My artistic practice embodies the influences, tensions and contradictions that define the postmodern world. At once, my works exhibit the paradoxical tendency to be irreverent, frivolous, and playful, as well as thoroughly engaged in critical reflection. Admittedly, my aesthetic is driven by a hedonistic engagement with visual culture, yet I remain apprehensive about the all-encompassing diversions of contemporary society. Although my works are non-functional, I often employ vessel forms, or otherwise allude to incongruous functionality (for example, “wiring” of non-electronic parts). These apparent tensions may be particularly salient to my chosen field of ceramics, a medium interested in the notion of art versus craft.
It is perhaps due to my sense of belonging in the remix generation (as evidenced by electronic music and its "mash-ups"), that I tend to borrow and reconfigure ideas and influences to create works that I find both visually and intellectually compelling. I liken aspects of my artistic practice to channel surfing, where I absorb, interpret and bank a great deal of visual information to inform my personal aesthetic. Always interested in refined forms, I draw inspiration from such diverse realms as contemporary pop culture (e.g., plastic toys and Japanese comics), art history (e.g., in the form of Chinese Ming dynasty vessels and 18th century French rococo), and historical and contemporary practices in self-portraiture. Drawing on such rich cultural symbology, I abstract and configure images, forms and colors within a narrative. Humour is an essential communication device in my work; I find this is an especially effective means of viewer engagement when addressing sensitive subject areas (e.g., war, climate change, geo-politics).
As evidenced in my reconfiguration of historical art traditions and my use of mixed media, I am intrigued by cultural appropriation and hybridity. Undoubtedly, these predominant themes in my work are a reflection of my own ambiguous cultural identity. Although I am considered Asian Canadian within the dominant culture’s framing, my family has lost even vestiges of connectivity to Asia through several generations of intercontinental migration and ethnic intermarriage. I have used self-portraiture to explore issues of race, class and sexual identity in greater depth.
While my aesthetic is driven by a seemingly manic consumption of visual culture, my work is labour intensive and detail oriented. I place high value on craftsmanship, as refinement allows me to reference art history, and notions of class and value. I employ hand painting, gold luster, airbrushing, hand-modeled filigree, and photo-based decals, among other means, to create alluring pieces. Working primarily in clay, I exploit its ability to convincingly emulate other materials, such as “robotic” prosthetics. Undeniably, working in clay offers not only satisfying technical challenges, but also vital kinesthetic connectivity to my artistic practice.
Through my approach to art making, I work as a visual ethnographer – documenting and interpreting contemporary culture through my own assumptions, preferences, values and personal history. My aim is to create work that serves as a portal for reflection and dialogue.
Manga Ormolu enters the dialogue on contemporary culture, technology, and globalization through a fabricated relationship between ceramic tradition (using the form of Chinese Ming dynasty vessels) and techno-Pop Art. The futuristic update of the Ming vessels in this series recalls 18th century French gilded ormolu, where historic Chinese vessels were transformed into curiosity pieces for aristocrats. But here, robotic prosthetics inspired by anime (Japanese animation) and manga (the beloved comics and picture novels of Japan) subvert elitism with the accessibility of popular culture.
Working with Asian cultural elements highlights the evolving Western experience of the “Orient.” This narrative is personal: the hybridization of cultures mirrors my identity as an ethnically-mixed Asian Canadian. My family history is one of successive generations shedding the markers of ethnic identity in order to succeed in an adopted country – within a few generations this cultural filtration has spanned China, India, Trinidad, Ireland and Canada.
While Manga Ormolu offers multiple points of entry into sociocultural dialogue, manga, by nature, doesn’t take itself too seriously. The futuristic ornamentation can be excessive, self-aggrandizing, even ridiculous. This is a fitting reflection of our human need to envision and translate fantastic ideas into reality; in fact, striving for transcendence is a unifying feature of human cultural history. This characteristic is reflected in the unassuming, yet utterly transformable material of clay. Manga Ormolu, through content, form and material, vividly demonstrates the conflicting and complementary forces that shape our perceptions of Ourselves and the Other.
This is a collection of works that infiltrate and exploit beauty – a notion intimately connected to the decorative arts. The works are indeed beautiful; inspired by 18th century French porcelains (Sevres and Meissen) and ceramic ormolu, these meticulously crafted, richly ornamented vessels lure and please the viewer. The grandiosity of the excessive ornamentation – including gilded leaf, scrafito, painting and decal ornament – is amplified by wall decoration and dramatic lighting. If it is possible to be too rich, perhaps these vessels are.
But with further examination, the distanced elitism suggested by this ornate display is undermined. The showcase of bombastic ornament offers a means to critique formalism, utopianism and social detachment. Adding to the historic forms and decoration, I have incorporated personal images, elements of technology (including sound and video), and a variety of non-traditional materials. This interplay relates the work to the contemporary social context, while drawing on archetypes of wealth, opulence and fabricated beauty to inform the overall narrative. The resultant tension between the decorative arts and nontraditional elements invokes layered reactions from the viewer: attraction, surprise, confusion, and reflection.
