Canadian Art

Review

Brendan Tang: From Manga to Ming

Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge Mar 13 to Apr 25 2010
Brendan Tang <i>Manga Ormolu ver. 2.0-o</i> 2009  /  photo David Miller Brendan Tang Manga Ormolu ver. 2.0-o 2009 / photo David Miller

Brendan Tang <i>Manga Ormolu ver. 2.0-o</i> 2009 / photo David Miller

During his exhibition “Manga Ormolu,” Brendan Tang’s gorgeous hybrids beckoned through the Southern Alberta Art Gallery’s temporary storefront window. Playing on the lure of consumer goods, Tang’s ceramic pieces have the visceral appeal of slick gift-shop merchandise. While they tempt with their craftsmanship and beauty, they also reveal the complexity of globalism and identity, questioning the commodification of cultures, nations, the past and even the future.

In this work, it seems as if ancient Chinese porcelains battle futuristic robotic prosthetics. Like Rococo ormolu—French gilded luxury fittings applied in the 18th century to imported Ming and Qing dynasty vases (among other objects) to make them more appealing to European aristocracy—Tang’s vessels are the product of long and ongoing cultural interplay. Each piece begins with what looks like a traditional hand-painted Chinese vase, mostly blue and white, complete with a delicate craquelure that suggests authenticity. Yet where Europeans framed the East by adding golden filigree, Tang anachronistically adds cyber-pop ceramic armatures, airbrushed to smooth perfection, which are simultaneously fun and menacing.

Tang relates the robotic references to Japanese comics and anime, which, like ormolu, are culturally complex. They evolved out of a combination of Western and Japanese traditions, became incredibly popular in Japan and are now, in some sense, global. Tang’s work adds nuance to the seeming permanence of cultural archetypes, revealing the malleability of such categories in contemporary culture as well as their staying power. While manga is part of global pop culture, it still stubbornly reads as Japanese. Similarly, while the blue-and-white ceramics have been copied in Delftware and the Ming dynasty’s blue glaze may have been imported from the West, they persist in signifying the Chinese.

Tang is often seen as Asian. Yet he describes himself as hybrid: raised in Canada, he was born in Ireland to Trinidadian parents who are of Chinese and East Indian descent. His history, like his work, instantly reveals the impossibility of unitary origins.

In some pieces, the manga-inspired future surrounds the chinoiserie, but the disruption is minimal. In others, the robotic seems to emerge from the ancient, like a symbiotic outgrowth of one Eastern tradition from another. In the most successful works, the futuristic seems to violently reshape the historic. Metal grommets, plastic tubes and fuel packs made of royal jelly and ginseng deform the traditional vessel’s body, as if the past itself were being restructured by a global imagination of the future, a future inspired by Japanese anime. But the traditional is resilient in Tang’s work. It bulges out organically where we don’t expect it, insisting on its relevance, refusing its own demise.

“Manga Ormolu” exposed the hybridity of cultural traditions, the stubborn persistence of tropes, and the problems with global commodities. It was also funny, beautiful and ever so tempting.

This article was first published online on May 20, 2010.

RELATED STORIES

  • Newsfront

    Governor General Award Season; Marie Fraser's Montreal move; Matthew Hyland to run the show in Oakville; Scott McLeod curates 2011 Photo Fest; SAAG's Lethbridge expansion; Caitlin Jones to Western Front

  • Ian Pedigo: Totemic Architectures, Shifting Grounds

    New York artist Ian Pedigo reveals the transformative potential hidden in abandoned remnants of everyday life in “Those That Float Because They Are Light,” an exhibition of sculptural constructions on view at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

  • Into the Streets: Avenues for Art

    Galleries can respond to renovation with closures and reduced exhibitions; but not the Southern Alberta Art Gallery. Rather than winding down, the Lethbridge venue has made its renovation a creative topic, and taken art into the streets.

 

FOUNDATION NEWS

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

ONLINE

  • Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Black Birds

    New York critic Joseph R. Wolin heads to the Park Avenue Armory where Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are creating a buzz (and other sounds) at the US premiere of a dark, nightmarish installation originally created for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney.

  • Grange Prize 2012: Hot Shots

    One of Canada’s largest cash-value art prizes—$65,000 in total with $50,000 going to the winner, $5,000 to three runners-up—announced its finalists this week. Take in their wide-ranging works in this slideshow.

  • Wanda Koop: Into the Woods

    A visit to Wanda Koop’s cabin near Riding Mountain National Park in southern Manitoba proves intriguing for Vancouver critic Robin Laurence. There, Laurence writes, Koop bridges old Grey Owl myths with a new series of paintings on our increasingly digital culture.

  • Brad Tinmouth: Survival Strategies

    The basement of an art gallery may seem an unlikely place to create an emergency shelter. However, Xpace's lower gallery is an ideal setting for Brad Tinmouth's “If Times Get Tough or Even If They Don't,” which evokes a cold-war bunker.

  • Wim Delvoye: Blame it on Paris

    Silk-covered pigs, lattice-cut car tires and a tattooed man are just a few of the works that Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has shuttled into the old, Gothic wing of the Louvre this summer. Jill Glessing reviews, finding a terrific amalgam of high and low.

More Online

Report a problem