RP2 artist talk
17 January 2019
Michael Maranda: Welcome to the artist talk portion of the evening. The artists in this exhibition are Sonny Assu and Brendan Tang, who will be doing an informal walk-through of their exhibition. The show was curated by Laura Schneider from the Reach, who is also here. I assume that Laura’s going to get drawn in at some point.
You two already have a rapport going, so Brendan and Sonny, I’ll let you take it over.
Brendan Tang: Sure.
Thanks for coming out for the opening, this is pretty great. We never know what to expect, but this is a nice group. We maybe just start for the room that we’re standing in. This show, Ready Player Two, is a love letter to our childhood in a lot of ways. Both Sonny and I would talk about at times about our childhood and how similar they were as nerdy outsiders. This show in a lot of ways explores those spaces that we inhabited as children, how they informed the adults and the artists that we are today.
The Reach Gallery in Abbotsford is ginormous. It’s huge. We got a section of that huge space, which was still huge. To make it more manageable, we broke it down into bite sized pieces. Breaking the space up into three different sections which became three different places. We have the domestic space that we inhabited as children, the kitchen area and the basement. Then there’s the other spaces we inhabited, the arcade and the comic book store….
Sonny Assu: Am I supposed to pick up there or something? OK, I’m really excited to be here, on the fifth stop?
Brendan Tang: Yes.
Sonny Assu: Fifth stop on the tour. It’s the little big show that could, really. I think Laura got the call from Mary up at the Yukon Art Gallery the day of the opening. She got wind of the show happening and really wanted to have it up there and that started the ball rolling with the tour.
What is really awesome as artists, and as two giant nerds who get to make cool stuff for a living, is to be able to combine the passion of being makers with the passion of being nerds. To see this show grow legs and change slightly in every institution that it’s been in has been really interesting to see. I think the show really started off with an idea.
Laura and I had been talking about doing a show together for a number of years. Brendan and I had done a recent collaboration for an exhibit that I had at the Vancouver Art Gallery so I pitched Laura the idea doing a basement scene somewhere in the gallery and throwing Brendan in the mix and it blew up from there.
Like Brendan said, we broke up the show into various vignettes. We wanted to lead people through this narrative path through our lives and where we found safety and solace as we were growing up.
So we’re here in the kitchen right now. We really wanted to capture the era that we grew up in, the late seventies, eighties, and early nineties. This show does trigger in many ways on many levels nostalgia through Gen-X memorabilia.
This is the kitchen, this is wallpaper that I remember in my Nana’s, my grandparent’s, house. The basement is almost a replica of the basement that I spent all my time in. During the opening for Ready Player Two in Abbotsford, a friend of mine that I went to high school with came out to the show, and he said, ‘this is the exact basement where we’d hang out in together.’
That’s what we wanted to capture. We wanted to capture this place where you feel comfortable and hang out. Where you feel safe exploring whatever you want to explore. For Brendan, it was gaming; for me, it was comic books and video games. It’s really fun to see all that stuff come together.
When you’re artists, you have to be serious. But when you make this work that has serious tinges to it, but is also very personal and funny, that just becomes part of a joyous process, which is something that you don’t really think about too much when you’re an artist. It’s like you got to be serious, you got to make stuff all the time. But sometimes we forget about that joy.
What’s the new show that Mary Condo’s showing on Netflix? Whatever finds you joy or whatever? I think we found it in this show.
Brendan Tang: This show, ironically, made possible by hoarding things.
Sonny Assu: Okay, it’s the exact opposite of that show, but this brought us joy, okay?
Brendan Tang: Are we making a recording of this? Yeah? I think I’d like to touch on some of the ideas that we were playing with. Nostalgia is a really powerful thing to use as an artist, but it also can be a thing that can lead us astray, just thinking about our friends down south and how they want to make their country great again and where that’s gotten them.
So just thinking about those spaces and places that we exist in, and reflecting on the past and how it’s informed us… This game table that I’ve set up here [in the kitchen] riffs off Dungeons and Dragons, which I played as a kid, and play again as an adult.
