D+A / The Meaning in Matter

Art, Culture, Design, Print Articles
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Issue DA86 June/July 2015

The Meaning in Matter

Grace Tan’s exhibition at FOST Gallery ‘A Thing of Matter’ delves into the essence of paper and artist pigments, resulting in textural, ephemeral works of art.


Known mostly for her origami-influenced, fabric-based works straddling art and fashion design, Grace Tan of kwodrent has reached a new chapter with her latest exhibition ‘The Truth of Matter’. Shown at FOST Gallery from 12 March to 3 May, it continues her obsessions with formalistic studies of construction and material but with new subjects – paper and artist pigments. Some are hung on the wall like tapestries, some cut and curled into feathery compositions, and others, miniature towers of paper discs sculpting through space; each piece is subjected to various techniques and hand finishes to bring out the individual properties of both the bamboo pulp calligraphy paper (Chinese xuanzhi known for its tensile strength and soft tactility) and pigments. What is also interesting is Tan’s investigation into the historical background of each pigment – for instance, the purple-blue colour of Ultramarine Ash was reserved for the robes of the Virgin Mary and infant Christ in Renaissance paintings – which brings to the experiments not just a physical revelation about the essence of the ‘matter’, but also their intellectual and cultural meanings. Tan shares further about this exploration.

How does ‘The Truth of Matter’ continue of break from your previous artistic endeavours with materials like fabric and metals, and on themes like mathematics? What is this ‘Truth” you are seeking here?

This series of paper- and pigment-based works is essentially a continuity      of what I have been working on since 2003. Fundamentally, the process of how the works come about and the “becoming” of materials when they are put together hugely interest me. The search for “truth” alludes to a more philosophical approach in art making and appreciation. The truth is always elusive, and to discover/encounter the truth is a form of enlightenment. It resonates with both the artist and the viewer. No doubt the series of works in the exhibition deals with materials [matter] but it is       the suggestion of the formless or the intangible quality that is more compelling and profound.

What inspired exploration into ‘The Truth of Matter’ and the medium of paper used?

Paper has always been something that deeply interests me since I was little, in particularly its warm texture and tactility. In 2005, I had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with paper master, Richard        Hungerford from the Singapore Tyler Print Institute on a project and it was huge eye opener. I was introduced to the entire paper making process from pulp to sheet and the experience made me see paper beyond paper. In the recent years, I started paying more attention to materials as I come to realise that materiality is a pivotal element in my works. In 2010, I started working with paper seriously, trying out various techniques that I could transform/interpret my complex pleated fabric constructions into paper sculptures.

And how did that go?

There were some interesting developments but I felt they were still too ‘rigid’ and similar to the fabric works. I was hoping for some sort of transformation that will free the works from their fabric-based predecessors. Somehow, I stopped working with paper and went on to explore other materials. It was a good move because working with non-conventional materials to sculpt brought fluidity and new perspectives to my work. Eventually, I went back to paper as a primary medium for my solo exhibition at FOST Gallery. It was something that I have always wanted to return to and I am glad I found a way to do so – via the exploration of the materiality of paper and artist pigments. Pigments are more than just the colorants in paint mediums. They possess unique properties and textures, offering depth and nuances when applied.

How did you decide on which minerals to explore and how do the way you apply them – as sculpture, as wall artwork, etc. – relate to the specific materials if at all? The diversity of applications is interesting.

Before I started work, I spent a few months reading up and researching on pigments and artist materials. There are limited resources on artist pigments and materials but I managed to dig out some really           noteworthy finds across fields of art history, geology and science.      Through the research, I am intrigued by historic pigments like Rokusho (malachite), a natural mineral pigment commonly used in traditional Chinese and Japanese paintings that ranges from an intense green to a soft pastel green depending on the ground size; Ultramarine Ash, a by-product of natural Ultramarine that is processed from lapis lazuli mined from Afghanistan since the 6th century; Bianco San Giovanni, a lime white pigment from Naples that could be used without a binder since the             Renaissance period; Gofun, a pulverised and weathered oyster shell pigment that originated in Japan since the Muromachi period that fluoresces under Ultraviolet light and not to mention, various types of      black pigments like Tourmaline, Graphite, Charcoal, and Soot Black [Sumi or Chinese Ink]. I am drawn to the historic association of the pigments and also their physical materiality and texture. How paper and pigments come together forms the crux of the work, allowing the mediums to inform one another. The final work is the culmination of the process and the intimate relationship between the work and I.

Do you start from a more organic approach or one that is systematic and ordered? Can you describe the experience of the exploration process and methods?

I often start with smaller object based works and gradually move towards larger and more challenging wall-hung constructions. The process is spontaneous and intuitive, each work presenting its own challenges and discoveries…I do not really have desired outcomes when I am working. I prefer to let the material and process take lead. I avoid follow specific methods, as I believe each work presents a unique situation for the materials to be explored and worked with.

What is the outcome of this experiment? With this exhibition, what new grounds have you reached on a personal and also artistic level?

Essentially, it is often about trying to seek out what the materials can become and distilling the essence of the materials. I come to realise that my works often deal with the notion of construction of materials, of how things come about to be formed. This alludes to a more meditative approach in the process of art making. And it provides a critical counterpoint to the process of constructing and physically working with the materials. I see my art making process as a continuous cycle, alternating between being actively working with the materials and being passive, quietening down and waiting for the work or something to emerge. 

Your previous fabric experiments marry the label and work of designer and artist. How about The Truth of Matter? Where do the two overlap, inform and/or distinguish from each other?

I see the transition from functional wearable objects to more abstract works as a way of becoming and growing. Perhaps from the perspective of others, this transition or crossover is intriguing but to me, the progression of my practice from the realm of design to the visual arts is natural. I don’t really see the boundary between the two. It is without a doubt that design and art have their differences but we must remember   that both stem from the deep recesses of human’s emotion and are powerful tools.

Lastly, what other work are you busy with currently aside from this exhibition?

I hope to take the works that I have developed for ‘the truth of matter’ further. There is so much more to explore and play with. At the same time, I am working on sculpture commissions for integrated property developments in Singapore and a collaboration with [multidisciplinary design studio] FARM on the National Gallery Singapore’s Art Connector project. My work for the Land Transport Authority’s ‘Art In Transit’ programme will be completed this year so it is something that I am looking forward to.