As far back as history goes so too do toys. In fact, toys reach so far into the depths of humanity’s shared past that we’ve lost track of where the word originated (in English anyway). Two observations follow: that toys are a fundamental component of human development regardless as to what stage of development humanity happens to be passing through; and that toys produced in any given culture will be loaded with the symbolically coded values that a particular society would like to pass on.
The Dutch born artist Laurens Tan may be on the far side of sixty with a doctorate to his credit, but he has not lost his zeal for playthings. His solo exhibition, “Happy Toy,” is a complex body of work that includes sculpture, video, and 3D-modeled prints. The exhibition is centered around a pair of figurines, “Jin & Jin,” which Tan happened across one afternoon in a Beijing market. These cheap toys become archetypal figures in Tan’s new work, opening up a space for the artist to tease out various socio-cultural connections in Chinese culture.
First thing one notices about Tan’s sculptures is how shiny they are, like new cars. In fact their composition is not far off: the body is fiberglass; the paint is enamel. They are slick and smooth, polished to a shine, and call to mind the craze for glossiness that defined the Fetish Finish. Jin & Jin: Wall Miniatures and Jin & Jin: Happy Toy, (both 2011), present the duo in two radically different sizes. The Miniatures would be appropriate on a chessboard; Happy Toy is almost four feet tall and seems much bigger. One of the Jins is male, the other female, though beyond that their relationship is ambiguous. Each has its respective satchel or purse and both are gazing slightly upwards, presenting an image of optimism and preparation.
The word “Jin” in mandarin Chinese can be tricky, especially to a non-native speaker. There are scads of variations on the word’s meaning depending on the slightest of tonal shifts. Jin & Jin: Happy Toy plays on this with dual screens looping a 3D animation of the Jins’ heads (mounted on the wall behind the tiny fiberglass bodies) saying their names in all manner of tonal variety.
Tan’s 3D modeled prints, so saturated with color and amazingly high definition, could be stills from a video game. In most of these pieces Tan imagines a landscape of high rises whose shape and foundation are drawn from Chinese characters, alluding perhaps to the potential of language to form the physical structures of contemporary society. In Jin & Jin’s Neighborhood, (2011), Tan situates his figures within a cluster of character-shaped skyscrapers. Their environment suits them perfectly, being as ambiguous, tidy and linguistically oriented as the duo themselves.
There is a certain cheeriness to Tan’s work; everything is shiny and bright without a scuff or scratch to be noted. It is so buoyantly sunny, in fact, that it calls its own happiness into question. Is it authentic or merely a projection of bliss covering up something equally dark and sinister? Is the toy a vehicle for play and imagination or a tool of influence? It may be all of the above. Tan’s work opens up such questions, but it doesn’t attempt to give any answers.
Images: Jin & Jin, 2011, enamel and fiberglass. Courtesy Tallbeck Contem[porary.