How Siyuan Tan’s New Works Convey the Advent of Spiritualism and “Betwixt"

Installation view of Betwixt, New York. Courtesy Chambers Fine Art.

Betwixt: GAMA and Siyuan Tan

Chambers Fine Art

February 3 through April 6, 2022

By HU LINGYUAN, May 2022

“Betwixt” grasps the notion of an in-between space, both metaphorically and physically. In the recent duo show, “Betwixt: GAMA and Siyuan Tan,” held by Chambers Fine Art and curated by Eva Yisu Ren, the artist Siyuan Tan depicted the in-between space between the spiritual realm and the earth. As a Manchu, Tan’s visual language reflects his conceptions that originate from Chinese vernacular folktales, cultural myths, and religious iconographies. Having grown up in Fuxin, Northeast China, a city with abundant coal resources, Tan is inspired by the spaces above ground and in mines underground. By dividing these two spaces into the positive and the negative, he further advances his exploration of the binary through visual expressions. 

In the duo show, Tan’s works were in dialogue with GAMA’s, a Mongolian artist, whose works also demonstrate a strong interest in exploring the boundaries between spirituality and reality. GAMA's oeuvre delineates a nomadic and shamanic culture by depicting whimsical sceneries. Tan's new paintings apply symmetry, balance, and harmony in a rich, dazzling, and kaleidoscopic visual package. As seen through the figures of Fuxi and Nuwa, two rabbit gods with "psychic eyes," and two cats playing with Buddha beads, these iconographies appear in pairs as a representation of the binary. 

Siyuan Tan, Birds of A Feather, 2022, Airbrush and acrylic on canvas. 16 x 12 in (40.5 x 30.5) cm. Courtesy Chambers Fine Art.

In Birds of A Feather, the pair of doll-shaped, gender-specific orange butter carried by the blue porcelain pot constructs an opposition through the juxtaposition of warm and cool colors. In Mandarin, the pot is known as a “yuanyang”, a remarkable binary symbol that he utilizes in his spatial expression. I assume he does it in such a way as to convey the binary through color, shape, size, and context. However, GAMA’s method of treating the space is by juxtaposing seemingly irrelevant subjects, such as his iconic mushroom and lamp. In Manöver #2, a lamp hanging down from the top appears to me to be a meaningful intervention, forming a three-dimensional space, or three worlds, as it were. Meanwhile, due to Tan’s background, Birds of A Feather uses the line drawing style and the central composition form deriving from thangka painting, which is reflected in his pieces.

Installation view of Betwixt, New York. Courtesy Chambers Fine Art.

GAMA was born in Inner Mongolia, and Tan is half Manchu. They have both known about shamanism since childhood. The spiritualism and symbolism of the shaman are evident in Tan’s paintings. The two opposing worlds underscored in shamanism compared by him to the world above and below the coal mine. And he took the shaman, a psychic who travels between materials and non-material worlds, to his paintings. In the latest painting, Tai po, the eyes of twin rabbits are glowing as if they are shamans communicating with spirits. This divinization treatment is on par with the towering mushroom in GAMA’s Manöver #2. The mushroom is said to have hallucinogenic effects and to induce awe, through which the artist attempts to demonstrate the animism in the shaman.

Siyuan Tan, Tai po, 2021, Airbrush and acrylic on canvas. 40 x 30 in (101.5 x 76 cm). Courtesy Chambers Fine Art.

The rabbit gods in Tan’s Tai po represent the LGBTQ+ community. He was inspired by a gay bar in San Francisco Chinatown called Li Po, named after a famous poet. The rabbit gods in ancient China are used as a reference to the LGBTQ+ community, as expressed in an ancient Chinese poem, The Ballad of Mùlán (Mùlán Cí), “two hares running side by side close to the ground, how can they tell if I am he or she?” The rabbits are depicted in the shaman’s tambourine, which, if this reflects a space, should be the same space as the four circles in the tambourine’s corners. Tan depicts them with color tones, which implies that they represent another space and contrasts with the outside space. Is the contrast of different spaces also a metaphor for the space in which LGBTQ+ community live? 

Siyuan Tan, The Way, 2021, Airbrush and acrylic on canvas. 65 x 48 in (165 x 122 cm). Courtesy Chambers Fine Art.

The Way, a significant piece, in my opinion, is the most spiritual work, as it resembles a psychic shaman delivering us a prophecy and warning. It has a delicate and complex background, displaying an apparent visual change of movement and stillness through the combination of spray guns and hand-painted lacquers with Tangka’s line drawing. The main figures of The Way are Fuxi and Nuwa, who represent the two genders in matriarchal and patriarchal societies, respectively, and also an expression of one yin and one yang. Tan continues the stylistic characteristic of their half-human and half-animal bodies in the piece to express the binary concept. They are placed in the central circle and surrounded by eight small circle patterns known as “Fu Xi” Bagua, which work together to be a balancing role, whereby the stillness inside the circle checks and balances the movement outside the circle. 

All things exist in this ideal and complete spiritual symbol in a state of mutual co-existence and non-interference. Tan seems to re-establish a connection with his own culture and religion. Regardless of the cultural symbols of minorities in his paintings or his personal existence as a minority, he frames the transcendental experience of belonging to his culture into the current western context to express his desire to break free from the current chaotic and confused state to establish a virtuous state. 

Betwixt: GAMA and Siyuan Tan was on view at Chambers Fine Art in New York February 3 – April 6, 2022. WM

Hu Lingyuan

Hu Lingyuan is an art writer and independent curator living in Queens. She is also the co-founder and executive editor of Art Bund Magazine.

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