Interview with Keyang Tang

Screened Landscape Zigzagging Garden: An Industry Park Design
1. How did you start making art?

I grew up in an intellectual’s family that never kept me distanced from, if not very close to, art scenes. Meanwhile, having lived among commoners in the age before the market boom and witnessed their desires, ambitions and personal disasters, I have had a life that is dense enough for telling a vivid story. Initially, I made art only as a compliment to those “major” things more closely related to my professional interests – my literary writings (illustrations to The Fireworks of Chang’an), architectural researches (an interpretative project about Battery Park City, New York), curating projects (Chinese Gardens for Living, Germany), and so on – but I soon found they could stand alone to be a different kind of stories. My works may be appropriately categorized as the “visionary” but cannot be completely separated from the “necessary”: on one side there is my intellectual curiosity and on the other is my instinct out of real life experience.

2. Briefly describe your art from the perspective of what it could tell us about you?

My art is what they called “art in general,” where the concept of “work” is intentionally kept ambivalent. To put this in another way, my works pay less attention to media, subject or “authorship” than to the larger context where they are created. This concerns an exploration of the artist/curator/designer overlap – the act of sifting through a scholar’s mindset for vivid stories, or of exhaustive inventorying of things for a personal history emerged out of world-making. Like-minded, I do not mind being called a scholar, a curator, a novelist or an artist, yet with the only wish to be consistent in addressing artistic, architectural or urbanistic issues as a whole. For my artistic pursuits I prefer to be a “Renaissance Man” than to be a specialist.

3. What experiences have most influenced your choice of subject matter, medium and style?

As mentioned above, I have lived a real commoner’s life. Such a life can never be furnished with a thin veneer. Nor need it be too “avant-garde.” As Chinese always believe, there is a more “natural” attitude towards artistic creation as long as you could maintain an appropriate balance between the articulated and the “chance-upon.” For the above reasons the (Chinese) “garden” become an important framing concept for all my art. My professional trainings render more affinity to space-making as well as a Constructivist appearance for my work. But they are also tangible, detailed and story-telling. My world-making strategies grew out simultaneously of sociological concerns and of aesthetic appeals. They imply not only collaged images, but a softer and more idiosyncratic approach to the generic enormity of the built environment.

4. Is your formal or informal training as an artist useful? How?

I learned essential art skills and most common senses from my grandparents and parents, artist neighbors and friends, not from any professional training. In fact I have found that this is very useful because it taught you why to make art on top of how.

5. Does your work reflect issues in yourself, in society or community? What would you say is the purpose for making art?

Yes, and it has to. Or we cannot imagine other reasons why we would need such a thing. But it also need do so strategically. Against two popular myths about “creativity” and about “societal merits,” I want to argue that art should get neither too close to nor too far from social appeals. For example, I made a series of visionary architectural drawings, wrapped up by a fabricated medieval tale, to illustrate my reflection on the current Chinese urbanist discussion. The story needs be novel enough to refresh people’s thoughts and distance them from various cultural and professional clichés. Meanwhile, it still needs be appropriately supported by arguments and premises that are generally accepted by most scholars in the related field.

A Pictorial Reinterpretation of Battery Park Project A Pictorial Reinterpretation of Battery Park Projec

6. Do you appreciate culturally specific works of art? If so how does your personal and cultural background show up in your work?

In my opinions, it is healthy not to be too self-conscious about your cultural identity. As an artist and author living in New York City for most of the year, I simply cannot be blind to what happens under your nose. In addition to my New York researches, for example, I have had my own visionary reinterpretation/intervention of Battery Park City (say, a city hooligan’s unexpected visit to the banker’s backyard, which is against the initial wishes of the planner). The topic about two contested views of urban environment is simply becoming universal, immediate and not bound to your cultural background. On the other hand, you need be persistent on your own approach and perspective. I recently translated Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York into Chinese and I particularly like his idea of “retrospective manifesto”: as a cultural outsider may help your theoretic perfection of the ready-made reality. The only condition is that you cannot be both onshore and drifting away.

7. Is there anything you would like to say about your local art scene or the international art market, art education, and or system for art exhibition?

So far, I am a beneficiary of such a system, not its victim, so I am probably not in a good position to make very objective and critical comments. In general, I think that contemporary art should open its door to a wider variety of audience. As my New York photography series suggests, our visual culture now presents a kind of peculiar “translucency” that is optically intriguing yet politically uncertain. The openness that it reveals is somehow still an illusion. The in-between status is aesthetically interesting, but there also lurks a danger that it leads to nowhere.
Life and Death of A Chinese Garden Series
8. How does your current portfolio fit into the rest of your body of work?

They are highly correlated though they may look very different. As stated, my works can be summarized as a variety of different representation of “gardens.” As a subject matter, the “garden” first of all embodies an interdisciplinary, trans-scale approach, as opposed to a simple division of the physical reality into humane construct versus regional operation. Despite the popular impression that a garden might satisfy only trivial horticultural interests, as an artistic notion the “garden” introduces a phenomenological view of the built environment that is especially meaningful in our rapidly urbanized world. To design a “garden” necessitates a synthesis of numerous things: not only structure but also infrastructure, not only schemes and ideas, but also materials and textures, not only the static composition but also an eidetic memory, not only a top-down conception but also a bottom-up process of implementation. To perceive a “garden” will require a flexible and liminal perspective, in which solid, triumphal spaces are often collapsed into indefinite and intimate experiences. Altogether my works form a complete typology of “garden space” as embodied in today’s architectural practices.

Keyang Tang
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