Melissa Tan on Mapping Frustrating Inaccuracies, the Pliability of Resin and Working with Material Inconsistencies



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Creative Conversations
Issue: On Psychogeographies

Melissa Tan is a visual artist based in Singapore who received her BA (Fine Arts) from Lasalle College of The Arts. Her works are based on nature and the different ways of mapping, with her recent projects revolving around landscapes and the process of formation. By employing analogue methods such as paper cutting, silk-screen techniques, and combining them with digital methods, she hopes to borrow this visual language and explore this concept through different mediums, thereby enriching the process whilst simultaneously shaping it into something unexpected.




Filed under: architecture, installationssculpture, silkscreen printing



¹ The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson
2007

To open our conversation, let’s begin with a quote from a book you picked out for our conversation. In The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson writes, “Strange to dream in the right shape and build in the wrong shape, but maybe that is what we do every day, never believing that a dream could tell the truth.” Before we spend time with the work that draws upon this passage, could you tell us a little bit more about your encounter with this book, and what you gleaned from it with regard to truth-telling and shapeshifting forms?


Although the reviews of the book were quite varied, what I really liked about the book was Jeanette Winterson’s way with words. It can be quite a confusing piece. The main protagonist of the book is Billie Crusoe. There is this part of the book that I’d like to quote:

    'The thing about life that drives me mad,' I said, 'is that it doesn't make sense. We make plans. We try to control, but the whole thing is random.'

    'This is a quantum universe,' said Spike, 'neither random nor determined. It is potential at every second. All you can do is intervene.'

I think that sentiment relates to art making as well. All I do is intervene and react to the materials when they present themselves. That’s why the book really resonated with me.

Coming to the quote that I picked out for this conversation, writer-curator Samantha Yap quoted this in titling an interview I did with her. The interview was done in 2018, in conjunction with a solo exhibition of mine, Back to Where We’ve Never Seen. The quote has really stuck with me since, and it came back to me when I was making The Dream from the Other Side. I started off by referencing a map from 1958 and I made a version of the map out of plaster of Paris. When I began looking at the same map from 2020, I realized that I had to build and dig into the hills in order to level it out. I found it funny because I had literally started building in the wrong shape. 

The Dream from the Other Side comprises an asphalt base terrain and translucent attachments that are placed on top. The work considers the changes in the topography of several neighbourhoods in Singapore and are pointed references to the historical landscape in 1958 vis-à-vis the present day. Why was it so important for you to explicate these changes by making these layers seen, especially since layers feature both as a conceptual notion and visual device within the work?


I conceived of the work pre-COVID-19. Initially, I had intended for audiences to interact with the work. When the new rules kicked in, it was quite a bummer. Having audiences interact with the work would have really added another layer to the experience altogether, so it was quite a pity. I made the translucent attachments to visually cue audiences towards looking beneath the surface. Even though audiences might not be able to or feel comfortable with lifting the pieces themselves to look underneath, they’d be able to see the silver vinyl water bodies below. I had hoped that this would allow people to approach the work, and get a sense of just how much of our urban landscape has changed. One obvious example of this would be how swamps in Woodlands were filled up and flattened out over the years.
² The Dream from the Other Side (detail), Melissa Tan
2020


Credit: Singapore Art Museum

³ The Dream from the Other Side (detail), Melissa Tan
2020


Credit: Singapore Art Museum

The fact that the work comprises of two distinct layers remains a very prominent part of the work, even with these new rules around interaction in place. Would you say that that has now taken on a different significance for yourself?


Definitely. I didn’t expect the work to turn out the way they did. When you pick up the translucent pieces and tilt it around, there is an iridescent shift to the colour. This is due to the resin I used to make the work. Different batches of resin produce different effects due to variations in chemical components, so this was quite special. This batch of resin retains that shine or shimmer even after it has cured.

Omni-Kit (menthe), Amy Brener
2017

This might be a good point to bring in something you picked out for our conversation – Amy Brener’s crystalline sculptures. In describing how her interest in the translucent began, she says, “I was interested in the way that it seemed to transcend its materiality when properly lit”, and it strikes me that Brener’s works share clear resonances with The Dream from the Other Side. How would you describe your own relationship with resin as a medium, especially in terms of the possibilities that resin has afforded for your own working processes?