This piece is a way for me to understand a little bit what it was, what I thought I could expect about being an adult as a child. In Dungeons and Dragons, if you want to get good at something, you have to work at it. Then you level up, then you keep on working at it and level up again, and level up again. Which is similar to being an adult…
Sonny Assu: …and being an artist…
Brendan Tang: Yeah. So I created this booklet [located on the table], this expansion module, called advanced galleries and curators, riffing off that idea of levelling up. There’s a lot of other expansion modules advertised on the back that you can read, that I geeked out on … they made me laugh when I was doing it. Maybe it’ll make you laugh.
But it’s also directly against those kinds of games that were more popular when I was a child—games about conspiracy, about not trusting the other and colonial expansionism [refering to board games on chair]. This stance is still prevalent thing within board gaming, the board gaming world. I think this is why I really enjoyed the idea of role playing, because you could escape your otherness and be an orc or a dragon lord or a human or whatever, and it was normal.
Shall we move to the basement?
Laura Schneider: Can I just ask a question, just one thing before we move on, because I think this is great. There are other illustrations of this, but the trajectory of your work really comes into play. For example, in this room, there are two pieces that Sonny has made that are from early in his career. I just wondered if you can speak to those briefly.
Sonny Assu: That [painting] is from 2014. So, that’s more recent work, really, but this [the cereal box] is one of the pieces from my earlier career, from Breakfast Theories. That’s what you’ll find throughout the show is you’ll find these vignettes that we’ve constructed, where we’ve collected all these things that are “actual” objects, but we’ve interlaced them with objects and things that we’ve made.
This [cereal box] made sense to put here, because it’s one of my most recognizable works and to have to put it in the show was real interesting because it brings a whole new dynamic.
These two pieces are are dramatically different pieces. You’ll see that with Brendan’s work, too—he has his clouds and he has his ceramic stuff. There’s something that connects them all together, that makes it clear which is which. Even though these two pieces of mine are totally differently looking, there’s still a connection between them through their humor.
Brendan Tang: Moving to the basement.
Laura Schneider: Going to the basement.
Brendan Tang: Make yourself comfortable. There are chairs there. That’s a great chair right there, speaking from experience.
What I think has been a real delight about this show is the fact that, as you saw in the kitchen, there’s this blending of our personal practices, and our collaborative practice, all within this installation of ready-made objects. It was a real opportunity to break down those really rigid spaces that we create for the presentation of art. In a lot of group shows, and understandably so, people try and separate artists from one another, because everybody wants the space for their work to breathe. But here, we really were like, let’s just throw it all together.
Sonny Assu: All together. Yeah. Because it forms one conversation. I think you’ll be able to see that there’s distinctness between our different works that speaks of us individually. They come together and they work together in such a way that I think is pretty unique. Like Brendan said, this mixing of works isn’t something that you normally see in group shows. It’s really to create this vignette that could be triggering.
Like I said, the carpet and the wood paneling and the TV commercials and the VCRs and all the fun stuff that we’ve collected. Some of the stuff that we made. Brendan made all of the cheezies by hand, 42 porcelain cheezies.
Brendan Tang: 42 porcelain cheezies!
Sonny Assu: The copper leaf maple bowl. There’s an original Sonny Assu behind you over there [pointing to the flower painting]. That’s from 1998, I believe.
Brendan Tang: Did you paint that for your grandma?
Sonny Assu: I painted that for my grandmother, yeah. So when we moved into the house that we live in now, which was my grandmother’s house, we decided to keep it because it was one of the first paintings I ever made as a an art student. It’s horrible, let’s be honest. But it hung proudly on my grandmother’s wall for 20 years. I decided it would fit well within the context of the show. When you upgrade your place, all this crap that was formerly upstairs comes downstairs.
When you’re a kid, a pre-teen and a teenager, you find the fun-ness in here, you get to make this space your own. This becomes your own personal space where you can have your friends over to play video games and watch movies.
Brendan Tang: Within this space we also included things that were … micro-aggressions that a culture like Canada presented to [refers to Sonny and himself]… So we have this comic book called Scalp Hunters, and this book of North American masks that you could cut out. There was no question about that level of appropriation.
Then even with the advertisements that I found and curated, they all have small micro-aggressions toward people that weren’t white. There’s this one, where they’re lampooning Native totem poles and that sort of thing. There’s all these kinds of things that we faced and dealt with as kids, and we’re just working through as adults.
