Reviewing The First Review I Ever Wrote: Ru Yi Tan’s “Returned - The Stars Seem So Different”
Review by Lim Jack Kin

“To the layman, there exists an impenetrable aura surrounding contemporary art...” Who wrote this nonsense? Oh wait, I did, five years ago.

In early 2016, I was 20 years old and interning at an art gallery. It was a nostalgic time, full of unpaid labour, ex-girlfriends, new discoveries, and a plastic alien fungus that covered the gallery space, floor-to-ceiling. This is the story of that intern, that time, and the incredible artist who left her mark on that gallery just before I arrived.

My fellow mentees, Farah Dianputri and Ellen Lee, have already written about the pitfalls of unpaid internships, their soul-sapping effects, the structural injustices they recreate. I’ll add my voice to theirs: I should have been paid. Not just for the work I did, but for the hours I spent sitting around, wanting to work but with nothing to do except keep up the pretense of being busy. It was exhausting. After my first few days on the job, my director left for New York Fashion Week, and for three weeks my day-to-day routine was exactly the same: open the doors, keep things clean, write a profile on an artist or organization for my employer, and sit in silence, entertaining the few visitors that popped by. Amidst all that boredom and isolation I was tasked with writing a review of the exhibition we were hosting, Tan Ru Yi’s Returned — The Stars Seem So Different. It was a remarkable subject; I had essentially been living inside of it the last few weeks.

Shortly before I started working there, Tan had completed a residency at the gallery. Having lived in Japan since 2000, she mainly works with found materials—plastic laundry clips, baskets, cardboard, magazine cutouts, and other oft-discarded objects—and in 2016, she came back to Malaysia with boxes and boxes full of those things. She ran a series of participatory workshops, inviting people to build intricate structures using a type of vivid, brightly coloured clothespin common in Japan. They were called Grow. Combined with a number of collages on grey board, they formed the complete exhibit.

The building’s garden, its balcony, even the top of a wind chimney over 100 feet up a ladder all had a Grow installation on them. Once, I was so dreadfully bored that I decided to check out the chimney piece in person. I’m not the most agile guy, and heights make me woozy—in retrospect I was probably a sweaty palm away from serious injury—but the photo was worth it. (The boredom would eventually drive me to make the climb three more times that month).

Tan Ru Yi’s ‘Grow’ series transformed the entire compound, from garden to balcony. