A Conversation with Guo-Liang Tan and Sherman Mern Tat Sam,
October 2021

Both Directions At Once, 2021, Acrylic on aeronautical fabric, balau wood, 180 x 165 cm (double sided)

Sherman Sam (SS): So, to start simply, when we first met you were painting still lifes, and I think you had said that making videos had even preceded that. Can you tell me a bit of your journey to abstraction?

Guo-Liang Tan (GL): I don’t think I consciously made works to deal with abstraction at first. If anything, my earlier paintings, up to the point of those floral still lifes, were a way for me to escape from the whole ‘abstract versus figurative’ way of looking at things, which I find very limiting. As a rule, I like to work with not ‘one or the other’, but ‘one and the other’ – what does it mean for something to be abstract and figurative, formal and conceptual, historical and contemporary, thinking and feeling at the same time? I am excited by the possibility of working in a space that can hold contradictions. Binaries (in art at least) are often a failure of imagination.

I wasn’t formally trained as a painter (I started learning about art by making videos, and still do from time to time) so I don’t have the kind of conventional painterly progression that one might expect. A lot of people were surprised when I stopped painting flowers and started making these ‘abstract’ paintings because it wasn’t like I started with flowers and slowly painted my way into abstraction. From the outside, it must have seemed like a sudden turn, but for me, the move felt instinctive, more like a gentle nudge into the unknown.

Looking back at the flower paintings, I think in a way one could observe up-close a level of abstraction happening on the surface, because of the ways I handled the paint materially and formally. But when I was making them, I was really more interested in the historical locatedness of the imagery and the displacement created by painting them out of time and place. This sense of both closeness and distance became something of an obsession for me. Even when I am experimenting with video, collage or writing, I find myself gravitating towards more indirect and coded ways of dealing with images and words to create this sense of shifting to and from the subject.

What does this movement – including both perceptual and bodily – have to do with abstraction? This is a question that has haunted my paintings since Ghost Screen.

SS: When you speak of this idea of “historical locatedness” and displacement, do you think something similar is happening with your abstractions? In this I mean that some construe abstraction as belonging to the 20th century and thus a form of expression closer to the near past.

GL: I certainly know of artists and curators who prefer to see abstraction (and in particular, abstract painting) as an art historical category that is inherently tied to the idea of modernity. To have that perspective is akin to saying that we have exhausted all possibilities of abstraction to the contemporary, which I find untrue.

I think artists continue to engage with abstraction precisely because there are still questions, things that are unresolved and cannot be put to rest. In a way, I am drawn to the ghosts of abstraction and I like to see my paintings as an invocation. The “near past” is a pretty good place to speak to the present, don’t you think?

Screen Practice I, 2021, Acrylic on aeronautical fabric, balau wood, 180 x 165 cm (double sided)

SS: Yes, you’re absolutely right! And speaking of the near past, it seems to me that your latest work Arrive, Arrive (2021), installed at the atrium of  National Gallery Singapore, is a big leap forward for you. It comes off the wall, and, even, the floor. Do you think of it as still functioning in the realm of painting?

GL: The opportunity to create a new public artwork for National Gallery Singapore arrived out of the blue in the midst of the pandemic. The space that I was asked to make work for was this cavernous atrium that had a volume which was extremely intimidating. It was such a departure for me in that my work often involves working intimately with the material and using my body as a point of reference in terms of scale, so I had to find ways to translate those sensibilities and project them on a very large and public space. In a way, the invitation forced me to approach painting very differently.

Walking around National Gallery Singapore, one thing that struck me was that there are many (old) paintings inside the galleries, but almost none in its public spaces. It was as if paintings were relegated to a historicised interior while other more contemporary art forms took centre stage when it came to engaging public spaces. I consciously wanted to remind the viewer of painting’s presence in the work. One of the guiding principles that I had when thinking about the structure and shape of the individual pieces was almost flat. Together with architect Yann Follain, I designed a series of frames that the painted fabric could stretch over to form slightly concave surfaces to better work with the architectural space, but still essentially retain their almost-flatness. Another consideration was for the shapes to be aerodynamic. Because the work had to be suspended, I wanted to use the opportunity to draw attention back to the function of the aeronautical fabric which I paint on, and to gesture towards the art historical moment when painting was declared dead by Duchamp just as Louis Bleriot’s plane (which was also made of canvas over armatures) was being paraded through the streets of Paris. So even though the work became very sculptural and spatial, it was still very much a group of paintings to me.

Altar Dance, 2021, Acrylic on aeronautical fabric, balau wood, 180 x 165 cm (double sided)

SS: To throw another binary in the mix, it strikes me that there are two elements in your abstraction: colour and structure or support. Am I correct to describe your latest paintings as consisting of a structure/support that provides the armature to hold colour? Can we say that this is a kind of distillation of art to its key components?

GL: Because the fabric I paint on is very thin and translucent, the ground is almost invisible. By contrast, the structure/support, which is usually hidden, suddenly becomes quite observable. Perhaps this inversion of frame and surface gives the illusion of the colours being held by the structure/support. As another rule for working, I like to reduce before complicating. Distillation of things into its components allows me to see them more clearly and to express their relationships with more intent.