I really like Amy Brener's pieces. When she uses resin, it looks like skin. This is especially so when the resin has been stretched thin, and when the work is hung to allow light to pass through. Brener really plays with transparency. She also plays around with form and has made works that look rather monolithic as well. I love her approach towards the material, especially because resin, though pliable, is not always the easiest to shape.

Before resin cures completely, it is liquid. Before the resin solidifies completely, I tend to pour a final layer of resin over the cast. What that does is to seal in all the air pockets, and I think that’s why the works look so aqueous as well. After that has been done, I’ll shape the work and coat it with another layer of resin again. There were a couple of works I made that just wouldn’t cure, and I remember calling my supplier several times to see if I was getting something wrong. Resin comes with an expiry date, and I had bought all my materials before the Circuit Breaker happened. This meant that by the time I was able to use them, six months had passed. The process was riddled with a lot of trial and error, and I had to make plans carefully as well. If a piece does not cure, it must be scrapped, and I’d have to start from scratch again. The process involves a lot of cleaning, removing, and excavating.

The process was riddled with a lot of trial and error, and I had to make plans carefully as well. If a piece does not cure, it must be scrapped, and I’d have to start from scratch again. The process involves a lot of cleaning, removing, and excavating.

The Dream from the Other Side (detail), Melissa Tan
2020

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

The Dream from the Other Side, Melissa Tan 2020, Installation View at Tampines Regional Library

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

Archives are rich repositories of documents, and individual artists have different approaches to working with them. Some strive for real historical accuracy, whilst others draw Ioosely from these materials to impose their own artistic intention, agency, or interpretation. For yourself, how did you navigate or negotiate that relationship, and how did you approach working with archival materials in general for this project?


I found it very difficult, and there were points at which it felt like I almost couldn’t move forward. I would have an image of the map projected onto a wall. From there, I would trace the patterns and topographies out. I would also try to layer one map on top of the other in Photoshop and try to get them to line up accurately, but of course they would not. Landmarks, for example, would be irregular or askew. That was quite frustrating for me because I couldn’t get things completely accurate. I sliced the topography into styrofoam to create more depth, and applied plaster of Paris over top. It was during my conversations with the curator, Andrea Fam, that she suggested the possibility of giving the different layers individual colours. In a way, that would recall how maps are rendered in different colours today as well. When the work was presented, we made sure to include a map alongside the work itself so that audiences could see the relationship between the two.

I would have an image of the map projected onto a wall. From there, I would trace the patterns and topographies out. I would also try to layer one map on top of the other in Photoshop and try to get them to line up accurately, but of course they would not.


You talked about how the historical maps would not line up with the modern-day versions, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that experience a little more. It seems that that emphasises, in a way, the frustration of working with the archival, but also wonder if that opened up avenues for you in terms of thinking through colour and visual layers.


I used certain high points, such as Bukit Timah Hill, to orientate the overall map I was making. It was still hard to get everything aligned, because the landscape has changed so much over the years. Besides using high points like hills to orientate the work, I tried using water bodies, such as rivers, as well. However that didn’t work out either, so I worked with what I had. The overall shape of Singapore is also another example of this. With land reclamation efforts, the boundaries have grown as well.
The Dream From The Other Side, Melissa Tan
2020, Installation View at Tampines Regional Library


Credit: Singapore Art Museum

The Dream From The Other Side, Melissa Tan
2020, Installation View at Jurong Regional Library


Credit: Singapore Art Museum

Taking Measures Across the American Landscape, James Corner 1996

We often view maps by looking down —on our phones or with a map spread out on a table. For the most part, The Dream from the Other Side replicates this experience by allowing audiences a vantage point from above. It also recalls the book you picked out for our interview, James Corner's Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. Why was the aerial view (as compared to a wall bound view) your presentation format of choice for this work?


Although the sculptures bear resemblance to topographic maps, the work does not look like an exact replica of a map. I wanted to balance the sculptures on rock fragments, so they weren’t always laid out flat or parallel to the ground. One piece, in particular, had to be exhibited standing upright due to its weight and mass.

Regarding the vantage point from above, there's so much information you can glean from the macro perspective. With topographic maps, there’s this duality in that you have both the micro and the macro encapsulated in a single document. Every time I look at these maps, I feel like a bird flying over land. That’s what I enjoy about encountering these maps. This shift in perspective helps me to think of different ways of viewing or looking, no matter how brief the moment.

