Malaysia’s Richard Koh Fine Art presents “Back to where we’ve never been”, a solo show of Melissa Tan’s geological survey.
Between found object, silkscreen and paper cutting, Tan’s textural sculptures displace and translate landscapes, commenting on urban regeneration.
The streets, bridges, parks and pathways charaterising our urban environments undergo continuous cycles of restoration, looking less and less like their originals as they spiral into new territories at the hands of new people with even newer technologies. What systems are in place to commemorate the outdated, deconstructed or deteriorated and for what purpose? Should the bits of cobblestone or asphalt that once bore the weight of generations be preserved or recycled?
Singaporean artist Melissa Tan ponders this question, developing, as it were, her own system of fossilisation. Rooted in an overwhelming desire to preserve the transient “beauty of the ephemeral”, the multimedia artist’s practice lends more to process than output, nodding to the natural geological processes and society’s harsh grip upon them. Her textural exploration into landscape and rock formation employs a rich variety of found and manufactured materials, toying with concepts of urbanisation, construction and mythologised re-creation. In her solo show at Kuala Lampur’s Richard Koh Fine Art, Tan not only displaces fragmented landscapes, but further translates them into objects of visual consumption.
Environmental decay and self-regeneration
Titled “Back to where we’ve never been”, Tan’s solo exhibition is a continuation of her display at the 2016 Singapore Biennale, featuring 16 wall-mounted and floor sculptures, each an assemblage of stone, metal, paper and silkscreen print. The emphasis on texture and formation is apparent as the artist demonstrates specific interest in materiality and how the medium not only supports the work, but is the work itself; here broken concrete fragments are as highly regarded as the finest silk or gem. While paying homage to the lands they once inhabited – perhaps, in celebration and critique of their constant reconstruction – Tan’s precious remnants nevertheless immortalise spaces and offer up curious, or even otherworldly, explanations for their dislocation.
Overwhelmed by the continuous reparation ongoing in Singapore since December 2017, the trained painter and video artist considers the “ambiguity” experienced in her daily commute, specifically in the unrecognisablity of her country’s urban nooks and crannies. The streets and surrounding features in her daily encounters are familiar yet seemingly foreign, given the absence of lived-in texture as the result of recent renewal. While the pathways that appear unblemished may reveal portions of their past upon close scrutiny – for example, through hints of patchwork, shaded tarmac or cement– the artist notes that the efficient upgrading exercise undertaken by the island’s infrastructure is so thorough that it borders on being self-regenerative.
As one who’s interests lie in geological mapping and both the natural and manmade processes of weathering, Tan adopted paper and metal plates to convey the geometric complexities in processes of crystallisation and the formation of rocks. This unique approach of layering fragile cutouts and nestling them within found scraps of earth has since been unanimous with her practice, and has evolved to gain more dimension over the course of time. On the material investigation in “Back to where we’ve never been” she comments:
Juxtaposing paper with a seemingly incongruous material like metal, which is hard, cold and reflective, renders the work raw and tense.
Residential, commercial and industrial landscapes are given equal consideration, each undergoing rapid processes of regeneration as the result of population boom and technological overdrive. The Richard Koh exhibition offers a catalogue of the surfaces, pavements, paths, walkways and roads that will inevitably be forgotten and transfers their ‘data points’ into fragmented and disjointed emblems. Through the scoring, carving and notching of the paper and metal, the information from Singapore’s built and natural environment is encoded, while also mirroring the actions made by natural weathering and human intervention that imprinted these marks.
With a practice that is renowned for its painstaking procedure, it is curious to situate it within an age of digitisation, and further within a gallery setting; after all, an element that is upcycled in the name of urban regeneration means something entirely other than an element which is uprooted, transformed and resettled within an arts institution. She explains:
As I work closely with traditional printmaking techniques, it is very important to me. However, I am moving towards using laser cut metal in my practice and learning certain software to navigate this age of digitisation. Perhaps it is difficult to see the artist’s hand in some works, but that does not make the process any less labour intensive. Editing images, building models through software and rendering data takes a lot of time and often goes unnoticed. I feel that in whatever we do, time and patience are still required to learn the craft and keep up with the pace at which technology is evolving.
To keep up with a rapidly changing environment, especially when the landscape is itself one’s medium, means to filter it through available technological systems. Tan’s work is thus twofold: her found-but-reinvigorated sculptures are fossilised proof of eroded landscapes and digitalised renderings of natural processes. Is this the future – or, as Tan suggests, the present state – of city sprawl and ‘synthetic’ environmental construction?
Transient and poetic, Tan’s work is appropriately affected by science fiction, popular culture, astrophysics, mythology and natural sciences, her sculptures having adopted the various identities of earthly gravels, crystallised rocks, meteorites and asteroids. The series documents what these objects and sceneries once looked like (or may look like in the future, given ongoing human intervention), prompting inventive models of Singapore’s uprooted time and space. “Back to where we’ve never been” discusses the erosive power of constant rejuvenation and the brief and forgotten journey that it undertakes. In doing so, Tan considers what it means to tread on foreign ground within familiar territory, suggesting a future branded by such transformations. She writes in her artist statement:
With so much change occurring, it gives a strange sense that the same ground we tread on might have been grafted from another land we have never been to before, making the pathway familiar and yet not so.
“Back to where we’ve been” by Melissa Tan is on view from 24 May to 14 June 2018 at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229 Jalan Maarof, Bukit Bandaraya, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur.
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