Other things that are here in the basement, I’ve started this series of water color objects. The Nintendo, the Game Boy, and the VCR are water color objects. It’s riffing off of the fetishizing of objects that artists do when you are making replicas or still lives of things, but also playing off of this concept of joss paper, which is a Chinese Buddhist thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Hell money, which is for burning and it’s supposed to go to your ancestors. These objects here, you’re supposed to burn and release them to your inner child in the afterlife, in a way.
Sonny Assu: That’s interesting. I don’t think we ever talked about that specifically. This is what I like about doing a show, because we’re always talking about this work in a new context. Something new always comes up. When I think about burning the money of my ancestors and this work could be potentially burned and sent back to our ancestral kid-ness, that has a connection to my specific Indigenous culture where we burn our sacred regalia after it was used, giving it back to our ancestors. It becomes interesting to see these different conversations coming into one another.
Brendan Tang: I think of burning things as an actual therapeutic practice. My therapist has said, “You’re dealing with an issue, write it down, then burn it, releasing it.” There’s something that’s interesting about that. Also, we’re doing a show about our nerdy backgrounds. We live in a culture that the man-child is an actual thing. I’m sure some people here have dated maybe man-childs. They’re nodding now, ‘yes, it is a real thing.’
As we’re both middle aged men and we’re both reconciling our desire to want to go see the new Spiderman for the fifth time with being an adult. It’s these interesting negotiations. I do feel like culturally speaking, we do extend that childness, we do infantalize ourselves sometimes within our own culture. Playing with those ideas.
Should we move over to the arcade?
Laura Schneider: Can I interrupt? You guys are talking and it’s making me think. I just wanted to point out, because one of the things that occurred fairly early on in the first iteration of the show when we had it at the Reach was this idea of creating these various spaces, even though neither of you are installation artists.
There’s a sense of permeability. So there are certain decisions that were made and have been made, I see, at various galleries beyond the original exhibition at the Reach that are the same or similar. I just wanted to point out some of what that looks like in this room and also in the previous room.
The installation, for example, of the carpet or of the paneling and trim is not consistent with what one might do in one’s own home. I was really interested in how you folks handled the linoleum in the kitchen, which is brilliant. There’s something quite pixelated about what’s happening there. It’s meant to be imperfect because it’s not much like your simulacra, your effigies, as much as anything.
Brendan Tang: I think that’s one of the thoughts that we had in terms of the individual rooms is we wanted it to be a memory. But memory is something that you make of it. You think about it and you insert your own commentary into your own memory, where you think about it one way, and it might not have happened that way. I think we thought about that in terms of how these borders shoot off into space, especially in the other room as well, where it becomes this memory that trails off into nothingness. It becomes just part of ephemera.
Sonny Assu: These become the blurred lines of those memories. You don’t have the exactly recollection of what your kitchen looked like, but you might remember its smell, or you might remember what happened there. These are analogous. The flooring is analogous to that bleeding of memory.
Laura Schneider: It’s the holiday …
Sonny Assu: It’s the holiday that’s got …
Brendan Tang: Eighth episode …
Sonny Assu: We’ve gone through some nebulous cloud and some alien form …
Laura Schneider: That’s awesome. I guess that sounds good …
Brendan Tang: OK, here we are in the arcade. The arcade is the first break out space we had as children… At least I remember it allowing me to be a more independent agent. Okay. My mom was within yelling distance while I was in the arcade…. It’s a funny space.
I’ve been thinking about this every time we set it up. Sometimes we’ll have folks that are setting it up with us that never stepped into an arcade before because they don’t exist anymore as much.
In it, I’ve got these cloud forms that I’ve created here, they’re a fiber glass shape. They’ve got this geometric form to them. I wanted to riff off and reference low polygon video games and that geometric digitization of an organic form. We hung them low in this space, and I was thinking about when you play video games, you really do become immersed in that world.
Anybody that’s every tried to have a conversation with somebody playing a video game knows what I’m talking about.
Sonny Assu: Yup. Yup. Uh-huh.
Brendan Tang: Yup. Yeah. That man-child you dated? This is playing off of those ideas.
