On the occasion of his participation in the exhibition By the time we are gone, Tan Kian Ming discusses his practice and new works with I-Ying Liu, member of SE°111.
This interview is edited for clarity and length.
I-Ying Liu: Can you introduce yourself?
Tan Kian Ming: My name is Tan Kian Ming. You can just call me Kian. I’m from Malaysia. I’m now studying at Goldsmiths.
I-Ying: Can you introduce us to the works you are showing this time?
Kian: At this exhibition, I will display two pieces of my works, the 2015 video Qiān Zàng and the 2019 installation The Cemetery. The relationship between them is quite interesting. I made the former at a cemetery in Malaysia, documenting the scenes of Qiān Zàng, a Buddhist / Taoist rite that prevents people who die unnaturally, such as in accidents, from purgatory punishment and help them reincarnate; the latter comprises a series of tombstone rubbing using aluminum foil paper. I selected various tombstones at cemeteries in London to produce the work.
I-Ying: Rubbing, especially on monuments and tombstones, has been an important part of your practice. How did this start?
Kian: I first tested this material when I was studying in Taiwan. At that time, I was quite confused about my identity. I am ethnically Chinese and hold a Malaysian passport. However, due to the policy of the Taiwan government, most Taiwanese people still consider me to be an Oversea Chinese. I was even asked by one of my tutors about the ‘country of my oversea residence (僑居地)’ despite the fact that I stayed in Taiwan with an international student visa. I was bothered by this uncertainty of my identity for several years and decided to start some research on it.
Note: In Taiwan (Taiwan:Republic of China; China: People Republic of China), oversea Chinese (華僑) are the people of Taiwan nationality but reside in other countries. Ethnic Chinese (華裔), on the other hand, are the people of Chinese origin who hold the passport of another country.
In searching the traces of Oversea Chinese in Malaysia, cemeteries came to my mind. Unlike human bodies which decay at a certain point, tombstones always remain at the same place. Tombstones of Chinese people in Malaysia can be divided into different categories according to the period in which they are erected. The earliest ones date back to Ming Dynasty but most of them were set up during the Qing Dynasty. After that, you see ‘the Republic’ (民國), the system that ROC government adopts to number years. You can identify a specific period from the era name inscribed on each tombstone.
After Malaysia gained its independence, most Chinese people instead put down the Anno Domini year on their tombstones. I thought it’d be interesting to capture and archive these shifts in Chinese migrants’ self-identification.
I-Ying: You decided on aluminum foil paper as the material on which you perform the rubbing. What’s the reason behind this choice?
Kian: Fragility is something that always comes to my mind when discussing the issues of identity. I was thinking how to manifest this feature in the material I used. I tested all sorts of materials before finding aluminum foil paper. The material is easy to rub on, but also breaks and changes shapes easily. That’s exactly the effect I want. Nothing is stable.
I-Ying: I find the process of rubbing very interesting. Is this artistic labour of rubbing another important element in your works? How do you think about it?
Kian: Rubbing involves large amount of touch on a physical object at a particular space. It’s an intimate way to communicate with objects; in my case, it’s mostly the tombstones I rub on. I also consider this gesture as the commemoration of the deceased.
I-Ying: Collecting and preserving also seem vital to your rubbing practice. Can you talk a bit more about the meaning?
Kian: I’d rather be called an archivist instead of an artist because I am always collecting stuff at a particular space. They are not created by me, I just record and preserve them. I also exhibit them in a way similar to the display of archives.
I-Ying: But you are not trying to create an inert archive that lays untouched in a file room. You are actually building a living archive.
Kian: I have no intention to faithfully recreate the scene of the cemeteries I rub at. I’m more interested in the process of reinterpreting and re-presenting the original materials.
I-Ying: You started the rubbing project in 2015 and continue to do it in 2019, here in the UK. How has the project developed?
Kian: I am still using foil paper in this work because there’s a lot left in this material for me to explore. I was testing it in 2015; the outcomes were quite experimental. This time I hope to further my technique and idea. After coming London, I became curious about the difference between the cemeteries in the UK and in Southeast Asian countries. How do people here construct and organise tombstones in different parts of the cemeteries? I wanted to learn about them.
Different from the previous work, I decided not to reveal any information of the tombstone owners on my foil paper this time. I leave the personal content blank intentionally when rubbing and focus on the design of the stones. I made this decision because I want to explore tombstone as a medium between our living world and the afterlife. Probing the idea of death is a crucial part of my work this time.
I-Ying: What is your imagination of death and afterlife? And where does it derive from?
Kian: I spent most of my childhood in a temple and was a monk for a while. I am a follower of Mahayana, a Buddhist branch that spreads over East Asia. Like some other religions, we believe in the existence of the afterlife. For us, there is a space, the underworld, and a period of time, called ‘Antarabhava’ that exist between death and reincarnation. The Buddhist term Samsara indicates the cycle of our life. There’s not an end of life; it is instead a repetitive process of death and rebirth. This idea has a great influence on my thinking of death and is also what I want to express in my new work.
I-Ying: Lastly, can you talk about the display of your current project and the Qiān Zàng piece you made in 2015 at this exhibition. What are the reasons of placing them together and showing them in two adjoining spaces?
Kian: I really like your arrangement this time because I am able to make use of two independent but somehow connected spaces. Qiān Zàng represents my origin and religious background, while The Cemetery reflects my recent thought on death and my intention to construct a fictional cemetery that evokes viewers’ imagination.
It’s interesting that I actually made Qiān Zàng during the first time I went for rubbing at a Malaysian cemetery. All of the scenes in Qiān Zàng are not staged by me; I just happened to spot and decided to document it. Displaying these two works together help make sense of me being an Asian living in the UK. This connection is what I hope the audience to ponder over when seeing and reading my works.