For this iteration of In Conversation, BAF spoke to Tang about the new show and its place in his general practice.
Burrard Arts Foundation: The decorative arts have figured prominently in almost all your past work. Do they fit into the new show as well?
Brendan Tang: The decorative arts, I think, played the role of more of a seed to these ideas. I was really drawn to the cloud formations that appear in traditional Chinese blue and white pottery, and was just really loving painting these sort of curlique clouds with tails, being excited about these kind of arabesque shapes that were happening and emulating those, and in the process of emulating them, them taking on their own shape and form.
In the BAF show, I’ve included some of those original explorations, including a large drawing, and some ceramic works that were evolving as the ideas started progressing and moving away from what i was doing.The final work, that’s shown in the main gallery, is several iterations beyond the original idea around decorative arts.
BAF: Let’s talk process – it’s somewhat self-evident, but can you tell us a little bit about the materials and techniques you used, to what degree were they new to you, and whether that was an adjustment or learning curve?
BT: The process of making these has definitely been… it’s quite a laborious process. I start off with a 1x1 inch long stalk of wood, and make these kind of wonky frames, and then I put the wonky frames together so that they make wonky cubes, and then i take the wonky cubes and i put three together to make a long formation. One of the great things, especially with working in ceramics, and also borrowing a lot of the visual language of the decorative arts, is that a lot of the complexity starts with a very simple thing. For example, sawing angles on these objects, putting them together and building.
So I took that mode of working, doing a simple gesture and then repeating it several times over to make more complex forms, and it was exciting to see them come together, but it left me feeling like it wasn’t coming together fast enough. But i think that’s more … in computer parlance, they would say it’s not the software, it’s user error. I don’t think i could ever do anything really quickly, I’ve never been one of those artists. If I tried painting, I’m sure I would just be layering glazes on there, making it really slow and laborious, and then just be like – this is taking too long! Because that’s just the way i work.
BAF: So on that note, obviously these works look like a complete departure from ceramic, there’s nothing in common. But from your point of view as you’re working with the material, does it feel like you’re sort of a fish out of water, or is there a surprising commonality?
BT: Yeah, there definitely is. I do feel like there’s a fish out of water kind of feel to it, which has been exciting, but I think again, I sort of fall back on the way i work, which is geeking out over how i’m gonna put these pieces together, sawing them and then puzzling that out, and that does feel very familiar to the way I make my ceramic work. So it’s the same way of working, just in a very different material. So I just fall back on that way of working, and allow the new material to figure itself out and not fight it too much, which has been really really fantastic.
I must say… I’ve been working with the Manga Ormolu series for more than a decade now, 11 or 12 years, so that’s a familiar conversation and a conceptual idea that does evolve, but at this stage it’s a slow evolution. While with this work, I find it really exciting in the sense that I don’t know what I’m doing, or where it’s going. Through the building process, because it takes me a long time but it’s not super crazy skilled labour, my brain can kind of float off, and the work can just reveal itself to me, and it’s like getting to know someone you’re just meeting – it’s exciting in that regard.
BAF: That connects to the next question I have – how does this show connect to Manga Ormolu and your other previous bodies of work? It seems like a completely new direction, but nothing exists in a vacuum.
BT: That’s true, and i’ve always been more of a fan of evolution as opposed to revolution. I know there’s other people in my field for whom every show is a completely new thing, and that’s how they work. And I think some people will come to the show, and probably feel the same sorts of things about this work, but as somebody that is definitely invested in the production and process, I feel that there is a similarity, as we talked about earlier. The more I think, and the older I get, the more I feel like that is very important to my practice, that i make my objects and that i’m really quite protective of that process. I generally don’t like letting go of the making… to my own demise at times. It is what it is.
I think there is also another conceptual line that can be drawn – the Manga Ormolu work is very much a hybrid object, and the Swimmers drawings, those are kind of people existing in this weird, hybrid space. For this work, I feel it’s also kind of an in-between space – these objects are kind of like skeletons, three-dimensional line drawings, and they have these growths that are also skin. I definitely want to refer to the digital world and the in-between spaces that we all coexist in simultaneously – how I’m in real life, in my body space, living that life where I can do things like buy groceries, do laundry, talk to people and that sort of thing, but then I also have my virtual life, which is on my phone or through my laptop or device, and I’m mediating that as well, curating how I present it in those spaces.
It’s all happening simultaneously – I’m having a conversation with my aunt down in Trinidad, while I’ll also be working on this work, all those strange sorts of things. I feel like this show is so much about illustrating or presenting the idea of that in-between space: that digital/real life space that we all kind of coexist in.
BAF: That kind of preemptively answers my next question – I was going to ask you about the name of the show, meatspace, and there we go! I thought that word originated with William Gibson and Neuromancer, and then on reading the exhibition text, it did not. But that’s what most people associate it with. So we’ve covered how the name came to you -but is William Gibson and that type of writing something that is important to you, are you referencing that book specifically?
BT: Yeah! I’m a big fan of that genre – speculative fiction is something that I really enjoy, all sorts of fantasy and speculative fiction, but the cyberpunk stuff especially. In general, I’m just really invested in how our technologies are altering our culture, and how our technologies kind of amplify our natural tendencies as people. For example, I think we are a very social animal, and that’s how we’ve survived for so long and got to our place where we are in the world, and i’m interested in how our digital technologies and things like Facebook and Instagram and all that sort of amplify and kind of expand our social desires to an almost insane degree. Because we’re hard-wired to be social, being on Facebook can feel very natural for a lot of us. I think that’s kind of an interesting thing. And the sharing economy, which is also amplified vis-a-vis digital technology, and I think that’s also part of our thing that, as humans, we do. So that’s all kind of part of this, and these things kind of swim around in my head all the time.
BAF: Are those the kind of feelings and thoughts you want gallery visitors to experience upon seeing the work? Is it important to you that the viewer experience the work in a certain way, or are you more hands-off?
BT: This has also been a really interesting experience, because in previous bodies of work, I’ve definitely been more direct about things. How I go about doing that is I’ll cite popular culture, I’ll cite the decorative arts in my work, and so in a way, I’m getting people in a certain emotive place. Getting them to think about Japanese robots, or science fiction movies, or chinese porcelain at a museum – getting them to churn up these things that they already have associations for. While with this work, people could come to it and they could see these linear, cubist kind of things, some people will see old video game stuff in it, some people will see – I just don’t know!
BAF: So it’s a bit of a departure in that way, too.
BT: Yeah. Which is also really, really exciting. I think some people might come to this work and just sort of see it as abstract sculpture, which is also really fine. In a lot of ways, my title meatspace is me reverting back to that very comfortable thing, where I do like to kind of nudge the viewer in a specific direction, and I hope meatspace, albeit a bit esoteric in terms of its origins, can do that – even if you go to urban dictionary you can find out what ‘meatspace’ is and say oh, that’s an interesting read on it. I hope people will come to the show and just think, this is a very strange kind of network of things. I’m almost not even giving them an anchor. The only anchor point, really, is the title. If you walk into the space it’ll just look like an abstract kind of old video game that you’re walking into.
Join us for the opening of meatspace on Thursday, January 11 from 7-10PM at BAF Gallery, 108 E Broadway. The exhibition will be shown through March 10, 2018.