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Artist Ben Tong On Why He’s Drawn To Awkwardness

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Artist Ben Tong On Why He’s Drawn To Awkwardness
All images courtesy of Ben Tong

Artist Ben Tong has had quite a journey with art. Admitted into the University of Toronto for Computer Science, it was at his time there where a vested in interest in art grew within him, nagging at him to enroll in visual studies courses. Falling in love with the many facets of art, he applied to study at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), one of the most well-known art schools in the United States. 

Since then, the highly articulate Tong has shown at the Art Basel film program. He underlines the ways in which his arguably alternative (albeit fascinating) education at CalArts has influenced his practice. This multifaceted practice includes just about any medium, from painting to film, to installation. His works, aesthetically pleasing and conceptually sound, have seen the walls of Commonwealth and Council in LA and the Villa Aurora Foundation in Berlin. Together with Alice Wang, he additionally organizes The Magic Hour, an outdoor exhibition platform in the high desert of Twentynine Palms, California. This week, he will be showing at Condo Shanghai 2019

The Artling Artzine speaks to Tong finding out more about his artistic journey, why he enjoys awkwardness in his works, and how his works pose alternative forms of thinking: 

 

For those who aren’t familiar with your background, could you tell us a little more about your journey as an artist?

I first studied computer science at the University of Toronto. I soon realized I had a growing interest in art and enrolled in some visual studies courses. These were the sorts of classes where I was first introduced to concepts related to Modernism and Post-modernism, works like Duchamp’s urinal to the collective works of General Idea. Here, I was introduced to an idea of the avant-garde, and I was totally into this idea of art that could include aesthetics, philosophy, and the social. All of a sudden it felt like my world had expanded manyfold. Around this time I discovered a book by Michael Asher, Writings, 1973-1983, on Works 1969-1979, and at the time I thought it was so exciting that you could make this work that used these simple gestures - like redirecting air flows, removing walls, re-parking a caravan camper around a city -, while at the same time rewiring the structures of presentation. I thought this to be very alchemical! Around the same time, the artist Allan Sekula came and did a visiting artist lecture at the university. Here, I was first introduced to his writings, ideas, and works on photography, the maritime trade and the sea. Although at the time I was still very new to ideas surrounding art, I sensed him to be one of the most interesting artists/writers on the topic of photography - I still think this is the case to this day.

I think it was around this time that I decided that I would seriously pursue a career as an artist. I applied to CalArts - where both Michael Asher and Allan Sekula taught -, and I got in. And then I moved to Southern California to go to art school.

Ben Tong, The Plane (the mollusk, the parrot, the rose), C-print, 2014. 
Available on The Artling 

How has your education at CalArts shaped your practice?

"I think my path as an artist has been one of opening up more and more and being ok with a kind of chaos."

I remember someone once referring to it as, the Pirate Ship. I mean here you have this art school, that was initially founded by Walt Disney but then re-envisioned, taking Black Mountain College as a radical educational model. Here is this place, where you would work in your studio, have classes on art and post-colonial theory, have intense debates in crits, take part or observe the naked Gamelan dancers parade through the halls, and then go to an Adorno reading group at night and share a bottle of whiskey. All this takes place on campus on a hill veiled by Eucalyptus trees and surrounded by the bedroom community of Valencia. Even before setting foot there, I was perhaps a bit smitten by its mythology. I mean here you’ve got the ghosts of these legendary figures roaming these halls, like Jack Goldstein and Mike Kelley. The Art School at CalArts had this reputation of being rigorous, critical, and conceptually driven. There, I worked with teachers like Sam Durant and Charles Gaines. While indeed there were teachers who embodied this more hardcore in their pedagogy, there were others who would also influence another way. There was a class called Looking and Listening, that consisted of James Benning taking us out to see various landscapes. Each class we’d meet in the parking lot and then drive to an undisclosed spot. Sometimes it would be 30 minutes away, at others it would be 2 hours away. Once we got there our only instruction was to go explore, look and listen - recording the experience was strictly prohibited! I also spent some time at CalArts as Tom Lawson’s teaching assistant. He has this laid back subtle way of influencing - he’s like an art teacher Jedi. Anyways, I think my path as an artist has been one of opening up more and more and being ok with a kind of chaos.


