In the Studio with Tan Mu

Words by

Danni Shen

In the Studio with Tan Mu

In this interview with Tan Mu (b. 1991, Yantai, China) the artist discusses her paintings that reflect on the trajectory and continuum of bodily and mediated presence through human technical developments. The large hadron collider, logic circuit, embryo, silicon, Stanford torus, quantum computer, the Gulf of Mexico all become depicted subjects at various compositional scales. Beyond documentation, while traversing between the pursuit of truth and the exploration of the unknown, Tan Mu’s works serve as a kind of witness to human socio-technological histories.

Danni Shen: Can you speak more to the function of “witnessing” and following socio-historical trajectories in the process of your painting practice?

Tan Mu: As we stand at the precipice of technological singularity and ecological uncertainty, I hope my paintings can offer a space for reflection. Starting from the perspective of an individual observer, I embark on exploring the transformative era we are in. Following the trajectory of social history in my painting essentially involves attempting to create a visual narrative that connects the perspectives of time. This witnessing behavior is akin to storytelling, whereby by selecting specific themes, I try to introduce an understanding of the complex relationship between society, technology, and the natural world, prompting and propelling a broader discussion about evolution. Fundamentally, every day of my work is filled with curiosity and endless questioning. Yet, what increasingly fascinates me in this process is the expanding collaboration and connection between people. It's a transoceanic transmission of knowledge and emotional bonds.

Tan Mu, DAWN, Installation View, September 9 – October 7, 2022, Peres Projects, Berlin, Photographed by: Timo Ohler

DS: How do you go about selecting your images (historical or immediate), and also deciding on the scale of your canvases where objects are rendered larger-than-life, or significant events are conscribed/cropped to a singular capture in time?

TM: For my work, the process of sourcing images often involves a relatively lengthy cycle. It is typically triggered by a current event, which leads to the exploration of that event within a particular clue. This process can be understood as a retrospective journey, questioning whether the lifestyle I now take for granted existed hundreds of years ago and pinpointing the pivotal turning points. However, within this framework, the final selection of images is often very intuitive. Sometimes, they are sourced from historical archives, while at other times, they are very immediate images captured through various means such as telescopes, satellites, microscopes, and scanning. The perspectives range from macroscopic to microscopic, all contributing to an exploration that seeks a contemplative silence. Of course, this has created a paradox in seeking the ideal essence. Many image sourcing can take several months or even years. What is crucial is how to transcend the image's inherent function and significance during the painting process. Ultimately, painting, for me, is merely the final stage, more akin to the culmination of the image's emergence. There is a significant disparity in the size of my paintings, and I find the conflicts between them quite appealing. While certain elements are easily overlooked by our society, I believe they should be emphasized, so I choose to highlight them using a particular canvas size. I also consider the act of viewing, the relationship between the size of the image and the viewer's body. For instance, there are occasions when I wish to encapsulate grandiose scenes within delicate dimensions.

‌DS: To hone in on the medium of painting more specifically, is there a particular tradition within the canon of painting, or oil painting, i.e. realist painting, that you’re interested in?

‌TM: Revisiting the tradition of painting, which served as a crucial means of documentation before the invention of photography, is something that fascinates me. Especially in today's era where everyone carries a smartphone, I find myself pondering the space left for painting. Amidst the instantaneous digital recording that occurs in fractions of a second, I prefer the idea of using painting to devote tens to hundreds of hours to capturing an image. In the increasingly overwhelming deluge of digital images, the role of painting as a means of documenting and witnessing appears to be exceedingly precious. Moreover, painting, being a highly physical medium, exists within a specific dimension, engaging the viewer in an in-person dialogue. Each stroke comes from a confrontation between the brush and the canvas while embodying personal refinement and selection - which is where my interest beholds. It represents an image formed through the accumulation of time, a form of mark-making.

Tan Mu, DAWN, Installation View, September 9 – October 7, 2022, Peres Projects, Berlin, Photographed by: Timo Ohler

‌DS: Your more recent works are devoid of figures, yet the presence of the human-made and the constant tension between innovation, ingenuity, ruin, collapse, and even extinction resonate through the images. An article in Wonderland Magazine states that your work “reminds us that our world is as beautifully mysterious as the imagined world of science fiction.” I’m curious about the role of beauty and aesthetics in your painting too in order to depict the very real material effects of technology today, which is often conflated with the non-object/non-material “digital” or “virtual”.

