theatre of the contained | Tan kent keong

12 APR - 28 MAY 2016

Born in Kedah, Malaysia, Tan Kent Keong has since gone further adrift and has called many places home, winning the 1st Prize and Best Creative Award at the National Taiwan University of Arts along the way. Uprooting himself from time to time, Tan’s relocations have imbued his practice with a distinct nostalgia as well as a relentless search for home and a sense of belonging. Impacted by these constant replacements of surroundings, Tan activates his painting as a cathartic site of emotional expression in addition to a clean slate for recollection and re-imagination as he adapts to each new setting and bids farewell to previous residences.

Known for a bold, strident style and a subdued, wistful palette, Tan’s most recent series, “Theatre of the Contained” depicts roughly hewn scenery, whether interior or exterior, juxtaposed with many a carefully placed animal and scattered with bright highlights that articulate Tan’s dimensional structures. Exploring the notion of the “box” vis-a-vis his experiences in Taipei’s city setting and in his drastically different rural abode, Tan composes visually and compositionally stimulating images which he couches within yet another image that is in turn “boxed” by the rectangularity of the canvas. While creating a rich spatial interaction, Tan represents and literalizes his theorizations into the pre-packaged and hypocritical reality of urban life.

On the placement of select objects, whether observational or imaginary, as well as the consideration of composition and space, Tan tends to insert two points of visual strategy; the first is a subtle tweaking of logical sense to produce an arrestingly uncanny effect, while the second is the emotional concealment of a message derived from personal experiences.

In 2014, Tan decided to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Taipei for the seclusion of rural Fugang. This physical upheaval in Tan’s living environment represented “a lone venture into unknown territory, perhaps an unfamiliar forest” in addition to a stark contrast to his previous urban lifestyle, where quality of life is contingent on the convenience of and accessibility to the material “infrastructure” of the cosmopolitan city. In the relative quiet of the countryside, Tan begins to reflect on the concept of the “box” and of how each individual living in urban space becomes increasingly encased in “boxes”; the buildings we lead our daily lives in are, at the end of the day, “boxes” laid on top of one another, just as we entrust our assets and wealth to “boxes” housed in banks and not dissimilar to our reliance on public transport, “boxes” to whisk us from location to location. “Boxes”, thus, have infiltrated almost all aspects of our life.

From this analogy, Tan begins to recognise the plight of containment and the imprisonment of the “packaged” life, in which people are content to exist unnaturally within “boxes”, consume the plastic engineering of corporations and commerciality, and grow estranged to the realities and possibilities of society. An intense yearning for nature and its wonders takes hold of Tan as he becomes cognizant of the pretence and the delusion of the “boxed” life, the theatricality of which he applies onto his “documentary” approach of the painting practice, extracting glimpses of everyday life into compilations of intriguing imagery.

With total control of the canvas and as “director of life’s film”, Tan further dramatizes his subject matter through poignant expressions of nostalgia for his long-gone childhood and previous homes, notably his native Malaysia. Often adding animals and their toy counterparts to desolate landscapes of wasteland, abandoned furniture and earthy farmland, Tan thus relates the deliberate assembling of these disparate elements on canvas to the staging and performance of the theatre, multitudinously referential to the deficiencies of urban life and the very nature of its self-deception