You also participated in a residency at the Villa Aurora Foundation in Berlin. Did this experience influence your practice? Could you tell us more about the work you produced during this residency?

"At its core, I believe art should be about a kind of non-productive expenditure."

During my residency at the Villa Aurora Foundation in Berlin, I was reading a lot about the 19th. century social utopianism of Charles Fourier. His vision of an ideal social order revolved around the cultivation of various pleasures and the employment of the senses - gourmet food and sex! He also had these wild theories about the state of worldly affairs and how it related to our position within a temporal cycle within a larger cosmic order. He prophesied that in 10 000 years a column of stars would be sent from another part of our galaxy, and influence humans to be able to shift the earth’s tilt, at which point the icecaps would melt and give the seas a flavoring of lemonade (from which we would be able to drink from). Furthermore, he wrote that because of the raised average global temperature we would be able to enjoy lounging outside in the sun in January, in places like St. Petersburg - a kind of vision of benign global warming written in the early 1800s! For me, in reading Fourier there was something wonderfully perverse. I mean there’s something lovely about the excess of this vision that encompasses the human world in relation to the galaxy, with pleasure and luxury being at the core of a social strategy. For me, the most exciting aspects of his writing were those that were the most frivolous. I think in Fourier there is an analogy for me, in thinking about art. At its core, I believe art should be about a kind of non-productive expenditure.

At the end of the residency period, I presented some work. During the residency, I crafted a science-fiction poem, a kind of ode to Fourier, written and intended for an audience 1000 years in the future. During the residency I was also accumulating and working with various objects and materials I would find around the city. There’s a kind of aura that is hidden inside objects, through time, and I think it also has something to do with Love. Related to this I was also beginning to formulate some thoughts I had surrounding what I call ‘the awkward sublime,’ a distant cousin to The Sublime. The awkward sublime is a feeling one has for things on an inverted scale. Instead of feeling awe, as one might traditionally feel through the mountains and storms and vast cosmic distances of The Sublime, the awkward sublime presents fragmentations and discontinuities from within ourselves, spurred by objects we find in the everyday. Not transcendence … a chuckle. Inside the exhibition space, I constructed a kind of scene that consisted of various objects that were both found, constructed, arranged and manipulated. There was a sun chair, argon-filled glass, a Dove soap encrusted basket, half a croissant sitting on top of a mirror. All this also served as the setting for the reading of the text I gave during the opening reception of the exhibition. In a sense, the work was an attempt to commune with the future. A form of awkward transmission…
 

Ben Tong, Lemonade, Villa Aurora Foundation. 


Your practice is involved with forms of images and language. It also appears across a wide array of mediums. Could you tell us more about a work that poses alternative forms of thinking?

I think art proposes different ways of seeing. I use images and language in my work, but more often than not, I use them as ways to disturb each other. The video, Under the Tongue (2017), for example, is built up from a montage of image, sound, and text. The work is ostensibly about the domestic interactions of a couple - they eat breakfast together, lounge around the house with a dog, etc. The man speaks to the woman about an airplane that has disappeared into the ocean. The woman talks to the man about reading the poet Dante. At all times there’s a distance in their communication as if they were talking through each other. At times music and textual inter-titles act as a counterpoint to the image, at others they jar, almost like an involuntary memory that comes to layer a present perception. I think it's very poetic, how memory works, and how we actually carry around with us these imprints from our past that at times surface from our subconscious. The same is present in the structure of a time-based medium like video (in fact I think every medium is in a way time-based), where you can introduce an idea or an image at one point and then reference it later on, triggering the viewer’s memory. Or, you can insert a phrase or a bit of text, which points to an idea in the world - sort of like a hyperlink - and get the viewer’s imagination to retrieve that concept and immediately layer it back onto their experience of the video. While making this video I was thinking a lot about the volume and speed, of information and images we encounter these days. It’s really about this feeling of a subjectivity that navigates this ocean of information and stimuli that we find ourselves in. And as a counterpoint, or underneath all this constant retrieval and recitation of information, there’s the unknown, the unknowable. You can’t name it. It’s akin to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum physics - you can only go so far in finding the exact position of something until it just disappears. When we don’t understand something, it makes us feel uncomfortable, because we are by nature beings who interpret. Language and meaning are hard-wired into our brains, but there’s also another world we totally miss because of this. There’s a sea of the mysterious in the world, and through the subconscious, through the body, through sensing, there’s a way to access or commune with this space. I think art has a lot to do with this kind of sensing. It’s not about meaning but finding one’s way. To be, less accurate and more precise.
 

