – there’s an awkwardness about the pose and an honesty. Compare this to the ‘glammed up’ image.

Tania: It’s a powerful juxtaposition. It makes you wonder where the person is?  It expresses your  interest in things being there and not there at the same time. Juxtapositions are key in a lot of this portrait based project work. Authenticity is obviously really important to you as well.

Zangmo: Yes – authenticity is extremely important in my work

Tania:  I’ve just noticed an eye-catching  image among 'The Stripper' series - a wig against a black ground. I find that very haunting, powerful. That one could exist separately.

Zangmo: I like it too. Another image I like is this photo I took in Paris. I was sharing a room and you can see the lay persons’ clothes in the background - colourful garments, compared to my plain burgundy nuns robes in the foreground. In the middle, between the two, there’s my bare leg and foot – me naked, a metaphor for authenticity.

Tania: I’ve now seen the short film you did as your M.A. piece “Letter to my Mother” which is an intimate and deeply moving explanation of your decision to become a nun. It shows the journey from wearing the ‘uniform’ of a stripper to that of a nun. What’s it like being in the garb you’ve chosen in later life? (You became a nun in 2007 when you were 54? )

Zangmo: When wearing robes in public I’m representing Buddhism. It’s a responsibility. So on the one hand there’s the formal robes, then there’s the lay clothes I often wear for working and in the middle there’s pure nakedness. Becoming naked psychologically or spiritually is an important part of meditation practice. So for me it is quite a significant image with many layers.

Tania: I can see how you bring layers into the film and photos as well as the paintings – I find that very skilful and also very eye-opening.  Tell me about this other project – ‘The Family’.

Zangmo: My own experience of family life is that a family can be dysfunctional but I also need to feel part of a tribe at quite a biological level. There's a lot of love there too. Being a nun one is supposed to leave attachment to family behind, but I honestly wonder if this is possible for me beyond a certain point, yet it is an opportunity to observe my mind in this. There’s the pain and the challenges but at the same time a tremendous closeness. But how much of this closeness is a fantasy on my part, me having rose coloured glasses. A lot of this project is about ambivalence. Also about change over time. I express this in a number of different ways. It’s based on a traditional family photo album which my grandfather started in an old cash book, but I’ve made some juxtapositions - stuck in a photos of my mother’s present chin and neck next to the photo of her as a bright young thing to show the change over time for example - there’s also text from yogic songs by Milarepa about Buddha’s teachings on the impermanence of things. There’s a tremendous amount of love but also a tremendous amount of ambivalence.

Tania: I love the way you’ve adapted the album. A family album is full of hidden feelings over time and you’ve kind of given them a voice. It makes me want to go home and do the same to mine! You’re obviously very at home with the photographic medium. I’ve always found photography a bit dead, a bit superficial but you bring a depth and movement. A lot of your photos bring in time. It’s as though you’re ‘unfreezing’ the image.

Zangmo:  I love doing film editing and moving images but what I really like about a still image is that the viewer can contemplate it in their own time without being driven by an imposed pace.

Tania: I’m intrigued by the title of this project ‘Liminal Spaces’. What does the term ‘liminality’ mean exactly?

Zangmo: The in- between state, things being there and not there. The indefinability of everything.  For me everything is liminal in the sense that it appears and yest is unfindable at the same time. This is often the subject of my work.

Tania:  Have you any concept of the final form this project will take?

Zangmo: I’m at a really early stage with this, still finding my way through. I’ve taken some hotel images but aware that the idea of hotel and transition could become a bit obvious and crude.

Tania: I like this one with the lace and the diffused light. It’s also got the layering effect.

Zangmo:  I stayed at a hotel in an extraordinary room with a four poster bed with lace curtains around it. Interesting light. There’s the lace which is like a bridal veil and my naked foot. I remembered taking photos of my father 2 years ago in his coffin and noticing the flesh contrasting with the delicate gown– it’s about the fragility of life, that in-between state between birth and death.

Tania: Finally could you say something about ‘Woman of a Certain Age’?  I like the ambivalence of this title and the diffuseness of the photographs.

Zangmo: I think this is going to grow. I was in a hopeless state at the time, realising how youth orientated this culture is. I had a feeling of disappearing, of being invisible. I’ve moved through that now to something more positive but think it might be helpful to other women in this stage. It would be good to do some photographic collaborations exploring their experiences.

Tania: What’s happening here?

Zangmo: I was staying in a B & B after I’d dropped off my son at University and was feeling really upset as I wouldn’t see him for a few months even though I was pleased for him that he was moving on. I was feeling ill as well. On the wall you can see pictures of beautiful young girls in a desert with a Rudolph Valentino fantasy male! This made me feel really ancient! This second image I was in a ‘I’m so depressed’ feeling. Taking this image was part of my practice, as a meditation or teaching giving me something to learn from.

Tania:(Laughing at photo of Zangmo  behind table looking like death ) This one is fantastic.

Zangmo: On its own a bit of a killer! This is where the juxtapositions you were talking about are important. So that I show the journey – not just that I’m stuck in one depressive state!

Tania:. . . . .  the journey from a great deal of suffering to not so much suffering which we laughed about in the first session!

August 2012

Tania Harrington is an Art Historian
currently writing a book on David Bomberg for Tate Publications