Ceramics meet high tech at the Surrey Art Gallery

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The future is already here

At the Surrey Art Gallery until March 24

Kudos to the Surrey Art Gallery for its serious take on both new media and old materials. In its compelling exhibition, Brendan Tang’s ceramic and mixed-media sculptures bounce images and ideas off Alex McLeod’s digitally composed chromogenic prints and videos. As guest curator Rachel Rosenfield Lafo writes in the exhibition brochure, both artists bring an awareness of “augmented reality”—the technology that combines “real world images…with computer-generated input such as sound, video, or graphics”—to their art-historical, science-fiction, and popular-culture allusions.

Tang’s “Manga Ormolu” series combines references to Ming Dynasty porcelain vessels, 18th-century French embellishments of Chinese ceramics, and 21st-century techno-pop imagery, from video games and robotics to Japanese manga and anime. The resulting mashup reflects Tang’s interest in globalization’s impacts on cultural identity, as well as in technology’s increasing intrusions into the human body. In an artist’s statement, Tang writes that “Manga Ormolu…demonstrates the conflicting and complementary forces that shape our perceptions of Ourselves and the Other.”

In Manga Ormolu 4.0-n, for example, shiny yellow knobs are extruded through and around the puckered “skin” of a blue-and-white ceramic vessel, which is decorated with an ironically idyllic landscape scene. A robotic-human analogy is developed by topping the vertically aligned double vessel with a squared-off, machinelike “head”. Again glazed in glossy yellow, the head is joined to the knobs by grey plastic cables, completing what seems to be a computerized system for operating the antique body. In Manga Ormolu 3.0-b, a blue-and-white vase with floral designs is set on comical robotic “feet”, glazed in glossy pink, grey, and burgundy. A surveillance-camera-like “head” is suspended above the tilted vessel with black plastic cables. Again, both works express a complex condition of the cultural, the organic, and the mechanistic.

McLeod’s computer-generated still images, presented here as large photographic prints, are hung on the walls around Tang’s plinth-mounted sculptures. Although neither artist directly addresses the other in this gallery, they both imagine a technologically altered reality. McLeod creates surreal landscapes—what Lafo describes as “a visionary, fantastical cyberworld”—out of patently artificial forms, which stand in for those found in our natural and built environments. His trees and clouds, hills and valleys, skyscrapers, forts, and desert islands are like the mutant offspring of a toy-train set and a box of discount Christmas ornaments, thrown into the blender of a video game.

With one exception (Cloudbirth, in subtle shades of grey), McLeod’s scenes are exceedingly complicated and awash in dazzling colour. The beyond-vivid reds, greens, and blues and the many shiny elements enhance the sense of cheery artificiality. But they also create a paradox when considered against darker suggestions of apocalypse: toppled, leafless trees in Untitled—Gold Chains; abandoned, half-built houses in Evergreen; a sunken ship in By the Sea; and a complete absence of human figures throughout.

The most engrossing work here is Lovechild, a direct collaboration between the two artists. Installed in the Surrey Art Gallery’s TechLab, it consists of one of Tang’s finest “Manga Ormolu” sculptures mounted in a Plexiglas case and incorporated, through a live feed, into an animated video projection by McLeod. Visitors can see a ghostly, projected version of themselves as they walk around the TechLab, but the central and compelling element in the video is Tang’s bipartite vessel animated by McLeod’s pulsing, popping images. Encircling clouds, flying birds, sprouting vegetation, and a kind of molten carpet of green grass: all these digitalized elements eerily “augment” the solid reality—or perhaps unreality—of the clay.

Along with the two other beautiful and intriguing ceramics shows on view at the Surrey Art Gallery, Lovechild reiterates the nimble ways in which the ancient technology of fired clay can interface with the computerized technologies of the present—and the unknown developments of the future.

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