Sonny Assu: I made the video game cabinets. I spent a lot of time in arcades, especially in the summer time when I’d be out with my grandfather fishing. In Campbell River, where I live now, when we’d be back in port, he’d be off doing business or whatever. I would get 20 bucks and stuff for lunch. “Here’s money for the arcade, go knock yourself out.”
Now I would just take that 20 bucks and I would call my cousins and I would say, “Meet me at the Family Fun Center.” We’d be there all day long. Popping quarter after quarter, just trying to beat the next level or get to the next thing. There was this one holographic game, the Knight … No, it was Cowboy-
Brendan Tang: I remember that one.
Sonny Assu: You remember that, the holographic game, video game, the first hologram game. I put a quarter in there, and I’d play, and I’d die right away. Every time, I’d just die. I would just die. But I kept on doing it because I figure I’ll get there one day.
Brendan Tang: It was like Dragon Slayer.
Sonny Assu: Yeah, it was exactly like that but holograms. And Dragon Slayer as well. I got to play this because it’s a cartoon. Then you play it and you die immediately. Fuck. Dudes.
For the show, I started thinking about the importance of materiality, which is a big investigation in a lot of my works. Copper and traditional materials like cedar and maple are a big part of the conversations that I create.
I had this speculation that if I plucked one of my ancestors out of our timeline and brought them to today or to the time when I was a kid playing video games, would they see me standing in front of this machine just awash with this glowing light, would they assume I would have been transfixed and transposed to the spirit realm, because my ancestor would know what I was doing on these machines.
I made them out of maple with copper leaf and copper paint, to speak to the importance and the wealth of that materiality. But also to the importance of the wealth of my time being transfixed into this thing, popping quarter after quarter, just trying to get to the next level.
This [referring to the wall vinyl] is a new piece for the exhibit. When we originally did this show in Abbotsford, we had envisioned this room to be a little more dark, smoky. We decided we were going to do a bigger poster that I had made, my own rendition of the Family Fun Center logo. But I think I spelled family wrong. We noticed that as we were finishing. The prints were done, I was ready to pin it up on the wall. I think either you or Laura was like “You spelled family wrong?”
I’m like, dammit. So that piece was scrapped. But I had the opportunity to do a new one for this wall. This is a recent piece called Let’s Dance. It’s an homage to David Bowie’s song, but it’s also referencing potlatch. The potlatch system is about giving away, but it’s also this ginormous celebration where dancing and celebration is a major component to it.
There’s actually a quote from a chief from Fort Rupert, where he says, paraphrasing, but basically in our DNA we are bound by law to dance and to give away our earthly possessions in the Potlatch.
That’s why I called it Let’s Dance. There’s five coppers in the image, that pays reference and homage to the five current chief of the Liǥwildaʼx̱w peoples, my traditional people. There are only three hereditary chiefs that are left. There are two, I don’t quite know what happened to their villages and lineages.
The cabinets take on the ideas of reconciliation, which is big, over the last couple years, especially in the last couple weeks with what’s been going on at BC with the Wet’suwet’en peoples. Looking at how reconciliation, which is a catch phrase the colonial government likes to throw around.
I see it, and a lot of indigenous people see it as just something that’s just wrecking the landscape. Broken treaties, again, is interesting to think about in terms of how treaties aren’t being honored today. Even now with British Columbia, which has a lot of unceded territories going through the modern day treaty process, we’re not seeing true reconciliation and a path forward through to treaties. That’s what that piece [Wreck-Conciliation!] is all about.
I was thinking about this the other day, that you have this image of an Indian super hero, let’s say, in this video game, also a byproduct of the colonial context.
Brendan Tang: Which is interesting. That piece that he’s talking about is the video that is on … Broken Treaties. I did a video piece, called Clay Fighter, riffing off of an old video game called Street Fighter 2: World of Fighters. It was the first time as a kid that I saw a South Asian male presented as a possible super hero, or a character that you could play.
Being part South Asian, I was over the moon.
What I did is I found the original sprite animation for this game and reanimated it, altering his hair, because he has no hair in the original game. I gave him long black hair, like I had when I made the piece.
Laura Schneider: What’s his name?
Brendan Tang: Dhalsim.
Laura Schneider: Dhalsim?
