“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Nicholas Projects presents:
Cyrus Tang: All our Yesterdays
Friday, 11th November ― Saturday, 26th November 2016
By Clare Flynn
Throughout her various mediums Cyrus Tang has maintained a strong interest in capturing the volatile. Focussing on the theme of loss, she combines photography, film, and sculptural practices to illustrate the transitory passing between the physical world of things, and the psychical world of memories. In her multimedia arrangements, faces, bodies, and man-made objects dissolve, crumble into dust, evaporate and melt away. What the audience sees is the resultant detritus and ghostly impressions of the artist’s chosen subjects; the visual representation of an object’s lingering presence after its physical form has been destroyed.
In her 2009 video installation, Body Ruins, footage of a sculpture of a female figure is shown submerged in liquid: playing in fragments across three screens, the sculpture dissolves into the luminous backdrop on an accelerated loop. Contrarily, her 2014 photographic series All That is Solid… shows the process of diffusion frozen in time. Masks of human faces, comprised of swirling white hair, fade into the background like smoke, melting into air just as the imagery from the series’ titular reference suggests. Along with human faces and forms, with their implicit biographical references, Tang also applies her volatile lens to feats of human creation. Using buildings and books as subject matter, the artist extends her fascination with the lingering imprint of the departed to encapsulate entire cultures − or indeed, civilisation in general. Her choice of source materials shows a focus on the permanent-yet-malleable state of ideas over the rigid structures and things that contain them. While the physical things that influence social behaviours can be destroyed − by individuals, power structures, or natural forces − what these objects represent will still move within the social sphere.
Within the enclosed space of Nicholas Projects, more than a hundred individual pages hang, contrasting starkly, against a black wall. Viewed up close, each piece bares a unique texture despite the methodically uniform treatment that Tang has applied to every piece; while beneath the varied surfaces barely legible text and faint illustrations reveal her source material for this exhibition. All our Yesterdays takes an object that is simultaneously regarded as at once intimately personal to its creator and indicative of ideas that are endlessly socially transmissible: a book. Specifically, a mid-twentieth century encyclopaedia which, the artist explains, was chosen for the structural integrity of its fibrous pages, and the lasting impression of the carbon ink that nowadays has been mostly replaced in the printing industry by more mass-production friendly methods that would not survive the heat that she applies to harden the pages.
Fitting with the aesthetic theme of Tang’s oeuvre, the individual sheets and crumpled segments of the book are palpably delicate; it is immediately obvious that they would crack or crumble under even the slightest pressure. Combined with their dull white colouring, and creased surfaces, the tangible fragility of Tang’s pieces creates a sentimental atmosphere. Still it is the medium that is the message in All our Yesterdays. As well as carefully considering her source materials, the artist’s process comes from an intricate constellation of ideas and references. The firing process, in particular, has been integral to Tang’s thinking for this exhibition. While paper disintegrates into ash under flames, clay does the opposite: hardens into form that the artist has shaped and becomes less susceptible to degradation. The contrast between these two materials and their subsequent treatment echoes Tang’s thematic exploration of life preserved through memories. Furthermore, Tang explains, the convergence of death, fire, and paper reminded her of paper craft offerings burnt at funerals in China.
Finally, historical acts of censorship were at the forefront of Tang’s thinking when she returned to the ceramic treatment of books and paper that she had initially examined during her studies. State-sanctioned book burnings have historically been a means of editing history, by way of controlling the dissemination of knowledge throughout a community. While the destruction of literature, history, and philosophy through the burning of books is often likened to the erasure of these concepts, authoritative regimes simultaneously and unwittingly mark the banned texts as significant into the future. The process of burning crystallises future memories through the destruction of their physical presence. In contrast Tang cements the pages of the book, transforming them into rigid objects whilst extinguishing their function as a platform for language.
Taken as a purely visual display, the pieces that comprise All our Yesterdays are intricately detailed, haunting reminders of the former life of an object uniquely treasured in the human experience. Beyond the exhibition’s visual impact, the tightly knotted world of objects and ideas unfurls through the artist’s subject choices and rendering. The pages of the encyclopaedia have been removed from the world of objects and returned to raw materials, which − in cyclical fashion − Tang has imbued with her understanding of what happens to objects after their effective presence has faded.
Clare Flynn is an emerging curator and arts writer, currently honing her practice in CRITICAL, RMIT’s Arts Writing Program. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in the field of Social Theory at Melbourne University in 2014, researching the latent cultural effects of 20th century social movements that arose from the political conditions of postmodernity. She is currently working towards a Masters of Arts Management at RMIT. This essay was produced in partnership with CRITICAL, RMIT’s Arts Writing Program.