Artist adds momentum to city's identity

By Alice Phillipson (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-12-08 08:07
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 Artist adds momentum to city's identity

Artist Laurens Tan has remodeled the sanlunche, a three-wheeled bike, which he believes is a part of Beijing's identity. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily

Beauty isn't a word you associate with the rusty, old sanlunche (literally, three-wheeled vehicle) that can be seen trundling along Beijing's roads.

Don't be fooled though, these utilitarian taxis and occasional trash collectors are characteristic of China's capital.

In an age when globalization makes individuality a rarity, there's something appealing about an object that captures a little piece of a city's identity.

Contemporary artist Laurens Tan, who moved to Beijing five years ago from the US, has spent the last three years producing models of sanlunche. His latest exhibition, Chinese Toy Stories, is at The Opposite House hotel in Sanlitun.

Comprising three fiberglass vehicles, the exhibition plays with the theme of the sanlunche, using it as a platform to illustrate Tan's thoughts on what he sees as "the inevitable erosion of cultural identity in China".

"The sanlunche was one of the first things I observed on the streets of Beijing," said Tan, who was born in the Netherlands.

"It showed the frugal nature of Chinese living; everything is built for a purpose and there's no pretence to make it beautiful or dressy.

 Artist adds momentum to city's identity

A white sanlunche with the characters for "logic" written on one of its sides.

"But of course sanlunche are now threatened due to expressways and also because there's less regulation in car ownership."

Each vehicle stands on a raised platform in the center of The Opposite House's vast, dimly-lit foyer. The exhibits glow against the sleek dark wood and glass of the hotel's interior.

For Tan, who speaks limited Mandarin, his sculptures are a way of talking to the Chinese community. Although his great-grandfather was Chinese, Tan has lived in the West - including the US, France and Australia - for most of his life.

"I always felt like an outsider," he said. "Now (in Beijing), I look like the others but I'm still trying to grapple with the language. I'm still a foreigner."

In addition to the three-wheeled vehicles, Tan involves kitsch Chinese toys as a medium of communication.

On top of one of his alabaster white sanlunche sits a model of a chintzy Chinese gift, known as a "Happy Toy", complete with male and female figurines - a classic feature of the toy.

Once popular, the Happy Toy is now considered too cheap and tacky for modern homes. Like the sanlunche, it is in danger of extinction.

So is Tan's work meant as a warning? Certainly, he said, adding that the sculptures are meant to make people aware of the pitfalls of globalization.

"Take IKEA. It's marketed all around the world - that red couch you were sitting on last week when you were in Norway, you'll probably sit on it again when you're in Beijing," he said.

"It seems pretty harmless, but imagine if that were to happen to everything we do, like communication and what we eat. It's about views getting around and everybody conforming."

Artist adds momentum to city's identity

Tan's struggle with the ambiguities of the Chinese language has also influenced the three sculptures, which are just a small part of a much larger series called The Depth of Ease, being shown at the Red Gate Gallery in Dongcheng district.

Juxtaposed on a three-wheeled vehicle inspired by a Xidan trash truck are the Chinese characters of "logic" and "intuition" - opposite positions in the human psyche.

The use of luoji (logic) alludes to the fact that there was originally no way of expressing the term in Chinese. In using the characters as part of his work, Tan aims to tease out the differences between Eastern and Western dispositions.

As for a hotel foyer as a venue for an art exhibition, does Tan think it works?

"The Opposite House is about design and it's meant to be good to look at," he said. "Not all art is supposed to be pleasant to view but these pieces are supposed to look beautiful, just like the hotel."

China Daily

 Artist adds momentum to city's identity

A red sanlunche with four Chinese characters on it, which translate as "extremely relaxed".

(China Daily 12/08/2010)