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how to further engage the quality of translucency inherent in the fabric. For the new works in this exhibition, I decided to open up this thin surface by painting on both sides, allowing one version of the painting to inform the other. In presenting these double-sided paintings, I wanted them off the wall so that the viewer can move around to view both front and back. This consideration meant that the usual crossbars got displaced to the ‘outside’ of the frame and I ended up with these free standing structures that would hold the paintings upright. I like how light literally enters the paintings and affects the way we see the layering of colours depending on the time of the day and where we stand. Whether it’s painting or installing an exhibition, I like to think through composition and orientation. There are these points of asymmetry in the structures that I see as extensions from the paintings into the physical space, prompting the viewers to turn their bodies towards and/or away from the painted surface.

In this new configuration, the colours can be described as being held by the support/structure as much as they are being animated by the movement of bodies and light. I was looking at these late nineteenth century images of the Serpentine Dance films, in which moving figures were swathed in light fabric and optical shadows to create a fluid sequence of colours and shapes. It got me thinking about the painted image (and abstraction) as something more unstable and about what it would mean to approach painting in relation to other screen practices and more transitory modes of image-making, such as dance, cinema or shadow puppetry.

Screen Practice II, 2021, Acrylic on aeronautical fabric, balau wood, 180 x 165 cm (double sided)

SS: Given that so much contemporary art is predominately figurative, or at least figural, and that the notion of the contemporary is still fairly recent in Asia, what do you think abstraction does in Asia?

Screen Practice II, 2021, Acrylic on aeronautical fabric, balau wood, 180 x 165 cm (double sided)

GL: That’s a big question! Firstly, Asia is hugely diverse so I’m not sure how one could give a satisfactory answer without ending in some form of generalisations. Personally, I’m all for thinking about the place of abstraction, but only if this place doesn’t become an imaginary other. If we can discuss the kinds of abstraction that came out of The Bandung School in Indonesia with the same kind of specificity and complexity that we give to The Bauhaus or the legacy of Abstract Expressionism in New York, then great. If not, the lack of grand narratives can be a blessing, especially for the many outliers of (art) history. From an artist’s viewpoint, I prefer to think about abstraction through individual approaches rather than through geography. Artists like Kim Lim, Latiff Mohidin and Fernando Zóbel, for example, make the case of “abstraction in Asia” somewhat problematic because their works relate to, come from, and are about much more than just one place.

For me, the question of what abstraction does is perhaps best considered through what we choose to do with it. I’ve always been very interested in the ways abstraction gets entwined in our everyday lives – from the patterns of textile weaving to the forms of ritualistic objects (Ashley Thompson’s analysis of the linga is a great example). What happens if we stop thinking of abstraction as a phenomenon emerging out of a certain locale and start moving through it as if abstraction is a place itself? How would we navigate its terrains differently?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about abstraction from a non-human perspective. I’m fascinated by the formal varieties of plumage and the highly ritualised mating dances observed in the birds of paradise. The evolution in their visual appearance and movement appears to be communicative on some level, like a kind of specialised language. That’s abstraction to me! In Ted Chiang’s Story Of Your Life, the writer imagines an alien language with free word order and written in chains of semagrams on a two-dimensional surface with no linear sequence. When I first read this description, I was struck by how the structure of this speculative language felt strangely familiar to the process of painting abstractly, in that the relations between parts and the whole, cause and effect, beginnings and endpoints are completely fluid and entangled. Working in abstraction satisfies a part of me that is not wholly bound up in time and place.

Ambient Visions, 2021, Acrylic on aeronautical fabric, balau wood, 180 x 165 cm (double sided)
SS: I agree, it seems to me that there are more outliers right now than schools or movements in Asia (broadly speaking) … perhaps they are new shoots for the future. The other thing about that Ted Chiang story, which was made into the film Arrival, is that he takes his inspiration from the Sapir-Whorf linguistic hypothesis. It posits that learning another language changes how your mind works and sees the world. I like to think spending time with abstraction can have a similar effect…

GL: Engaging with abstraction can feel like grasping at a language that is itself unravelling. It requires a level of patience and persistence because there’s no endgame, nothing really to ‘get’. In fact, ‘not getting it’ can sometimes be equally, if not, more important. Ideas, meanings and intentions – these, we can access readily enough with the right words. Accumulative effects, on the other hand, can only be seen or felt gradually over a period of time, usually with a bit of hindsight.

Sherman Mern Tat Sam is an artist and critic based in London and Singapore. He has exhibited his paintings and drawings internationally, including numerous one-person and group shows in Europe, America and Southeast Asia. As a writer, he was contributing editor at kultureflash.com, and has written for The Brooklyn Rail and various British art magazines, such as Art Review, as well as international journals like Artforum, artforum.com, ocula.com and artcritical.com. From 2006-8 he was the Inspire Curatorial Fellow at the Hayward Gallery in London.