Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
Marigold Santos. Blanket Asuang 2 (Big Sister) 2015, 30” x 30” oil on panel
Today we’re with Zoë Chan, a curator and critic based in Vancouver. For Deep Cuts, she’s chosen to talk about artists who create imagined worlds as a way of exploring themes of migration, personal history, and globalization—specifically, Marigold Santos, Karen Tam, Brendan Lee Satish Tang, and Howie Tsui. How did you first come in contact with these artists? What initially attracted you to their work?
I first discovered their work while I was doing visual arts programming for the MAI, an arts center in Montréal dedicated to presenting culturally diverse artists and intercultural practices. I had the opportunity to work directly with many of the artists, spend time with their works, and in some cases even write about their art practices, which was a real pleasure. Like me, they grew up in the 80s and come from immigrant backgrounds. I was first drawn to their work because many of them were dealing with aspects of diasporic experience which I was already interested in, but through work that was visually rich and often with a strong sense of play. I was also impressed by how they had created their own specific visual vocabulary.
Each of these artists create work that’s striking in both their imagination and how they evoke the real world. How crucial is this balance?
I think it was Howie Tsui who told me something along the lines that allowing for imagination and visual pleasure in his work was a way of “seducing” viewers to enter his imagined worlds and make them more open to engaging with the more serious or darker issues that his work might address. I think this perspective could be applied to how these artists are working.
How exactly are the artists you mentioned exploring such themes as migration, personal history, and globalization?
This relates to your previous question too. I would say that they’re dealing with these themes in ways that are far from literal, didactic or expository. Rather they’re creating these very specific worlds that are inspired by a plethora of sources—textiles, folklore, manga, toys, puppets, horror movies—which in turn are mixed with real experience, whether they’re referencing their own lives or collective histories; often fact and fiction are juxtaposed in their works.
Hybridity is a very important vein that runs through a lot of these works, and it can be seen as an extension of the artists’ own hybrid identities. We see this hybridity very plainly in Brendan Lee Satish Tang’s ceramic works where he’ll very seamlessly meld an ersatz Ming vase with pieces of robotic toys as a way of thinking, for instance, about the cultural expressions that have resulted from past histories of market trade, colonialism, and globalization.
All of the artists’ approaches are very different of course. Some are more autobiographical in inspiration. For instance, Marigold Santos looks at immigrant experience through her drawings and sculptures where she’s created a visual repertoire of vividly reoccurring tropes. She often shows the female body in a state of fracture or disintegration, but who nonetheless continues to survive by being tied, stitched or woven together. Functioning metaphorically, her work can be interpreted as the cobbling together of a new identity—a kind of painful “rebirth”—that can take place a new country. Her work comes from a very personal place but it reads in a way that feels almost archetypal in scope.
Karen Tam’s work on the other hand is more political—for instance, she explores the exoticization, commoditization, and appropriation of aspects of Chinese culture over history up to the present while also showing how these have been absorbed into Euro-American culture. She plays with that subject matter through a variety of projects ranging from her recreation of Chinese-Canadian restaurant interiors or her faux blue and white “porcelain” vases that are actually made out of papier mâché. Her work is highly playful; as a viewer you’re first drawn into questions of how did she make it look so real, and it’s only later that you start thinking about the other deeper, more critical questions at play.
Brendan Lee Satish Tang. Manga Ormolu ver. 4.0-W (2016) H 15″
How do these artists differ from each other in their approach, process, and final creation?
Where to begin? For starters, individually, they’re working across a range of mediums: ceramics, sculpture, paper cut-outs, drawing, painting, installation. And each of their aesthetics are quite different and very layered. I mean Howie Tsui’s drawings is inscribed with allusions with everything from Asian scroll painting, anime, and graffiti. All this to say, I hope your readers will take the time to discover their work for themselves.
You had noted earlier that their practices are usually very material-based. Why do you believe that is?
I think firstly these artists take a real pleasure in working hands-on with their materials, and they are all very highly skilled artists. You could also argue that they are part of a larger trend of artists who are interested in a return to materiality, technique, and craft, perhaps in reaction to an increasingly digital world or to the previous generation of conceptual artists who largely abandoned traditional art-making skills as a way to critique constricting definitions of art. This departs from your question a bit, but I think Howie Tsui’s remark about the creation of visually compelling works in order to deal with “difficult” subject matter is a helpful way of thinking about these artists’ engagement with materiality and technique (whether this is a conscious decision or not on the various artists’ part). Through these skillfully created drawings, objects, and installations, we are invited to partake in the visceral pleasure of viewing these fascinating multifaceted worlds but also to reflect on the complex subject matter concealed within.