Victoria Benedetto. Tangka: km 0
I’m in the kilometer zero of the Argentine Republic, meters away from the National Congress. The area is usually buzzing with people, but today it’s empty because of a holiday and it feels like a new place. It’s not only this emptiness that makes me see these blocks I walk through in another light, it’s because of what I discovered a long time ago and what’s brought me here. In a small apartment with two rooms filled by books and memories, Victoria consecrates herself to thangka, religious Buddhist painting. While I wait for her to open the door of the building, I think about those two adjacent and parallel universes: the universe of the State, the political wheeling and dealing, that mise-en-scene where we try to organize ourselves, not without pushes and pulls, to achieve something better, and Buddhism, or one of the paths that questions the self and object fiction and invites us to regard everything we perceive as an illusion.
Victoria opens the door with a smile, fresh-faced and no make-up, her head framed by a gray-haired mane that barely reaches her shoulders. We go up and there’s tea waiting for me, on top of the white marble coffee table around which two universes will unfold. One, inhabited by serene and furious deities, charged with symbolisms, and the other, the universe of her own life spent between two shores, Paraná and Spain, with a long scale in Buenos Aires.
-Victoria, the first thing I want to ask you is what makes you get out of bed in the morning.
I’m a very cheerful person. I have a very strong drive and I’m always doing good. I’m never down or lacking energy.
-You wake up already feeling motivated?
Absolutely. Since always.
-Is your motivation conscious or you don’t question it?
Yes, I’m conscious about it. I started to notice that I had a motivation that exceeded the norm when I was around twenty-six years old, when my dad died. It happened at a family party, on my parent’s wedding anniversary. He got electrocuted in front of the whole family, so we were all very stunned, in shock. However, I also felt that I accepted death as if it were something already known to me. That’s when I realized that I had a spiritual motivation, or whatever people call it, I don’t put a name on it.
-Which remains your driving force until this day…
-And how did you first connect with Buddhism?
It happened in ‘86. I lived in Madrid and I used to travel to Buenos Aires to see my family every two or three years, and I stayed at my sister Leonor’s house. She took yoga classes at home and, one day, when the instructor and us were drinking tea after the class, he said: “I want you to meet some lamas”. “What’s that?”, I asked. We went to the Centro Cultural San Martín and attended a talk by Drubwang Dorzong Rinpoche and Drugu Choegyal Rinpoche. Gerardo Abud, an instructor of the Tibetan Buddhist Center Dongyuling, was the interpreter. The lamas didn’t know English at that time, much less Spanish. They spoke in Tibetan. Seeing them had a tremendous impact on me. I felt the love and the joy they had and said to myself: “Well, this is the way”. I didn’t question anything else. I became a Buddhist and took refuge in that without really knowing what Buddhism was, because I realized that what those beings represented was the truth: unconditional love. I returned to Spain and started to visit some Tibetan Buddhist centers.
-So you did it rather intuitively.
-And how did you first connect with art?
Well, really since always. I came out of the womb drawing. I drew at school and, when I was twelve or thirteen, my parents signed me up to an artistic drawing course at the School No. 10 in Martínez, on Wednesday nights. It was actually a course for adults, another boy and I were the only teenagers. That experience gave me a lot of confidence because I realized that I could draw well and in a similar way to adults. Later, I got into the Manuel Belgrano School to study Fine Arts, and started painting. It went well. I did exhibitions and then I left for Spain.
-Were you born in Martínez?
No, I’m from Entre Ríos. I was born there, in Paraná, where I lived until I was seven or eight.
-When did you leave for Madrid and why?
I left at the end of ‘76, the military coup had been in March. My partner at that time was the Head of Culture of Santa Fe province when the dictatorship began. The army showed up and kicked everyone out and that had a huge impact on him. So, we decided to go to Buenos Aires, but we had no possibilities of finding a more or less stable job there so we left. We started over in Spain, I stopped painting and got into children’s and adult’s puppets. I built them and manipulated them. I also got into charanga, a marching band with wind and percussion instruments. I liked being in Spain, it was an easier life for creative people.
-It seems like a very lively environment, do you agree? You had this puppet group in which I suppose you worked with other people.
Yes, everything went really well, and it was also the time of the “destape español”.
-You arrived there when everything burst…
Yes. People associate the word “destape” (unleashing) with “nudity” but what it really meant was “the jig’s up”. After forty years of dictatorship people were disheartened and they needed to see a better reality. It was also a period in which a lot of Argentinian people arrived, many exiles. They had pretty important roles: theater directors, actors, it was shocking. It was a coincidence that, in the ‘76, a dictatorship began here, in Argentina, and it ended in Spain that same year. It was like that for twenty years.
-Twenty years. A lot. And then you returned…
Yes. I lived alone with my two daughters in the heart of Madrid, two blocks from Plaza del Sol. Heroin suddenly entered the scene and I sensed it. I started seeing a lot of death, a lot of tragedy, and said to myself: “This is not the way”.
-Everything started getting darker, right?
Yes. At least for me.
-I was imagining very colorful images and when you suddenly mentioned heroin everything turned black and white.
