Q+A with Brendan Tang
It's as if Brendan Tang has a magic ability to bypass not only the finickiness of clay as a material, but the very rules of physics. He drapes ancient Chinese vases — as if they were fabric — over tools, electronics or pieces that look like smooth, mutant jet-engine parts. He splices together the weight of history and the shiny allure of technology as if they were fraternal twins. (Oh wait, maybe they are.)
One piece can take about 80 hours, which is stretched over a couple months to allow for drying times and firing times.
Tang shared a few thoughts by phone from Vancouver this morning.
His exhibit at UNR's Sheppard Gallery, Souvenirs From Earth, closes tomorrow, April 7. Plan your lunch break accordingly.
KV: To make this kind of artwork, it looks like you'd need a mindset that's fluid enough to be able to remix and reimagine all the cultural elements you see around you, and also a mindset that's technically rigorous and a lot patience for tedium. How do you maintain all of those to such an extreme degree?
BT: <laughs> It's one of those things. It's like satiating the right side and left side of the brain. The coming up with ideas is always the easier part. There are times when I'm like, this is going to be a lot of fun, but I know how long it's going to take.
Having audio books and Netflix playing in the background kind of satiates my mind. I was binge-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation for a long time.
KV: Do the vases you make refer to a specific type of vases?
BT:Those are riffing right off of traditional Ming Dynasty or Qing Dynasty vases. I'm looking at those forms and combing the internet for images of them. I use them because it's a fairly well know ceramic trope.
I like to put all these entranceways to my work for people. Chinese blue and white is such a familiar kind of thing. A lot of people who are more familiar with the British or Dutch blue and white read them as that.
KV: In much of your work, those ancient-looking vases are draped or stretched over a modern-looking, machine-like piece, as if the vase is ill-fitting clothing on top of some new item, or the new item is trying to squeeze into historic clothing. Could you tell me more about that?
BT: I've never thought of it as ill-fitting clothing. But it is like a shrunk sweater. There is that idea I'm playing with: technological, futuristic ideas transitioning out of an awkward history. Contemporary life is in the process of emerging out of history, like a snake shedding its skin in some way.
I wanted to play with that idea. It's too easy for us to forget our history, like this thing came out of the blue, but that's not how it works. It's a transition. I'm playing with that idea, how technology is related to historical events. These things are hardwired in us. Facebook is out of our want to be socializing with each other.
KV: I want to say there's a strong theme of culture clash in your work. Is that an accurate reading?
BT: Yes, definitely.
KV: What kind of experiences have you had with that?
BT: Growing up — and this is the story of almost every immigrant kid that's grown up in a place different than their parents did — there's a difference between how you are at school and how you are at home. That sort of culture clash was really prevalent in my childhood.
I live in Vancouver now, and there's constant culture clashes going on. This city is booming in so many different ways.
It's fair to say there is, like, a hybrid of culture clashes. The manga series is, in an autobiographical way, the reconciling of tradition and the world that I live in now. My dad is Chinese. My mom is East Indian. Both were born in Trinidad. They were more Trinidadian than being in an ethnic enclave of sorts. They chose the route of assimilation. I was born in Dublin. I lived there for five years, then eastern Canada, near Toronto, then Vancouver Island.
Is there anything you'd like to say to Reno before we say goodbye to your work?
Reno's an interesting place. I got to hang out with people that actually live there. I got to see the ceramic community. The Wedge, I though that was really amazing. The curator took me out to, what is it, Fallon? [The Oats Park Art Center] blew my mind. I was really impressed with the work and the community that's there.
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