The 2014-2015 series of Laurens Tan’s works goes under the general name Empire Bookends. During the last few years the Tan’s art has commented wryly on the great centers of power from a position on the sidelines, taking inspiration from the ordinary objects and glossy technologies that inhabit world cities. He presents as art the very things we least often see as we move through the city: high-rise architecture, delivery vans, plastic toys, signage. Basing his work in the very different cities of Beijing, Sydney, and Las Vegas, he creates weird juxtapositions and evocative hybrid objects, engineering the fantastic to remind us of the mundane. Having spent last year in Las Vegas, his analysis of Beijing on his return gave rise to the exhibition series’ title, Empire Bookends: Basketcase, with the suggestive body of the chicken as centerpiece.
Tan’s work places the infrastructures of the city front and center, repurposing them as objects of aesthetic contemplation. He makes the machines and codes, the tools and techniques that we usually take for granted into commentators on our culture and our thought. The “bengbeng che” (three-wheeled cycle) series of sculptures, represented here by two full-size works, have long pedaled their way into a futuristic vision of the urban. One of the earliest versions of the BengBeng series is a video of a riderless tricycle trundling across the backdrop of the static city, shape-shifting as it goes. Morphing into aerodynamic forms, bananas, toothpaste and distorted eggs, while moving unseen through traffic jams of air-conditioned luxury cars, these humble vehicles remind us that everyday life moves on, with or without a deliberate driver. The flows that sustain us –delivering our goods and removing our trash – are not fixed but ever-changing, every machine capable of expressing a zany vision dreamed of by things themselves.
- Judith Farquhar, PhD, UChicago 1986, Max Palevsky Professor of Social Sciences in the College