Female artist uses soot to shed light on urban change

By Susan Ransdell

Artist Yuk King Tan doesn’t view fire as a cheap aes-thetic device but as a tool that can express the ineffable.

The 35-year-old artist, o­ne of New Zealand’s well-known contemporary artists, uses firecrackers and candles in her works, some of which are now o­n display at Galerie Quynh in HCM City in her show titled Shelter.


The residue of explosive energy – the brown soot of a burning candle or the crackle of a firecracker – all suggest transformation of a place, a city, a country, or a people.


The traces of that change are captured in her 22 works o­n heavy matte paper and in her six-minute video called I Am the Light of the World, featuring a photo of idealistic New Zealand missionaries in China whose figures are outlined by small firecrackers that go off o­ne by o­ne.


The video played in reverse, with the resulting images cleansed of smoke and soot, is an intriguing resurrection of the past intersecting with the present.


All 22 of her works o­n heavyweight matte paper incorporate smudges of soot, digital prints, watercolour and ink etchings, with images of urban change in the context of globalisation: shantytowns, hypermarkets, tent cities, nation states, border towns, boomtowns and favelas.


The prints are particularly compelling in view of Viet Nam’s march toward urbanisation and industrialisation.


"As I make the work, I think about diverse ideas about society and social order, cities and the needs of civilisation, as well as city plans and architectural diagrammes," Tan says.


One of the most striking works, which has immediate visual appeal, is her large digital photo titled Shock and Awe.


Shaped in the figure of a snowflake or a mandala, depending o­n your point of view, the print is meticulously composed of hundreds of small images related to the Iraq war and the so-called war o­n terrorism.


Its central motif, around which everything else radiates, features the burning World Trade Centre towers in New York City.


Tan has been the recipient of numerous residencies, including stints in Germany and London, and has exhibited in the US as well.


She says her heritage, which is Malay, Chinese and European, influences her body of work, which often questions perceptual differences based o­n race, gender and architectural space.