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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 1:52PM
Michael Tan, Singapore Installation Artist

Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

Meet Michael Tan

The day after I arrived in Singapore in January, I found a postcard for an installation about flip flops called Invisible Life  by artist Michael Tan in one of  the libraries on campus.  I was intrigued: everywhere I looked, I saw people here wearing flip flops.  It’s hot and humid. Closed shoes, like mini-microwaves,  seem to trap the heat.

My colleague and co-curator of Open Space, Nikki Draper and I, planned an excursion over to the National University of Singapore Art Gallery where Invisible Life was mounted. We were gradually drawn into small images of flip flops dangling from strings, the text explaining the political economies of flip flops wrapped around the gallery, and the large scale photographs of flip flop production and use. We sent co-curator Sharon Lin Tay over to see it.

And a few months later, we were convinced we needed to program it for the Open Spaces/Singapore/Southeast Asia exhibition we’re doing for ICA in Singapore. It was photographs and words opening spaces beyond Singapore but also in it. Perfect.

Michael Tan (Singapore) is currently assistant professor in the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) at Nanyang Technological University. Prior to joining NTU, he served as a part time lecturer at LaSalle College of the Arts and at The National Institute of Education (NIE) where he taught a range of media art related courses in studio practice, theory and history.

His practice seeks to link art and design to the fields of humanities, architecture and urban studies. Beside his research in studio arts, he is also interested in research on art and design pedagogy.

His installation, Invisible Life, a mixed media piece which explores political economy and transnational relations. You can catch it on the 3rd floor of Suntec Convention Center during the ICA conference next week here in Singapore. And you can hear Michael speak about his work at the Open Space panel on Thursday, June 24.

The Interview

Patricia Zimmermann: What drew you to work in installation art? What do you see as the opportunities and challenges in working in three dimensional space in different locations?

Michael Tan: I am interested in the transformative power of installation art to immerse and situate the body in another world. It is like a theatre, except that in installation art the viewer is also the actor-- a characteristic of installation art that I really like. Opportunities are there,  but I think it does take a process of dialogue and negotiation between artists, institutions and space before the work can be realized. Logistics can be a challenge.

PZ:  Invisible Life (your installation that will be exhibited in Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia) seems to emerge within the context of a growing movement of artists across the globe interested in exploring the transnational crossings and economies of commodities.  What was the genesis of this project, and how did it assume its current form of pedestals with small pictures dangling from above?  Why flip flops?

MT: Having realized the sociological subject in my work, I was interested in investigating the role visual art can play alongside sociology. The visual has always been more available to solicit visceral responses so I thought it will be interesting to see how in a speculative manner, installation work can provide a lead into greater sociological pondering.  Caroline Knowles  and I were interested in telling stories that will stir people to think about everyday life.

We are obsessed with things and events that slipped under the current of the everyday. Objects are part of the everyday. They have life: their own and also a shared life with humans. But we don’t often give much thought to objects. Hence that tickled us. We were interested in telling a story with an object .

As an object that a large part of the world owns, the flip-flop became significant to us. Its is capable of opening up subjects such as the social fabric, mobility, globalization, social class. We were interested in pricking people’s imaginations and activating their consciousness.We agreed that installation work could perhaps help us to achieve this aim.

PZ: How does the concept of your project relate to the spatial dimensions which you create in the installation?  Is there a translation process you undertake to move an idea into a more concrete experience of space for the spectator?

MT: We wanted to provide a set up that encourages viewers to embark on a journey to imagine narratives on different aspects of the flip-flops.

Dangling images were used to create a forest-like environment to invite physical and mental wandering. The images are frames from our journeys in China and Ethiopia from which the viewer can form their own story.

These elements provide points and boundaries that guide the viewer in their pondering.  I think of the creation of an installation work as more of process of articulation rather than a process of translation. I enjoy the challenge of identifying appropriate and efficient signifiers that can lead viewers to grasp the key concerns of my work.

PZ: The Singapore Art Museum recently mounted an exhibition of installations from Southeast Asia in their collection.  Can you share your thoughts on the histories and significance of installation art in Southeast Asia?  What kind of regional and transnational dialogues do you see your work engaging?

MT: Installation art definitely has a good following by artists in Southeast Asia. I believe it emerged from the tradition of sculpture and architecture. Influences from art outside the region also contributed to its development.

Contemporary art in the Southeast Asian region is experiencing varied development. Art as an economy is a concept that most countries in the region are trying to grasp as they shift in varied speeds from positions as developing countries to developed ones. Over the years, at least in Singapore, we do get a sense that viewers have a better awareness and understanding of installation. I suppose art education by schools and the museums have played an important role,

Art is a way I share  the world I perceive and experience with others. I think our ability to find, create and share stories is key. I am interested in the human condition. My work is an indicator of my personal psyche, but I think it also part of a greater narrative in society. I hope my work becomes a point of contact for people.



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