Every time I look at these maps, I feel like a bird flying over land. That’s what I enjoy about encountering these maps. This shift in perspective helps me to think of different ways of viewing or looking, no matter how brief the moment.


Over the course of your practice as an artist, you’ve consistently engaged with questions of and tensions around urban development. How would you chart your own journey into and through the geological, urban, and even architectural?


I'm still trying to understand the world that we live in. I am very fascinated by cities, the ways we build, and why we build. I’ve always been interested in the materials that the construction industry uses, and the rise of man-made materials that might be more durable than natural stone. Over time, these man-made materials have superseded natural materials. This is due to a variety of reasons, but population growth and exceedingly ambitious architectural projects are prominent ones. I do think this ties into my interest in science fiction and utopian or dystopian words as well.

Architectural materials present us with an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, we can’t keep mining for resources to build our buildings. At the same time, there’s a certain level of unsustainability attached to using man-made materials as well. An overreliance on man-made materials might also mean that we lose the relationship we have to the land. Is this a tension that you find yourself grappling with, especially as you work with both rock and resin?


I do enjoy this tension, and it’s something that I’d like to continue working on with upcoming series of works. It also recalls, for me, a series of work I made recently, Under The Arched Sky. I’ve been using resin to replicate the look of natural stone or natural precious stone, and I’ve found the process incredibly fascinating. We want things that are natural, yet we’re also done with extractive processes such as mining. At the same time, we want things to be produced in cheaper and faster ways. However, stones that are found in nature are a result of centuries of sedimentation. Resin is one way for me to push at all of these tension and contradictions.
¹⁰ Iris, Melissa Tan
2019

¹¹ Annihilation, dir. by Alex Garland 
2018


¹²  Star Trek: Discovery, created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
2017 -

Beyond your interest in terrestrial space, you’ve also referenced outer space and extraterrestrial bodies in previous works such as Iris and Sound Waves of Empty Seas. This also comes through in your selection of works for this interview, which include the film, Annihilation, and the television series, Star Trek: Discovery. How would you describe your fascination with sience fiction films and television shows?


I’m interested in science fiction and how layered these narratives are. Even if some of the tropes seem a little tired, they always are presented in new ways. There’s so much you can do with science fiction. They can serve as cautionary tales, for example, which I find quite relatable.

In the film, Annihilation, there is this shimmer that permeates through the film. In the movie, the shimmer referred to an anomaly or the presence of an alien. I started seeing this shimmer creeping into my real life as well. When I was making the translucent attachments for The Dream From The Other Side, I kept thinking about how they were representations of change. In order to make the translucent attachments, I had to go through multiple cycles of creation and destruction. I had to make an object, cast that object, so on and so forth. The process was quite a repetitive one. Things were echoing one another and I was constantly recoating, reshaping, and recycling.

Having examined space and spatial elements on varying levels — from considering the geological texture of rocks to contemplating the astronomical — what are some of the contradictions, questions, or impossibilities that you find yourself challenged by when it comes to expanding our perceptions of how we understand, navigate, or relate to the different spaces we find ourselves in?


When it comes to art making, some of the materials I'm using are really bad for the environment and for myself. It’s quite contradictory. I’m trying to make a work that can withstand the test of time. In doing so, I tend towards materials that allow me to achieve that effect. At the same time, these materials are detrimental for the environment. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can change the way in which I work, or transition towards a mode of working that’s better for the environment. It’s something I’m still trying to balance out.

As a material, resin doesn’t break down easily. You can’t recycle resin either. If a work I’ve made does not cure properly, for example, I can’t use that resin again. It must be tossed out. Wherever possible, I’ve tried to avoid throwing resin out by embedding pieces that have failed into larger works. I think of it as an echo, of sorts, and I don’t mind that at all.

Wherever possible, I’ve tried to avoid throwing resin out by embedding pieces that have failed into larger works. I think of it as an echo, of sorts, and I don’t mind that at all.

¹³  Sound Waves of Empty Seas, Melissa Tan and Ong Kian Peng
2019


¹⁴ Sound Waves of Empty Seas, Melissa Tan and Ong Kian Peng
2019





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