You may have seen the campaign for our recently opened Tibet’s Secret Temple exhibition: lush foliage and dramatic clouds, all cut out of paper and set against a crisp teal colour. If you’ve ever wondered how the identity of an exhibition comes together, Jo Finn explains with a bit of help from the creative talent behind it.
Instead of simply selecting a ‘hero object’ to showcase the exhibition, the creative brief for Tibet’s Secret Temple asked designers Malcolm Chivers and Liam Relph to reflect on the themes of journeying and secret, as well as the sky which is continuously referenced in Tibetan Buddhism, and clouds, often used to symbolise the breath, a key element of yoga.
The design process led to the commission of artist/illustrator Petra Börner and the construction of an innovative structure made by photographer Ben Gilbert in order to shoot the final artwork. Here the creative team share their roles in the process.
Designers Malcolm Chivers and Liam Relph respond to the brief
For a complex project such as this, the temptation can sometimes be to play safe and stick with an accepted (and often expected) visual language associated with the subject. From the outset we knew that we didn’t want to go down the route of creating anything that resembled a pastiche on ancient Tibetan art or iconography and that, if anything, we would try to represent the themes of the exhibition from a contemporary, re-imagined standpoint. We also found ourselves restricted by the fact that we were unable to use any imagery of the murals themselves.
We explored ideas around the deconstruction and reconstruction of mandalas, abstracted typography and the possibility of recreating scenes from the murals as a large-scale suspended artwork, made entirely from paper. However, throughout this research period a simple, visual image kept on cropping up in our conversations: the ‘secret’ jungle-like island that is home to the ‘secret’ Lukhang temple.
Our proposed idea was to commission an illustrator to create a lead image depicting the island as a jungle of flora and undergrowth, where the viewer is invited to peer into the image to discover the hidden ‘secret’.
The campaign would play on the idea of the wonder and excitement felt when discovering something that had previously been hidden away, with the intention of conjuring up the key themes of adventure, exploration and knowledge that are central to the exhibition. We introduced another link to the exhibition by specifying that the foliage depicted on the new artwork should take direct inspiration from the Lukhang murals.
The wonderful artist/illustrator Petra Börner was appointed to create the campaign artwork. She works by painstakingly cutting out and layering coloured card to create beautiful artworks that are both bold and intricate.
Petra begins with simple pencil sketches and moves on to carefully constructing the final paper illustrations by hand. To add an extra level of depth, we worked with Petra to create various extra layers to the illustration that we would then take into the photography studio.
The bright colours used in the final artwork were carefully chosen to mirror those seen in the Lukhang murals and embody the diverse spectrum of colours that are at the centre of Tibetan culture.
Artist Petra Börner talks about her inspiration and the challenges with this piece
My brief from the team at Wellcome Collection centred on the allure of the hidden inner core of tantric Buddhism, with the temple as the focus point, referencing the narrative icons and the Lukhang’s lush gardens. I took inspiration from the featured murals and additional imagery supplied by the curator. I also referenced my own library of relevant books.
The scale of the paper artwork was challenging to handle as I work by hand and am used to working on a smaller scale. Also working in sections is not something I usually do, so that was an interesting new process. I supplied the final artwork as a physical piece, not as a digital file, so I had to be extra careful when cutting the artwork. Fortunately I managed not to have any slip-ups with the scalpel…or indeed leave any bloodstains!
Photographer Ben Gilbert talks about his involvement in the project
When Malcolm and Liam first described their concept for the exhibition campaign, I was immediately reminded of helping my sister with her animation degree. In order to layer different items of scenery my Dad made her what looked like an upside-down table with grooves cut in the legs to allow several sheets of glass to be stacked one above the other.
With a metal shelving frame and threaded rods I essentially created the same thing. This structure allowed us to separate each element of Petra’s artwork. The text blocks, made by Malcolm, sat on a glass layer. We built the final piece much in the same way you would a 3D jigsaw.
It was quite fiddly moving the elements into position; isolating the light to only fall on particular layers was also a challenge. But the bespoke frame gave us the flexibility to adjust and shift the various layers as we shot the final piece. It was a great project to work on and a real collaboration.
Jo is a Marketing Project Manager at Wellcome Collection.