Humour is also central to the works in Through the Gilded Looking Glass. Humour is apparent in the titling of the works (e.g., Just What is it that Makes Asian Men so Appealing?), self-deprecating humour (e.g., Royal with Cheese) and ridiculous ornamental elements (e.g., swaying plastic flowers in Passenger’s Paradise). By employing satire, I create a point of access. As in the statement, “many a truth was said in jest,” humour offers the viewer is a portal to a further reading of the works.
The subject matter for Through the Gilded Looking Glass spans self-identity, power relationships, citizen apathy and engagement, and consumerism. While seemingly diverse, these works are thematically unified. Visually, the exorbitant decoration is common to the series. Conceptually, the works demonstrate tension between beauty, and its close proximity to the ‘Other’ – the un-beautiful. The vessels, then, mirror our everyday lives, and our inability to shut out the uncomfortable and tragic elements of life – no amount of decoration can mask this. Through the Gilded Looking Glass is an ornamented reflection of human existence.
The feeling of culture shock is a familiar experience for many. The term “a fish out water” is an analogy often used to describe these mixed emotions. The Swimmers drawing series plays with the idea that we are the fish that are always finding our way through our greater culture.
For this collection of drawings, I have appropriated and altered various blue and white ceramic patterns so that they appear to be a watery, pool-like surface. My choosing of the blue and white pattern is two fold: firstly it is a pattern that I have been working with and developing into my own visual vocabulary, and secondly, it is a pattern that has appeared around the world. From the Ming Dynasty (China) to Spode (UK) to Delft (Netherlands) to Iznik (Turkey), this ceramic meme has had a far reach, making it an excellent signifier for a culture and tradition.
In this rippling pattern I have also placed two wading figures that appear to be oblivious to the complexity around them. The reason for representing groups of figures, as opposed to a sole figure, is based in my feeling that we learn traditions and cultural practices from one another; these things are not hard wired. Furthering that notion, my groupings are usually parental figures with children or peers splashing about.
It is my hope that the work discusses the daily navigation of the cultures that surround us.
A collaboration between Alex McLeod and Brendan Tang , #Lovechild is an exploration of the narrative possibilities of a real world object enhanced via digital augmentation.
The installation consists of several components. A ceramic vessel by Tang is displayed on a pedestal in the TechLab. A live shot of the vessel (and also the image of a person in the Gallery) feeds into a computer that overlays it with Alex McLeod’s computer-generated animation and then projects the combined images on the Gallery wall. This melding of the real and the virtual offers a new way for viewers to interface with an object in a gallery setting, without the need for a smartphone or other device.
To further expand this meditation on material culture, Tang deliberately mimics museum displays of broken pottery fragments by making his Lovechild vessel an incomplete object. Yet instead of “completing” the vessel with a didactic augmentation, McLeod’s imaginative overlay offers a new narrative that transforms the static object into a living, breathing organism.
Presented as part of the exhibition The Future is Already Here, curated by Rachel Rosenfield Lafo.
Read the exhibition brochure
Residue: Tracing the Lore, a collaboration between Brendan Tang and Diyan Achjadi, explores the ways that ornamental motifs can reveal or reflect histories of migration. Through imprinting fragments of images onto their own skin as well as those of close relatives’, this project asks how familial lore and traditions are transmitted, and the residues that they leave upon us.
The process of the making the imprint is intimate and fleeting: a tile is chosen, then strapped on to the body. When the strap is loosened and the tile removed revealing the image, the body immediately readjusts and the skin begins to regain its original shape. The imprints are ephemeral and in flux, lasting mere minutes. They are documented before the pattern loses its crispness. The resulting photographs focus closely on the embossed skin and its imperfections: hair, pores and moles intermingling ornamental fragments.
The works in Residue reflect multiple transferences of imagery, from drawing to object to print to photograph. A series of relief tiles are translated from sketches into 3D-printed tiles that are then blind-embossed into skin. The resulting impression is documented through photography, and digitally-printed onto paper. Through exploration of these processes, Residue: Tracing The Lore is an investigation into the language of printmaking's material possibilities, as well as its function as a means for the transference of ideas and images.
The Joss Paper series is a collection of watercolour painted replicas of objects and ephemera that held significant places in my heart as a child and adolescent. Once meticulously rendered, the painted objects are folded to re-create the original shape and size of the items, and are then mounted, accompanied by a porcelain match, within a plexi-glass display case reminiscent of a museum display.
The term Joss Paper references a Chinese cultural tradition wherein a paper replica of an object is burnt as an act of sending gifts to relatives and loved ones in the spirit world. By far, the most common item depicted is bank notes, but other valuables such as jewelry, electronics, or even cigarettes are burnt in effigy to send on to the ancestors.
