Artist Yuk King Tan and Public Programmes Specialist and curator Emma Ng discuss Tan’s The New Temple – I give so that you may give, I give so that you may go and stay away, currently on display in Toi Art.
The origins of The New Temple
Yuk King Tan (YKT): I was asked to create the first work for the opening of The NEW Gallery at Auckland Art Gallery in 1995; I was invited to use the window space.
I decided to make a work which was based on rethinking economy, capitalism, and barter theory. I thought that this would be really interesting because it’s an outdoor-indoor space, it’s a space that is also 24/7, and it has this passer-by aspect: there are all these incidental audiences that aren’t the art audience. I wanted to do something that would be very engaging, be a little bit literal at the same time, and have the possibilities of conceptual platforms.
I put an advertisement out asking for objects that people had an affinity with, that were interesting, that they would get back in a different way. I didn’t put out any more information than that – I didn’t say it was for art, I didn’t say who I was or about the artwork it was for, or where it was going.
Emma Ng (EN): This was well before TradeMe or any online classifieds, right?
YKT: It’s before the internet, so it was in the newspaper!
I talked about the idea to the gallery, I talked about the kind of overall premise, but I didn’t say how I was going to do it. They gave me a lot of leeway, which was fantastic.
I’d been reading Marcel Mauss, an important French theorist – his book called The Gift. In his writing, he was talking about this idea of the gift, and the reciprocal gift, as being an economy that would be beyond capitalism, but at the same time would put pressure on these social transactional relationships.
I set up that premise, around the idea that I would ask people to give me things and I would give back the work, slightly subverting the idea of this invitation to do the window work, and thinking about value.
I got about 100 objects, which is quite a lot. There were some bizarre things, things I couldn’t use because they would fall apart, or they were problematic. I had a collection of about 80 that were ‘hero’. I invited the gallery staff, artists I knew, and my friends to also donate items.
EN: Ah, so that’s how the number bumped up into the hundreds.
YKT: Yes, because of the art community, which is very nice.
The work in the window
YKT: The idea of the work was to be invited in – but not too far! I talk about incidental spaces or in-between spaces. It’s great to be there but it’s better to be inside and have the power to say no or yes. And at the same time it’s an amazing place because it lets the whole community see the inner workings of the institution. People could see it at night-time and daytime, so it’s like the analogy or the metaphor, the window even more so.
EN: Was the window the main reason you chose to make this work a hanging display? I know that with other works you’ve had the objects arranged on the floor.
YKT: There was a curve in the window so I hung objects so that they were basically half chandelier. That was really nice. The most important thing: I poured wax over the floor of the new gallery. It was terrifying – but I poured a wax floor.
EN: You tried to mummify a little part of the new gallery!
YKT: I’m sure there’s still a little bit of red wax there somewhere underneath the paint!
In Italian churches with votive items they’re often in that curve because it leads up to the heavens, it’s like the idea of going up to beyond, to that other world…
EN: Do you think of this work as a kind of collective portrait?
YKT: Absolutely. It’s a part of the history of that time and it’s me in some way. The wax is like a celluloid freeze frame.
YKT: Every dip of the wax is a mummification of the object. It’s very interesting to talk about. A lot of them are mass produced items – to in some way transform them, rethinking the object by making these layers in wax. You look at the silhouette rather than the actual object, look at the details…
EN: In dipping them, were you also thinking about how such a diverse group of objects become unified as one work – and by extension, one voice?
YKT: Absolutely. Like I was doing with the string with red tassels (for example, Untitled (Red masks), 1998) or other coloured tassels or strings, I was in some way making a power position, I was transferring it into my own language…
Wax has a really important history. From 500 B.C., from Romans who would do these offerings in creating the wax candles, and then for Chinese, especially whale oil candles in 200 B.C. And then wax, in terms of itself, being an agency of fuel and an element of recharging these meridians, and other conceptual and physical details that is about the use and history of wax.
Wax was a really interesting shift and I loved using it – also using it like a witch, or if you think about a certain kind of feminist perspective, having a cauldron and then changing someone else’s item to create something new. There’s an alchemy there that I was playing with, but at the same time trying to subvert.
EN: So you were thinking of that little physical change as a tangible marker of that slight shift in value, which you could then gift back to the original donor?
YKT: Exactly. It was making a physicalisation of a certain conversation about whether it was a gift theory or barter theory.
And then, of course, it works because they’re candles, they’re all votive items now. They’ve been made into whichever culture you want to navigate towards, and especially towards some sort of god or gods. And so I call it The New Temple – I give so that you may give, I give so that you may go and stay away. That’s a term that was coined through looking at the idea of Greek and Roman gods. You basically give something to them so that they will leave you alone – not necessarily give to you, but allow you a better life. That’s a really interesting way we think about offerings and transactions in terms of our relationship with authoritarian figures.
EN: The timelessness of that relationship is interesting because the wax is kind of a time capsule, capturing the objects.
YKT: Yes, the mummification and also the transformation of the objects.
EN: And there is very much this sense of coming from a particular place and time – Auckland, 1995. As a portrait of a particular moment, it shares something with the objects in the Terracotta Warriors exhibition that’s opening at Te Papa soon.
YKT: The objects are immortalised in the same way that we put those things into our churches or, in some cultures, our household temples.
EN: How did you feel when people didn’t come to collect their object?
YKT: Most people didn’t pick up their object.
EN: Was it an exchange, in that the donors could pick any object to take home again? Or you could only pick up the objects you’d gifted?
YKT: There were things that I knew got mixed up. When someone said, “Where’s my…?” Then, they would grab something else because it was just all weird and looked interesting – so there was a really interesting new subversion of what I was trying to do, which I quite liked because they were happy and engaging with the project and making a new form of exchange or barter system. One of the suppositions of Marcel Mauss and the other theorists who responded to his writing is that our system of value gets constantly subverted by the ‘giver’ or the ‘receiver’.
‘Red is about changing the psychology of the space’
EN: Tell us a little bit about the choice of the colour red.
YKT: People often say, ‘Oh, red because of Chinese’. It’s not that at all. Of course that’s one element, red is used in political action in many cultures, but for me the red is about changing the psychology of the space. There are psychological experiments involving the use of the colour. When they’d test, the heightened breathing and the pulse rate that rose up when surrounded in a red room… that was certain social scientists’ suppositions.
EN: Across so many different cultures, red has this very instinctive meaning. Colour is kind of the original exchange system – in a way it’s the one of the oldest communication systems we have.
The process of making the work and its final layout for display both reference a kind of marketplace. Now that the internet has come about and we have online marketplaces, and because you live in Hong Kong where markets are a very culturally embedded thing, I wonder what you think about the iconography of online marketplaces – have they inherited all the visual and social connotations of physical markets?
YKT: The flea market has a huge history about the bringing together of people, the provocation of ideas – ideas of revolt and dissent and the idea of the poorest class coming above. When I think about the online marketplace I also think there’s a possibility of that becoming quite a subversive place.
EN: An exchange of more than just goods.
YKT: Those messages are there, absolutely.