Brendan Tang: Dhalsim. He does yoga. He has stretchy limbs and breathes fire. Like all young men.
Sonny Assu: Never make him mad. He’ll breathe fire on you.
Brendan Tang: Okay. I’m mostly known, and I also consider myself, a ceramicist, somebody that works in clay. I have created myself, a selfportrait as Dhalsim, working with clay. You can see the trials and tribulations of working in clay. I had so much fun putting it together. I even put the eight-bit soundtrack of “Unchained Melody,” for those people that remember Ghost from back in the day, which is a lightning-rod moment for pottery.
Sonny Assu: Moving along to the next room, this is the what we call the Comic Book Store, the third place that we found connection to and solace in. A lot of the comic book stores I remember growing up all had a big gaming component to it as well. You could go there and buy your cards and figurines and all kinds of stuff. For me, the work on the back wall over here are from my Speculator Book series. These other ones are from the Giant Sized Spectacular.
I’ve started recollecting comic books from my youth, then destroying them. For me, that draws a number of parallels to the copper, which I didn’t explain in too many details in the last room. A copper is the symbol of wealth for a Northwest Coast chief, mainly practiced by the Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw peoples, pretty much the northern part of the northwest coast.
The copper would be the conceptual record of the chief’s wealth. When you think about wealth in this context, you need to think about it in a dramatically different way. Whereas we are in a capitalist society, we can keep wealth and hoard wealth to display through inanimate objects, or even just the collection of money. Wealth in the potlatch system is what you give away. How much you can give away is your wealth.
The conceptual record of the copper the chief holds records that, an oral narrative behind a specific piece of copper. But the copper can also be used as a form of justice, a way to shame someone who’s done you wrong at some point, where you actually break off a piece of your copper and offer it to the person who has shamed you. Then they need to repay that shame by breaking off a bigger or equal piece of copper and have a potlatch. This is always something in your repertoire.
In essence, this series is an attempt to shame the comic book industry for leading me astray as a youth. By saying, “Sonny, if you buy every number one issue out there, and you save them in a little bag in a hoard, one day, you’ll be able to pay for college.” Maybe not, Sonny.
I tell this story in particular around X Force number one from 1991. This was at the height of what is now known in the comic book industry as the speculator boom, where the industry was flooding the market with all these new number one issues, various covers, collectable things where you had to buy these things to get them.
Number one X Force came out, and it was sold with 10 individual trading cards of the team members and the villains that were in these comic books. To get all 10 cards, you had to buy 10 of the same book. So I did that. I bought 10 of the same book to get all 10 cards. It came pre-packaged, so I opened them up, look at all the cards, this is so cool. Put the cards in the plastic shields and left them there. Then I bought 10 more because I couldn’t have those 10 open and not have a set of 10 that aren’t open and pristine. And then I bought one more. So I bought 21 of the same fucking issue. X Force number one. The last one was a bold variance, second edition printing. It came out because they were sold out of the first edition, so you had to buy the next one.
Brendan Tang: Because Sonny Assu was buying them all.
Sonny Assu: Because I was buying them all. I was buying them all. In essence, I bought 21 of the same issue, they were roughly two bucks a piece. Again, 42 becomes relevant. Did we talk about 42?
Brendan Tang: No.
Sonny Assu: We didn’t talk about 42. So you’re just hearing about it now. 42 is a big reoccurent number in the show. Brendan can talk about that in a minute.
So, I spent $42 of my hard earned money to buy this one issue, which is now fairly worthless. So I am shaming the comic book industry by breaking these apart, making these collages and paintings on paper and painted over paintings on top of comic pages there. Also, in this room you’ll see works from our individual practices, where Brendan has his ceramic pieces and I have my painted drums and painted panels.
Brendan Tang: Maybe I’ll talk about the 42. Throughout the show, we’ve got all of these little Easter eggs that are happening through there. An Easter egg is a term that’s used for something that a programmer will hide in a video game—sometimes it’s just a shout out to themselves, because programmers were never given the acknowledgement for the game that they created.
