The Deep Poeticism of Cyrus Tang

ARC ONE Gallery
Jan 30, 2016 5:36AM

Venita Poblocki reflects on Melbourne-based, Hong-Kong born artist Cyrus Tang's poignant exhibition at ARC ONE Gallery, 9 February - 5 March 2016.

There is a rare and honest sensitivity to Cyrus Tang’s practice. A multi-disciplinary artist, she creates a ghostly dystopia of human presence that skirts the periphery of this known world. One that exists just on the edge of the familiar, as if it has been abruptly shunted to tipping point. Yet Tang’s point of departure very much exists in the pathos of this world. 

Lacrimae Rerum, the title of Tang’s first solo exhibition at ARC ONE Gallery can be translated as “the tears of things”i. These words were written by Virgil in his epic poem, The Aeneid about his wandering protagonist, Aeneas as he gazed upon a mural depicting the Trojan War, from which he was a refugee. Virgil used this to trigger a turning point in the narrative whereby Aeneas recognised he was “among people who have compassion and an understanding of human sorrow”ii. Similarly, Tang uses the phrase to suggest the enmeshed suffering in human experience but within this, a binding commonality. 

In Lacrimae Rerum, Tang’s focus is on the collateral damage of man-made wars like the current Syrian War that has given rise to mass migration and homelessness, as well as catastrophic natural disasters, such as the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured close to 23,000.iii In her exhibited photographic series, each titled by their long exposure time, Tang captures the demise of a model city as it repeatedly collides with the elemental. Like an omnipotent creator, or conversely a child, she rebuilds the city again and again only to destroy it by fire, heat and flood. The cityscape is fractured and ruined and emphatic of all too familiar images we see in the media of humanity in crisis. A monochromatic mortality. However, just as Aeneas found some comfort in his connection with those who understood human sorrow, Tang’s work also expresses a glimmer of this beauty to be found in tragedy and hope within transition. 

This deep poeticism in Tang’s practice mirrors a universal and visceral stirring in us all. Amongst large scale photography, subtle video and sculptural installations of ash, she traverses the notions of permanence, ephemerality, disappearance, transition and residual memory. Her work raises the paradox of having to exist in order to vanish, as well as the immortal question - what is left when things cease to be? Tang propositions a trace of the former always endures, even if dematerialised. 

A shadow. 

A ghosting. 

A yielding impression. 

In this exhibition, there is a shift in Tang’s practice from the individual to humanity en masse. In previous work, such as her video Memento Mori and installation Disappearance, she featured sinking unfired clay-cast faces and bodies gradually losing form and receding into liquid. It is within this previous work, she has developed the important performative aspect of unfired clay. Building on this, and still exploring impermanence - philosophically and materially - she moves to submerging clay-cast phantasmic cities in fluid until they disintegrate and only leave a resonance of their former presence. A world slipping away. 

In her sculptural installation, Encyclopaedia Vol 1-10, Tang has burnt a complete 1950’s set of Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopaedia. Cremated at 1280 degrees Celsius, she positions the fragile skeletons of pages on top of the original book covers. The ashen pages are now stripped of legible content. The knowledge that was once sold door-to-door capturing the imaginations of children and adults alike is no longer visible. Inaccessible to the observer, the knowledge can only continue in the minds of its original readers. In that idea, exists glimpses of hope. Tang engages a historically powerful action by burning books, while symbolically she refers to personal histories of those whose own childhoods have been erased in man-made and natural disasters. 

The process of Tang incinerating objects can be likened to Buddhist religious practice whereby offerings are burnt so they may transcend this world and ensure the spirit of the deceased has things in the afterlife. Within this framework, the burning act is not as final as it could be read from a Western perspective; rather it is a changing of form to positively transition onto something else.

Tang’s video, In memory’s eye, we travel, shot in black and white, depicts the inside of a home distorting and melting. The familiar becoming unfamiliar. 

Again, the image of the home being lost infers current environmental and man-made catastrophes but may also stem from the artist’s experience of immigrating to Australia from Hong Kong after her father’s death. Tang left her home and entered a new world. However, elements of the former still impress and lean in; as they do on us all. We are all affected by personal and worldly forces that heave an invisible weight. Nothing leaves entirely. Traces always remain for better or worse. The individual and the world, as Tang has so elegiacally illuminated in this exhibition, will always bear the residue of these shifts, the tears of things. 

Venita Poblocki 

i. There are two main agreed English translations of Lacrimae Rerum, the objective or subjective of Rerum. “Those who take the genitive [Rerum] as subjective translate the phrase as meaning that things feel sorrow for the sufferings of humanity: the universe feels our pain. Others translate the passage to show that the burden human beings have to bear, ever present frailty and suffering, is what defines the essence of human experience. Yet in the next line, Aeneas says: "Release (your) fear; this fame will bring you some deliverance." Those who take the genitive as objective understand the phrase as meaning that there are tears for things (in particular, the things Aeneas has endured) evinced in the mural: i.e., the paintings show Aeneas that he finds himself in a place where he can expect compassion and safety.” The entry continues to state: “The line is notable for being taken and used out of context (e.g. on war memorials) as a sad sentiment about the 'world of tears' (as Fagles translates). But ironically, in its context it is an expression of hope and optimism: this is the point at which Aeneas realises that he need not fear for his safety, because he is among people who have compassion and an understanding of human sorrow.” Viewed on 18/12/15 

ii. ibid 

iii. Viewed on 18/12/15 nepal-earthquake

Cyrus Tang, In memory's eye, we travel..., 2016, 3-channel HD video, 8.38 min loop.

ARC ONE Gallery