Laurens Tan is an internationally renowned artist. His work across is realised in a broad spectrum of mediums including pottery, painting, sculpture, steel, fibreglass, straw, rubber, animation and anything else he can get his hands on.
But he wouldn’t call himself an artist. “It’s more like, making objects as you experience life,” says Tan.
Our interview takes places at Tan’s home overlooking the sea in Wombarra. Inside is an eclectic mix of classic furnishings, shelves of snow globes and American kitsch, including Las Vegas cushions.
Tan is less known locally than abroad. However, an early work in the Wollongong City Gallery’s collection is about to be shown again almost 20 years after it was made. Vegas of Death (1996) will be in the “Death exhibition at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre from May 23 to July 5. “It links the similarities in the nomenclature used in casino industry and in the death industry,” Tan says.
While the piece is contextualised with the technology and design interface of its time, it addresses “perennial issues”, he believes.
Tan was born in Holland to Chinese parents, spent his childhood in Indonesia. He recollects his family’s hasty departure from an untenable nationalism in 1959 for the bilingual, multicultural Singapore before migrating to Australia, an anchor for his global exploration over the years since.
The theme of cultural identity drives many of his works. In a career spanning almost four decades, Tan’s heterogeneous portfolio of work has seen him reinterpret, invent and analyse the cultural and linguistic practices of the places he has been. Colour TVs in wooden wheelbarrows, the inherency of risk in the human condition, rubber chickens; everything is interesting in the world of Laurens Tan.
He now has homes in Wombarra, Las Vegas and Beijing. “These places are vastly different in so many ways – their respective cultural relationship to nature, to the (built) environment, how they function as economic and cultural entities,” Laurens says comparing each locale.
“As places in which to live and work, they are complexities requiring close observation and considered analysis. I’m hoping that I will be able to do this as a resident in each place.”
As a young man, Tan studied economics, but “just wandered off in a daze” knowing only that he didn’t wish to return the rigid conformities of calculus.
Playing in a band, Tan found himself between towns and jobs. Then he was called on to do a job that sparked his creativity. “A local shop owner asked me to ‘decorate’, I think that’s what he said, a shop like a nightclub. So I did. I just used Day-Glo paints,” reminisces Tan of one of his first creative roles in the 70s.
Tan wound up at the Adelaide School Of Art, alternating between musician and student, home renovator and screen printer. When Tan’s first wife brought home a pottery wheel he was hooked.
“I liked the whole thing, like kiln-building and engineering, making burners, kiln switch temperatures, glazing.”
The raw, abstract pieces he created led to his first exhibition at a gallery in North Adelaide.
Tan drew imagery from South Australia’s bushland landscapes, with brushwork incorporated within the glazing expressive of his Chinese heritage. “The Chinese part of me was totally muffled. It was almost inexistent. I felt this brushwork brought something out… A logic or symmetry.”
A 1987 trip to China changed him. Despite the culture shock, found he had an inherent affinity with the country’s people. Tan enjoyed the wealth of cultural contradictions. “One of the things that hit me, for example, was watching these, I suppose, peasants move TVs. They were dragging them on old agrarian wooden wheelbarrows. So, it was high-tech TVs on these wooden wheelbarrows.”
Such imagery needed realisation and on his return, Tan was inspired. “[There was] all this imagery in my head to make in red clay, terracotta clay… this big body of work, all about China.” Artwork at his next show flew off the shelves.
From the 80s to the 00s, Tan did a series of commissioned projects, curated shows and taught at universities in Australia, the US and China.
“Aspects of travel and the experience of a new environment is a sensory stimulant, a surprise that sets up a new perspective or idea,” he says. “Memorable moments in life often are specific to time and place… and that moment is impossible to recreate.
“We express visually what we see or what we feel, we portray the space or the people and objects in the space or create a matrix of the experience,” says Tan of the conception and production of art. This outlook paves a mental context for the diverse topics covered by Laurens over the years, from the inherency of risk to the intricacies of post-boom Beijing.
The possibilities explored in Tan’s mind are endless and interesting, something I was witness to as he scrolled through the thousands of 3D renderings he has created on his computer – rubber chickens, bananas, skyscrapers and linguistics are all amalgamated into objects that perhaps would never have existed if it weren’t for Tan’s internal discourse.
Currently Laurens has a solo exhibition commissioned by the University of Chicago at their Beijing centre until the end of July.
“The body of work continues as my interest in industrial and architectural design develops,” he says.
How would he like to be remembered, I ask.
“Perhaps as a visual thinker or explorer,” he says. “I have never had to answer that question. I’ve never looked at my work in that light.”
‘Death’ opens at Casula Powerhouse May 22 (curator Toni Bailey).