Fall arts preview: David Khang bridges the gap between science and art

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For David Khang, interdisciplinary does not simply mean an art practice that spans sculpture, installation, performance, video, animation, text, and printmaking. His art does all that, yes, but more importantly it bridges the wider realms of art and science.

Khang, who was born in Seoul, Korea, and grew up in Toronto, says that after he earned his first degree, in psychology, he bowed to family expectation and became a dentist. “I refer to it as being the logical accident of an immigrant experience,” he explains. “The pressure is to professionalize.”

Speaking with the Georgia Straight in his East Van studio, Khang recounts that it wasn’t long before boredom with dentistry set in, and his creative and intellectual aspirations asserted themselves. He moved to Vancouver, earned a BFA at Emily Carr Institute (now University) of Art & Design, then completed an MFA at the University of California, Irvine, with a special emphasis on critical theory. When asked to describe the kind of art he makes, he smiles and answers, “Discursive.”

Through whatever medium seems best suited to the project, Khang explores visual and verbal language as “vehicles of cultural and political relations”. He has designed board games, reinterpreted early conceptual projects, and staged performances in which his body and those of his collaborators function as both script and marker. In Speaking of Butterflies, performed in Los Angeles in 2004, he pierced his tongue with silk threads to which monarch butterflies were “gently tethered”. (The butterflies were released unharmed after the performance.) And in a performance of “live dentistry” at the Western Front in 2008, he created permanent dental decorations for Chilean artist Cheto Castellano.

With Khang’s newly launched works, Amelogenesis Imperfecta (How Deep Is the Skin of Teeth), on view at the grunt gallery until September 22, and Beautox Me, at CSA Space through October 7, he has again found formally and intellectually complex ways to meld his seemingly disparate professions. The grunt gallery installation includes microscopic laser drawings on epithelial cells and an animated short of a human tooth evolving into a fearsome, all-devouring shark. This work developed out of experiments Khang conducted during his 2010 residency at SymbioticA Centre for Biological Arts in Perth, Australia. “It began as a goal-oriented project to manufacture enamel,” he says, “but ended up being a meditation on ethical interspecies relations.” Fetal calf serum, he explains, is used “to fuel” all stem-cell research.

Beautox Me, the two-channel video work at CSA Space, examines our “increasingly manufactured physical appearance”, Khang says. Videotaped by Elisha Burrows, two local actors recite emotionally charged speeches from Shakespeare before and after having Botox injections in their faces. It’s significant that Khang administered the Botox (something dentists in this province are legally entitled to do), becoming the agent of a cosmetic process that masks facial expression, thwarting the nonverbal ways we convey emotion to one another.

Khang observes that artists and scientists share core concepts and are driven by a similar kind of intellectual curiosity. To these he adds his own aspiration: thoughtful courage. “Thoughtfully considering all angles,” he says, “before enacting one’s own ethics and one’s own understanding.”

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