Well, yes. In Plaza del Sol, for example, there was a half-hidden street full of dying drug addicts. When you passed that street, you could hear moaning and cries. I had separated, the father of my oldest daughter had already returned to Buenos Aires and the father of my youngest one had gone to Perú. The girls were growing up and I was alone, so I said to myself: “No, I won’t be able to do it”.
-What year did you return?
I came back many times, but the definite one was in 2000. I started working in a photography studio.
-And how did you start painting thangkas?
Without realizing it fully or thinking “I’m going to paint a buddha.” I never conceptualized it. I went back to Dongyouling in 2003, the center where Gerardo Aboud was, who I had known back in ‘86. I called a telephone number I’d written down on a physical planner. I’d heard there was a teacher that taught people how to make thangkas in Córdoba, so I asked for his number. This was in January 2006 and I said to myself “I’ll call him after the summer”. And when I called in March, a man picked up and said that the teacher had passed away in February. I never got to learn from him, but the man who had picked up the phone gave me some sheets of paper with grids to set the image. They were useful to me later.
-So you never took classes, you learned by yourself.
Never. I sent the first thangka I painted to Gerardo and asked him what he thought. He told me not to change anything. He said: “The mudra is like this, it’s not like this”, and that was it. I started painting and never stopped.
-They take a long time to make, right?
They take around two or three months each, because you have to make the grid, then make the drawing inside of it and then transfer it to an original paper. I work on paper, but Tibetan thangkas are made on cotton fabric. This type of work is like meditating, that’s why I can’t do it for more than two hours, three tops. It’s tiring, I don’t have the capacity to work for more time.
-Could you put this into context for people that aren’t familiar with thangka?
It’s a language in which nothing is useless. An important aspect is that it has a precise proportion, that’s why you have to use a grid. The human image of a buddha or of a bodhisattva is generally placed on top of a background, which is the representation of the phenomena. That’s why the proportion between the background and the human figure is the exact proportion between the essential nature and the nature of phenomena. The elements of the phenomena are water, earth and fire. Emotions are represented by fire; water is ignorance, yellow represents earth, green is prana, and everything has a backdrop which is the essential nature.
-Is it a relationship between the nature of phenomena and the nature of the buddha?
Yes, but everything’s part of the same absolute nature. They aren’t two different natures because, when we separate the self and the landscape, we fall into duality. What’s expressed through these images is the integration between the self, which in this case is the buddha, and the phenomena, meaning the landscape. The phenomena and the essential nature are interwoven.
-So it’s not a type of painting that aims to express the ego, but one in which the ego is a sort of transmission channel that you use, in a meditative state, to communicate the non-duality without communicating your state of being?
Exactly, because if you manifest your own ego you fall into expressionism. Thangka has a different goal than a Jackson Pollock painting, for example. It’s similar to meditating: the body is still, the eyes are open, every sense expands so as not to reject anything. This way, you notice the ego when it starts to speak but you don’t get carried away with it.
-It’s like becoming a spectator of your own ego.
Yes. When you paint or draw, your need for expression is not egotistical, what’s important is what arises throughout that meditation. It’s also important to have a technique, to know how to draw. Japanese people worked on landscapes with that same worldview, that same need to not intervene because, if you do, it’s like signing your name and saying “here I am”. Thangka is a language of transmission, and if I receive a prayer or a mantra, I can’t change the letters or syllables to my liking.
-But it’s also inevitable that the tools you have to transmit this are going to be unique, you can’t help that…
Yes. In general, I find it necessary to open spaces, because if I don’t do that, I feel as if I were drowning. I live in Congreso where there’s always a huge turmoil. I think that might have influenced my need for space. I can’t make a thangka in a place crammed with stuff. In Tibet, people were in a flatland, they had an austere lifestyle, maybe they needed something more baroque. In my case, I need the opposite of that.
-You mentioned that you’d grown up in Paraná and I was wondering if you think that something of that early childhood might have influenced your thangkas.
For sure. I grew up very close to a cliff, a spectacular space in which your eyes would wander. I remember that, at night, I could see a light in the depths of the isles. I was born in a cobblestoned street with low houses where the sun hit everywhere, in the fronts of the houses across from mine, for example. I thought it was wonderful. When you went for a walk, everything felt open. It’s what I remember, I don’t know if it’s true to reality…
-What other things might have influenced you?
I think my personality when I was a child. I was solitary and quiet, a spectator in a lot of ways. My mom would take me and my sister to visit our grandma on the weekends. Her house was on a street with very wide sidewalks where children played. It was that time when they bathed us in the evening and changed us into our going-out clothes to go for walks. But I sat on a park bench that belonged to a doctor that lived two houses away and I didn’t participate in the game. My sister Leonor played with a cousin and I watched them. I didn’t feel rejected or excluded. It was a choice that wasn’t considered something negative at home.
-It’s as if, when you were a child, you already had that fundamental Buddhist attitude of observing the game, do you agree? Observing fiction and perceiving that nothing has an intrinsic reality.
-Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?
That this language is the strongest thing I’ve discovered. Its strength is not only conceptual but sensitive, it’s perceived with the body. I can’t talk about the drawing or the quality of the painting, it doesn’t have anything to do with that. All there is language, and when you asked me “what gets you out of bed in the morning?”, expressing that is what drives me.