Ben Tong, still from 'Under The Tongue' (2017)


Your video work, Oracle, in collaboration with Alice Wang was impressively presented at the Art Basel film program last year. How did you arrive at the concept and production of this work?

We shot the film, Oracle, at the Biosphere 2 in Arizona, a 3-acre self-enclosed ecosystem. The genesis of the project came from our common interests in thinking about vibrant matters, earth systems, science-fiction, and humans living within altered environments. We saw the Biosphere 2 as a kind of ready-made film set. Before setting out to sail, the ancients used to wait for a sign from the gods. For this project, ours came from a Polly Shore sighting, as we were walking around our neighborhood in Los Angeles. Viva Los Bio-dome! The setting of this glass-and-steel architecture is entirely artificial and sci-fi itself. Here’s this mall-sized greenhouse in the middle of the high Sonoran desert. In one “room” you have a “rainforest” whose plants, temperature and humidity are exactly like that of the Amazon. And then through another door, you have a room that simulates the conditions of an ocean, along with a 700,000-gallon “ocean.” We were lucky enough to have gained permission to film on-sight. Alice and I drove out from Los Angeles to Oracle, Arizona, with our recording equipment. We spent a week looking and listening, being and sensing, and filming inside this amazing structure. The film itself is a kind of meditation on our being on this Earth. The poet Anne Carson once wrote that people in exile write so many letters. This film is sort of about our being both entangled and separated from nature. It’s both an elegy, and a love letter to the Earth.
 


Stills of 'Oracle', made in collaboration with Alice Wang and presented at the Art Basel film program. 


Your practice involves film, installation, and painting. Is there a medium you find yourself most comfortable with? 

My medium really is, the image - images in various materialities and configurations, whatever those might be. Like I mentioned before, it’s all time-based, from video, to photo, to painting. Images register through time. Light hits your eye, enters the brain, triggers a memory. Brushstrokes are added onto a canvas, through time. All this adds up to, I think, image forms that are alive, that possess energies and memories, through the activation of our observation. They are time-images.

 

Is there a particular work that you find yourself more attached to than others?

I find myself more and more drawn to a type of work that dislodges our normalized everyday use of language and sensing, of work that brings us back into a body, and perhaps a carnal way of looking. Moreover, things that are just plain weird and that you can’t place a label onto or even think of whether it is art, or not. Things you just don’t know what you are supposed to do with. These days I find myself more and more drawn to the awkward.
 

Ben Tong's prints shown at LTD Los Angeles -- the images are made using a large format camera and UV light. 


What’s next for Ben Tong?

I’m currently on a residency with Alice Wang at an artist-run space called Practice, in New York. We’re creating an exhibition at the end of this residency that involves a room filled with live butterflies in various stages of their life cycles. We also organize a space called 407 Jianguo, run out of our apartment in the Former French Concession in Shanghai. For this project, we invite artists, writers, and thinkers to present works they are interested in sharing and talking about. Up next in the programming will be the curator Michelle Hyun, and then the writer Travis Jeppesen. Currently, in the studio I’m also working on is this pond sculpture. The work will consist of a tank that will be filled with various kinds of cultural and consumer detritus I’ve been scavenging from various locations like the East River in Manhattan, along with living goldfish and a soundtrack playing from speakers by Alvaro Carrillo (a song about departing). The work is partly a sculptural interpretation of one of the most beautiful tracking shots in the history of cinema, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker. The work will be exhibited in a show called Topian Garden, as part of ltd Los Angeles’ collaboration with Gallery Vacancy in Shanghai. I’m hoping to expand this work into a more large-scale installation of water canals and trash! These days I’m also working in the studio on a series of paintings. I love how painting allows for this kind of chaos, for the accident, and for the immediacy of how you are feeling on any particular day to affect the mark and the direction of the painting you are working on. There’s a poem by Wallace Stevens that’s about knowing “that the blackbird is involved in what I know.” I’m hoping the paintings will be a kind of expression of this sentiment.
 

 

To find out more about Ben Tong, click here
To check out more interviews on the Artzine, click here


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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