Interview with Charlene Tan

by Janey Smith, February 23-28, San Francisco.

400%, Charlene Tan -- Photocopies of local drugstore travel-size personal products enlarged by 400%. Wood, metal, paint. 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

CT: I love Chicago.

JS: Why?

CT: Chicago feels as if New York and Lyon (France) had had an urban love child. Like a city that has taken particular traits of American individualism and the celebration of food and beauty that I found in Lyon. Plus the bridges that break up the city which are incredible for a pedestrian.

JS: Why were you there?

CT: Several reasons: personal and for research. First was to visit a long-time friend who just established himself in Chicago as an architect and his friends, Vera and Matt. Another was to eat at Alinea and Moto, but those plans didn’t work out so we ended up eating at Avec and some other places. Also to see the art exhibitions at MCA–that 80s retrospective that just opened.

JS: Your stuff?

CT: What do you mean?

JS: Like what do you do?

CT: I’m a visual artist, researcher, and an emerging writer. Right now I’m working as a contributor for SFMoMA’s OpenSpace Blog.

JS: How’d you get the gig at SFMoMA blog?

CT: I’ve been in conversation with SFMoMA’s Education Department and Suzanne Stein due to my involvement with Stephanie Syjuco’s ShadowShop Project in 2010. I feel honored to be part of the dialogue that has been created by OpenSpace Blog.

JS: I read your last post about the Em Meine’s decapitated Osama bin Laden rice crispy treat head. It was sweet. Have you brought writing, or a more text-based approach, to your work as an artist?

CT: I’m glad you noticed this aspect of my practice. I rarely use text for visual art but it has been a growing process to discover how powerful words can be.

JS: I like the spaces you create. I wish everything looked like them.

CT: Which one? The “research spectacle” lab or the space caves I did in 2009?

JS: Oh, the space caves. Those were neat. How did you come up with that idea? Have you ever traveled through space or been to the moon?

SPACE CAVE, Charlene Tan -- Mylar, midnight blue gels, fluorescent lights, wood, double stick tape, mylar tape. Commissioned by Southern Exposure for Space Odyssey. Image courtesy of the artist.

CT: The space caves were a response to being in a car accident in 2006/07? Which I remember being in a space blanket and hallucinating on a gurney due to a head trauma. I am a science fiction geek so the transition to the space caves felt natural due to the fact that I am fascinated by fantasy environments created for science fiction films.

JS: J.G. Ballard eroticized car crashes in his book Crash. In hindsight, is it now possible to eroticize the trauma of the car accident you experienced? How did the space caves help you work through the mourning that accompanies trauma?

CT: The caves did impart a sort of eroticized space, a sort of warm womb-like environment. The head traumas I experienced made it hard to process information for months after the fact and making the caves helped me show how it felt when I was at my worst. Color was hard to differentiate and the nausea when processing information that was in the past was easy. Still, to this day, I have short-term memory issues and reading has become something to actively focus on.

JS: What are you working on now?

CT: Researching, I know this is very vague but that is what I’ve been spending my time on. If I find a topic intriguing I set fire and find tangents that relate. I’ve been info mining my family history and cultural ancestry.

JS: Genealogy is fascinating. What have you learned about your family?

CT: I’ve learned specific regions that my maternal and paternal families originated from. A grandfather that walked the Death March during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and that my mother’s biological mother gave her up to be raised by a sister. There is so much more that I still need to ask and learn.

JS: Which tradition, or traditions, is your work responding to? With whom, that is, which historical figures, are you in conversation? Or do you even think in those terms when making something?

CT: This is difficult to answer because I’ve been trained as an art historian and I adore the progression of traditions and genres throughout the ages. Recently I’ve been fascinated with art as religious or political propaganda in the form of Bernini or Hellenistic sculpture because they aimed at an easily communicated idea that to this day still has a voice. In a way this is what I want to achieve a form of expression that is simple in its strength.

JS: Your work doesn’t seem propagandistic. In fact, advertisements don’t even come to mind. Although in the construction of certain spaces there seems to be a totalitarian aspect to the work.

THE GOOD LIFE, Charlene Tan -- Photocopies of American fast food containers from Beijing, aluminum, glue. Commissioned for Present Tense Biennale, The Chinese Culture Center, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.

CT: Yes that is true but it is a new goal that I want to reach eventually. I want to make a viewer fall to his or her knees in a spiritual euphoria.

JS: You seem always to be working on something. What’s this thing I notice you doing where you help other artists with their projects. It sounds so time consuming. How does this help you as an artist?

CT: In the beginning it was my own version of learning from the source in a field that I profoundly love. I volunteered, interned, or worked as an artist assistant to learn how things were really done in galleries and in the artist’s studio. In the end it has helped me beyond my expectations and I make it a priority to be involved as much as possible to keep me grounded and connected with my peers and people that I find intriguing. Yes, it is time consuming but I see it as an investment in the community that has given me so much over the years. It is my way to pay it forward.

JS: Who are some of your favorite artists right now? And also like all-time?

CT: Right now, I’ve been intrigued by Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, which is funded by Creative Capital. Plus the work of Alfredo Jaar and the team Allora & Calzadilla due to the fact that they are addressing political issues that are either being ignored or not popular at the moment. My all time favorite artist would be David Hammons.

JS: Are there little ways that these artists have informed your work? I mean, do you sometimes feel like you’re in a conversation with them? If so, how?

CT: Yes, these artists have in a way changed how I interact with narratives that I use for my work, making myself accountable and courageous with topics that are on a personal level difficult to address. I have been using their work as a calibrated standard, to compare and contrast if my projects are up to their standards.

UBE TALES, Charlene Tan -- 3 minute video, ube powder, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

JS: Bruguera employs her body in many of her art works almost as if it were an art object itself while Hammons seems to tweak common objects in unusual ways. What’s the difference between what they are doing and what you are trying to do?

CT: The difference is that I have not navigated how they use their bodies to communicate specific relations that I have not been able to accomplish with my own body. They inspire me. They do things that I want to do, and play with taboo topics. I love how Hammons’ work discusses race in unusual ways.

JS: In twenty years where do you want to be as an artist?

CT: It is hard to say. I feel that I have private desires and goals in my art life that I would never tell anyone just for the fact that some things do not pan out, or things happen faster than expected. I have found that keeping my goals to myself is better in the long run.

JS: Do you listen to music when you make stuff, when you’re trying to come up with ideas? If so, any favorites?

CT: Music is a big part of my life. Most of my disposable income is spent on music or to see music performed. So naturally I prefer to have music playing at all times as needed, sometimes as loud as possible to calm me or help me focus. I have a diverse collection of music from Bach to frog recordings around world.

JS: As a Filipino-Chinese American woman what obstacles, if any, have you encountered as you’ve navigated the art world?

CT: Yes, the obstacle of being a Filipino-Chinese American woman.

Charlene Tan is an artist who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Born in Houston, Texas she spent most of her childhood in the Philippines only to return to San Francisco to begin her education. Her work has been shown at Intersection for the Arts, Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, [2nd floor projects], ampersand international arts, and Southern Exposure among other spaces. Her practice is diverse ranging from sculpture to performance, investigating topics on assimilation, consumer culture, phobias, and socio-political passivity. Tan is represented by [2nd floor projects] San Francisco.

Janey Smith lives in San Francisco. She is the writer of The Snow Poems (Nap, 2012) and Animals (Plain Wrap Press, 2011).