Ron Tran: Somewhat Mine: A Nanaimo Retrospective
by Steffanie Ling
Ron Tran has been compared to a priest and a shop- keeper. For Somewhat Mine: A Nanaimo Retrospective, Tran plays the role of an artist who is having a retrospective. Retrospectives usually present a body of work in order to indicate a major period of development, a.k.a. the mid-career retrospective, or provide a complete survey of work produced over many decades. Since Tran just received the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award for Visual Arts for emerging artists in 2015, we are either being introduced to a new modifier: career-spanning-thus-far, or early career retrospective, or better yet, this employment of the retrospective model suggests a creative misuse of the format.
In any case, the length of the gallery is bisected by a zig-zagging of silver, gridded construction fences where artworks are displayed amongst props from Keltie’s Photo, a local photo studio and prop house. While construction fences are typically eyesores that prohibit and alienate pedestrians, these aspects don’t apply here. By day, these fences are as ubiquitous as the sidewalk itself and we repress them as part of the milieu of a city’s visual noise. Here, this tedious-looking fence is employed sculpturally – or theatrically; as a prop among props. The fence continues to incite the kind of curiosity and rebellion that is inspired by the presentation of a barrier or authoritative object, however its effect as exhibition design is already the rebellion that we wish to launch against humdrum art installations. For instance, the exposure of the rear end of a picture frame or other unhidden sundries used for hanging Tran’s artworks was becoming, rather than unruly – in the same way an unsanctioned side- walk sale draws you in to excavate the wares.
Tran is already in the habit of recalibrating the designed purpose of objects, and social apparati are not excluded from his stripping of quotidian statuses and conventional use-values. This operation can be applied to works new and old in Somewhat Mine. Documented in this exhibition are some early ephemeral works, such as Shelters, where Tran retrieved umbrellas from the bus company’s lost-and-found and installed them at bus stops without shelters. Adjacent to this work was another early work altering the public sphere, Lost Pets. The gesture involved framing lost pet signage around the city. These subtle sculptural interventions hinge on a relational quality to meet their full poetic potential. On one hand, Tran could be seen as a sort of vigilante of good manners, providing shelter from the rain and reinforcing provisional signage belonging to worried pet owners but his actions underline how vulnerable innocuous public spaces are to being messed with, for artists to leave evidence of anonymous kindness, but also equal in their potential to be rendered austere by a contemptuous passer-by. Public space as an arena for complex intersections of intention is further exemplified by Tran’s No Gay (Bolzano), a new work created in the context of Nanaimo, which consists of one of the city’s vernacular bus benches inserted with a kind of crude vacation destination banner for Bolzano, Italy. The advertising graphic features text reading bolzano in a warped shape reminiscent of PowerPoint headers paired with a portrait of the artist posing lackadaisically with a vacant expression on a public bench emblazoned in black spray paint with no gay! His presence on the bench is instantly complicated by his proximity to the homophobic statement.
This bus bench is positioned to view Head Red Toes and Green (unintentional moments), a looping slideshow with Tran in various costumes. These portraits taken by friends using their cellphones and assembled here as a performative lookbook of the artist in his social habitat portray moments where curtains and house- hold kitsch become provisional couture. With our backs to the unsavory sentiments expressed in No Gay (Bolzano), we try to take in Tran’s outfits, admire the craft and drapery borne of spontaneity, but the images change too quickly to scrutinize. As shyness, it’s unconvincing, but this work gives quick glimpses into Tran’s aesthetic sensibility, for fun, rather than art per se. In their underprivileged presentation, this sensibility for pattern, texture, and arrangement resonates as studies that might inform moments from projects reprised in the exhibition; projects such as And You Can Do Anything With Them Under Such Circumstances (2008), a series of whimsical still-lives with furniture and other consumer objects made at portrait photography outlets like Photo Express and Sears, and Kitchen Garden at Home/Store (2014), an experimental art and retail project in Chinatown Vancouver that combined sculpture as merchandise.
Retrospectives take place as tools to measure and canonize a period of artistic production for the history books, but the scope of time that gets privileged rarely includes the artist’s undergraduate school work. The presence of Tran’s grad project, The Peckers (2007), a lighthearted twist on Paul Kos’ Sound of Ice Melting (1970) whereby Tran filmed and recorded a flock of pigeons feeding upon a set of amplified instruments doused with bird food, begs the question of whether the notion of being in retrospect is taken to heart as a verb (to look back in hindsight and reflect) rather than a noun (an institutional device).
During the artist’s time in Nanaimo, some completed projects were re-investigated and managed to grow in their scope of collaboration – for example, 2011’s It Knows Not What It Is now includes a neighbouring youth art program’s oil pastel and crayon rendition of the iconic wooden stick. Tran’s inherently polyvocal approach warrants extensive attribution to his collaborators and an exhibition map that borders on movie credits. The names are not necessarily those of a collector, but Tran’s incorporation of props and a “cast” of sorts hearkens to the artist as perhaps more of a director, a facilitator of novel experiences, than one who simply plays roles. Whether this is a retrospective performed, or a curatorial nudge at the pomposity of the format, Somewhat Mine sets a precedent for the continued subversion of it when “another” retrospective of Tran’s work comes around again