Brendan Tang: mimicry in material culture

Photo courtesy of Johnny Blakeborough
Photo courtesy of Johnny Blakeborough

Denisa Kraus
The Navigator

Interview with the acclaimed artist and creator of the Vancouver Island Short Film Festivsal’s (VISFF) famous Goldie Award.

Navigator: Was there a specific film at the VISFF that you found visually appealing or inspiring?

Brendan Tang: What hit me pretty hard was M22, the stuttering film from the Netherlands. I liked the economy of it—how little they had to show to get their point across. I was hooked right from the beginning. 

N: It was challenging to grasp the meaning of the film before it was over…

BT: I know, and that’s what I loved about it. You had to be on point right from the get-go.

N: When you were designing the Goldie award, what made you choose the VHS tape rather than, for example, a more traditional film reel?

BT: I had seen the other pieces they had done for the previous festivals and that sort of acknowledgement of all the technology. When I lived in Nanaimo and was going to school with Johnny Blakeborough, we were doing video and film, and did it all on VHS tape, so there was an element of nostalgia for me. Plus, I feel like the VISFF is very accessible to everyone. Now that we can shoot films on mobile devices, there is a democratizing nature to filming. I feel the same way about VHS as a medium in the video world—it seems to fit very nicely. It’s tapping into my own experience with film and how accessible it is.

N: The design of the award was a one time deal for you, but hypothetically, if you were to make a new award for the VISFF’s tenth anniversary, what idea comes to mind?

BT: I have no idea. But that’s how I usually make my own artwork. I don’t have any ideas, but figure stuff out as I go.

N: Do you visualize your art in 2D or 3D?

BT: A lot of my background comes from a 2D place, so I do a lot of sketching beforehand. The materials I choose are really labour intensive, so if I can get a lot of the conceptual legwork done through drawing, it’s a lot quicker as opposed to figuring it out in clay or whatever other material I’m working in.

N: What do you find so fascinating about ceramic?

BT: I think it’s that sort of amorphous state. Ceramics brings its own visual language to the table, but in the same breath, it’s a sort of material that, if you work it long enough and in particular ways, you can mimic a lot of other things. I like its ability to camouflage itself and make itself look like wood or plastic or metal. I’m interested in its mimicry.

N: You have recently submitted a public proposal for a large scale installation in Richmond…

BT: With all the development that’s going on in metro Vancouver, there’s a bylaw that you always have to set aside money. I was shortlisted as a visual artist to present an idea for a public art piece and am still waiting to hear back, so fingers crossed.

N: Is there a difference between designing a piece to be displayed privately or in a museum, and a big public art piece?

BT: When I was approached for this particular public art piece, I think I was chosen for the body of work I am known for. The piece I proposed has aesthetic similarities to that work, but on a larger scale. Most of the time, my art is done on a tabletop museum scale­—24 inches or less. For the public piece, I designed something that would be nine feet tall. But when it’s in the public realm, you have to consider what the public might do to it, like climbing on it or graffiti, or how it collects the rain water, and other factors which I wouldn’t have to take into mind if it was in a glass vitrine in a museum. It was an interesting process, but not something unfamiliar to me. Within the ceramic world, I’m so used to working in a functional way that the piece would be used in the kitchen or domestic situation. It is very much akin to making a public art piece.

N: You seem to be an artist who thinks and creates in the moment, but are you able to imagine which direction you will evolve in the future?

BT: I barely see a couple weeks down the road, but I’m always interested in the material culture, how things have meaning and where it comes from. It’s almost like looking at semiotics of objects and why, as a species, we give meaning to objects—like why a BMW is a more meaningful car than a Honda Civic; or how we derive class, status, identity, or culture through inanimate objects. There is a body of work that I’m playing with in the back of my mind that looks at deconstructing those things, their structure, and origin. Other animals don’t covet things as much as we do. I’m curious about that.

I’m also a geeky kind of guy; I like new tech and have a 3D printer. I’m working on learning that stuff and how to program micro processors. There’s a part of me that is interested in the crossover between science and art. It’s a really weird situation that involves patterns and structures. I’m not entirely sure about this idea—it’s still really fresh.

N: The first thing I can think of is a robot, but that may be too obvious…

BT: These ideas are kind of idealized; we wish upon them. But there’s a lot of other digital technologies, like 3D printing. I’m trying to figure out what the aesthetic of that is. What is it about 3D printing that can be executed by the printer and not via clay or wood or metal. There’s something about that mathematical control and repetitive nature. It’s interesting enough for me to keep on digging and drilling into the idea. Who knows where the work’s going to go.

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