Over the next several weeks, McEvoy Arts interviews each of the four artists from The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program whose work is on display in In This Light, a virtual and offsite exhibition presented in conjunction with the Minnesota Street Project’s group exhibition Invincible Summer.
Our interview with Charlene Tan concludes the series. Make a reservation to visit the exhibition in person here.
McEvoy Arts: Can you share a bit about your practice and background?
Charlene Tan: I’m an interdisciplinary artist with formal training in the History of Contemporary Art from San Francisco Art Institute, where my focus on new genres/new media ultimately left me conflicted about the dominant narrative, and how I define my work relative to that. I’m currently working on a series, Research and Remembering, through which I’m investigating, physically deconstructing, and reconstructing patterns from indigenous weaving traditions of the Philippines. By learning a cultural language lost to me, I found this work to be about rediscovering and decolonizing my identity as a person of an immigrant diaspora.
McEvoy Arts: As an artist in The Minnesota Street Project Studio Program at 1240 Minnesota Street, the building’s temporary closure has forced you to embrace new working accommodations. How have you coped with the isolation of social distancing and uncertainty?
CT: It has been difficult transitioning from a very social, energizing art-making environment to an isolating one, where I find myself at home making work in my small bedroom and, at times, totally taking over the living room. To cope, I’ve sought connections through Zoom calls or FaceTime sessions with many in my social constellation and with whom I have found love and support. I’ve been managing my own actions and creating structure for survival, actively trying not to become paralyzed by adversity, and being honest when I feel overwhelmed in the face of uncertainty.
McEvoy Arts: Has the onset of the pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement offered you new insights into preexisting bodies of work or motivation for new projects?
CT: Both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have motivated me to increase my participation in the art community as a way of helping to foster anti-racist change, counteract privilege, and nurture inclusive opportunities. I know how to demolish, build, and organize, and it is time for me to be that POC woman who will not be diminished by those blinded and deafened by hate. Black Lives Matter makes me hopeful about much-needed reform for our art institutions.
McEvoy Arts: How does your work on view in In This Light engage with the notion of resilience? When, where, and how was your work produced?
CT: The works on view are literal acts of resilience—deeply personal fights to reclaim my ancestral, culturally situated aesthetics from the often oppressive aesthetic values I was taught and internalized. This work reflects the value I place on my multiracial identity, and the process of reclamation, renegotiation, and reordering that I must do as I go about my work as an artist. In a sense, I feel like Research and Remembering, Pink Tapioca (2020) which I made by hand-gluing thousands of tiny, pink tapioca pearls onto a panel while sheltering-in-place, was in itself an act of not giving up. Using a pair of tweezers, I picked up and dipped in glue each of the tapioca pearls from which I assembled the pattern, putting each individual ball where it needed to be. I brought a semblance of order to the composition, but also to what felt like an especially chaotic time. I worked through some sleepless nights, gluing until I was so tired that my mind relaxed and I was able to reminisce about the past and feel a sense of hope.
McEvoy Arts: Do you have any suggestions for artists wrestling with making work amidst collective anxiety and uncertainty?
CT: Keep going, call/text people, help each other.
McEvoy Arts: What’s been most striking to you about the impact this moment is having on the making, presentation, and consumption of culture? What are your hopes for the future?
CT: I’m appreciating efforts made by galleries and art centers to engage with the public through digital platforms and sharing exhibition images. In the pre-pandemic world, I had issues with the lack of public engagement on digital platforms, especially for people who are less mobile or can’t afford to fly around the world.
McEvoy Arts: What is the responsibility of the artist in times like these? Has your sense of the role of art in society shifted?
CT: In my opinion, an artist’s responsibility right now is to survive, support others, and be an agent of change. Yes—my sense of the role of art in society has shifted—to one of hope.
McEvoy Arts: Lastly, is there a piece of art, literature, film, or music that has been a comforting touchstone for you through the pandemic?
CT: Currently, I’ve been taking comfort in online-based class lectures, in particular on the Bubonic plague. It helps a lot to see similarities of how society changed during those past plague years.
Charlene Tan’s interdisciplinary artworks focus on the immigrant diaspora and its repercussions, post-assimilation identity, and investigations of nationalism and cultural heritage. Her work has been included in solo and group exhibitions in the United States, including Ampersand International Arts, San Francisco; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art; and Blank Space Gallery, Oakland. She received her BA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Born in Houston Texas, she lived in the Philippines before moving to San Francisco.