‌TM: While my current works rarely feature figures, humans, more precisely, the collaboration and connections within the human collective, have always been the central theme. The most fundamental aspects of human life, such as the communication of emotions like friendship and love, the evolution, maturity, and aging of individual life, the transmission of knowledge and the use of tools, the formation of communities, and the construction of shelters, along with contemplation of higher cosmic laws, are what in essence guide and inspire my work. Humans have invented various communication tools to convey emotions and knowledge, aiming to increasingly diminish the constraints of geographical limitations. Whether through letters, telegrams, or modern video calls, the conveyed connections are essentially the same. What I witness is an unprecedented scale of collaboration among people, which is hard to fathom when compared to the tribal communities of a hundred people in the past. Naturally, many individuals have devised collaborative models to foster mutual trust, even to the extent of trusting strangers. Isn't this the greatest breakthrough? Or perhaps driven by the same curiosity, breaking through language barriers to explore the truth. In reality, hope for the future permeates everywhere. The mysterious part is that many pivotal turning points in history are sometimes based on chance and coincidence. Within this entire story of evolution, there are many abstract and grand narratives, which is why sometimes I choose to start from certain tangible elements. For me, the beauty and aesthetic value in my works originate more from the traces left by these narratives. They exist in the daily changes and repetitions, with these materials and traces perhaps better able to tell the story of this collective quest. Most of the time, I work alone in the studio, engaging in repetitive work. Each painting holds a personal significance for me. I enjoy the solitary process of painting; in fact, I am uncertain of what my work can bring to others, but I am always eager to instill hope.

DS: In your painting Silicon for example, a purified silicon stone floats in a black void, seemingly referencing at once a museological object against a backdrop, as well as enveloping cosmic dark. I’m wondering about this kind of dissociation in terms of your composition and also the contemplation of the “cultural” in relation to technology/its socio-historical contexts.

‌TM: When I finally completed this painting of the silicon stone, the image gave me a sense of indiscernible dimension. The actual object may only be a few centimeters in size, but this amplified feeling might stem from my contemplation of the immeasurable impacts triggered by the silicon stone. The centralization of this subject matter and its detachment from the background is akin to the display style found in museums, inviting the audience to evaluate this relatively recent material application from a historical perspective, and how it generates cross-cultural associations. I have always been deeply interested in the dimension of distance. From the perspective of the cosmic background, these issues of cultural regions are transformed into our only gathering place at present. We have inherited history, and perhaps our greatest responsibility now is to prevent this world from falling apart. I wholeheartedly agree with philosopher Yuk Hui that from an anthropological perspective, technology is an extension of the body and the externalization of memory. In my artistic process, there are many instances of visual expansion, offering an unprecedented breadth for an artist. I often look at the Earth's topography from a satellite perspective or examine microscopic images scanned in research laboratories. This newfound visual freedom is significant for me as an artist.

Tan Mu, SIGNAL, Installation View, May 5 – June 10, 2022, Peres Projects, Milan, Photographed by: Roberto Marossi Photos

DS: It seems that you’re neither a techno-optimist nor techno-pessimist, but I’m curious as to how are you critically thinking/interpreting the ways in which the usages of technologies have changed around the world, and how does that affect how you make your work?

‌TM: In my artistic exploration, I maintain a neutral stance, documenting the interplay between humanity and technology with a desire to understand rather than judge. Technology can be a conduit for profound human emotions and experiences, a tool for connection and expression. However, I am cognizant of the complexities and unintended consequences of technological advancements, such as how innovations intended for small-scale benefits can inadvertently support larger, less equitable systems, or create environmental concerns like space debris. These reflections shape my work, prompting a deeper inquiry into the emotional essence behind collective labor and the diverse applications of technology. It is not merely the hardware or software that interests me, but the human intentions and interactions that technology facilitates and transforms.

Danni Shen is a curator and writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is currently the Curatorial & Public Programs Assistant at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. Previous curatorial roles include at The Kitchen, Empty Gallery, and Wave Hill in New York. She was also Critic-in-Residence at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Curator-in-Residence at Residency Unlimited, and has been a visiting critic at NYU-ITP and Cornell AAP. More recent exhibitions include "Eating Otherness" at EFA Project Space NYC (2023), "Mediums and Messengers" at Bannister Gallery (2023), "Beast, Chimera, Kin" at the Hessel Museum of Art (2022) and "Collaborative Survival" at 601Artspace (2021). Shen is a contributor to various artist catalogues as well as publications including BOMB Magazine, Art in America, Heichi Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. She holds an M.A. from the Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) Bard College

No items found.