Certain players knew how to do certain moves to unlock them, and something would appear and it’s like, “wow, that’s amazing.” It was also a major plot point for the book Ready Player One, which was then later turned into a terrible movie called Ready Player One. Both Sonny and I read that book, and we both loved it. Actually the title, Ready Player Two, comes into play there. We were thinking about how as a second player, when you are the player two, you are joining somebody else’s game, which is how we felt about Canadian culture in general. We all enter into Canada, which is this other game that’s already going on.
Okay. Back to Easter eggs. One of the more common Easter eggs in this show is the number 42 that shows up. 42 was a funny place for us to land on, because we were both 42 when we started this show, making the work for it. So there is that little artistic narcissism that occurs in all art. But also 42 is, for those people that know Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, 42 is the answer to everything. Cecilia corrected me pretty hard today. She actually, she out-nerded me…
Cecilia: It’s the answer to the question about life, the universe, and everything.
Brendan Tang: Is 42.
Cecilia: Yes, 42.
Brendan Tang: There you go. Thank you. We decided to take that ball and run with it. In the kitchen, if you look at the dice, it’s rolled 42. The cheezies in that bowl, there’s 42. There are a number of other things. There’s 42 comic books. There’s also 42 blind box collectibles. Blind box collectibles is a thing from contemporary geek culture, where they will choose a certain franchise and then make a toy and put it inside the box and you just don’t know what Doctor Who you’re going to get from that particular collection of Doctor Who boxes.
We thought it would be interesting to play with that. In this room, we also play with these ideas of how the comic book store runs parallel to the art gallery. How there is some interesting cross over in terms of existing within capitalistic society. Also these notions of collecting. I think Sonny talked about those ideas about wealth and I think there is something that’s interesting about the act of collecting that both Sonny and I are, because we sell artwork, we’re also involved in that situation, where people are collecting our work.
It’s an interesting relationship, I would say. We’re exploring that within [this frame of the comic book store.
Finally, I think there’s too many of us to fit into the back room, but the back room, there’s a piece that’s amazing and we’ll just talk about it.
Sonny Assu: It’s mine. [laughter]
Brendan Tang: It’s a piece that I did, it’s called Punching Clouds. It is musing off of ideas, of childhood ideas about wealth generating, again within the context of the comic book. So there is a white cloud that’s been broken and is spilling out gold coins. Punching clouds is a reference to Super Mario Brothers, where you would spend your time punching clouds to get coins.
Then on top of that is all these cardboard boxes, and they’re called long boxes. Those are the boxes that you would store your comic books in. Thinking about, as a child, when I collected comic books, there was not only the joy of the comic books and story within it, but there was the joy of collecting something and being part of something like that. Then there was this idea that you were investing in your future, which was false.
But it was the first time as a child, thinking of having monetary agency. When you get a chance to get back there. I was going to say, we’re going to hand out a piece of paper and you’re going to draw what I just described. See if we’re right or wrong.
That’s what happened back there. Please go check it out. I feel like we could talk about the show. There’s just so much minutiae. There’s this whole cabinet here that has a lot of things that are going on in it. I think I’d like you guys to explore the show. Does anybody … Laura’s got questions.
Laura Schneider: Laura always has questions. I’m just wondering, because most of the things in that cabinet, I think are if not fairly self-explanatory, there’s an entry point. What might not read as clearly for folks I think are the copper backboards. Sonny, if you could just talk about that for folks.
Sonny Assu: Yeah. The backing boards are what you would have in the comic saver long box. You’d take your comic book, put it in a clear plastic bag, put the cardboard backing in there and put a taped lid on there and leave it there. I made them copper, again, to symbolize that wealth. The wealth that would be generated and talked about through the potlatch system. There’s 42 of them, again, to talk about that notion …
I think that’s about it. If anyone else has any questions, feel free to ask.
Audience: How old are you now?
Brendan Tang: I am 43 and three quarters.
Sonny Assu: I’m younger than you. 43 and a half.
Brendan Tang: Oh wow. I should have answered it in months.
Sonny Assu: 866 months.
Brendan Tang: We hope you enjoy your evening. We’ll be around so you can ask us some questions. Laura is here, who is the curator. So I’m sure she has some trauma to talk through. Please…
Laura Schneider: Free therapy.
Sonny Assu: Please feel free to approach us if you have any questions at all. Again, thank you. Thank you for attending.