This body of work originated during the process of creating work for the Ready Player Two show I did in conjunction with Sonny Assu in 2017. In that show, Sonny and I did a deep dive into our shared experiences with comics and video games, and how nerd culture helped us navigate early issues of identity. In that show, I re-created a Nintendo, a Game-Boy and a classic VCR in watercolour and assembled them at a scale of 1:1 for use as elements of a basement vignette. In making those initial pieces, I discovered that, in fact, what I was doing became not only an exercise in remembering, but in doing so, fetishizing and thus, honoring these talismans of my youth.
Intrigued, I continued to explore this series. The use of fire to communicate with the deceased runs parallel to contemporary practices of burning written memories as a means of expunging one’s past; this dualism of meaning in contemporary culture has been a consistent theme in my work, a hybrid of the old and the new. In the Joss Paper series, the paper objects are shown beside a porcelain match, at once inviting the viewer to set fire to the piece and simultaneously denying access to the act. In transforming an object from my youth into an effigy to be burnt, I attempting to both release it from my memory while at the same time communicating with past selves. However, the inclusion of a bogus match makes the letting go hard to do, which it is.
In fetishizing objects from my childhood, I am inevitably exploring notions of nostalgia and the dangers inherent in nostalgia. This series is presented in a fashion that not only recalls classical museum displays, but is also a nod to public fire-hose boxes with the inscription, “In Case of Emergency Break Glass”. Both of these references create an anthropological narrative that heightens the experience of viewing, elevating objects and imbuing them with meaning and urgency. At what point does the need to release past trauma become so urgent that we need to burn it all to the ground? What is the value of a memory and does it weigh us down or set us free?
Known for his striking ceramic work, Vancouver-based artist Brendan Lee Satish Tang ventures into unfamiliar territory with his new installation-based exhibition meatspace. The result of Tang’s three-month residency at BAF, meatspace revolves around a series of sculptures rendered in seemingly random configurations of geometric pieces of black foam core and strips of wood. These asymmetrical, abstract sculptures formally evoke everything from architectural scaffolding, metro maps, and cell networks to rhizomes, skeletal systems, and structural formulae for complex molecules.
Tang first garnered attention for his (still ongoing) Manga Ormolu series which features bold trompe-l’oeil mashups of blue-and-white porcelain vases with toys, robots, electric wires and plugs. Critics and curators have theorized these playfully anthropomorphic ceramic sculptures with their unexpected juxtapositions of high art and pop culture, craft and commodity, the historical and the high-tech, as references to Tang’s own diasporic identity as well as to multifarious global histories of empire, cultural exchange, and commercial exploitation.
Writing on Tang’s ceramic-focused practice in 2009, curator Kristen Lambertson observed, “Tang’s work explores technology’s potential to be not only disruptive and violent but also a benevolent force of transformation.” This ambivalent fascination with the high tech and its impact on humans continues to percolate in Tang’s new sculptures at BAF; the exhibition’s title “meatspace” comes from a term coined by web guru John Perry Barlow to differentiate the physical world from the virtual world of “cyberspace.” Tang describes the sculptures as cloud formations: recalling the angular “low polygon” shapes of early 3D computer graphics, these delicate structures poised in BAF’s white cube space suggest not only the clouds above us, but also The Cloud, that nebulous digital domain to which we back up our computers and smart phones, uploading all the many documents, images, and files that undergird our lives today. Tang compares the sculptures—with their black geodesic outgrowths extending from the jointed wooden frameworks—to “cave drawings” that track our often ambiguous yet profoundly symbiotic relationship to cyberspace.
Bridging the digital and the analogue, the virtual and the real, meatspace makes manifest the invisible yet colossal digital platforms that intersect with our lives, and upon which we now fundamentally depend. However, his interest in exploring our dependence on cloud computing and other digital platforms does not pre-empt his commitment to the artworks’ materiality and his employment of a hands-on, labour-intensive process. Each piece is constructed of hand-sawn pieces of wood and carefully cut-out pieces of foam core of numerous dimensions, and Tang maintains a DIY, minimalist aesthetic by leaving the wood unvarnished and the residue of glue holding the pieces together unconcealed.
Unlike his ceramic sculptures with their glossy veneer and aura of precious permanence, these works have the air of a project in flux—each piece could be easily taken apart, tinkered with, and re-configured, like a puzzle or maquette. Indeed, Tang characterizes his experience of building these sculptures as highly intuitive, where he discovers in real time—through the concrete, sometimes clunky process of trial and error—the unexpected paths and patterns that guide their creation. In this way, these works function both as traces of and prototypes for the restless creative process itself.
Text Provided by the Burrard Art Foundation and written by Zoe Chan, photographs by Dennis Ha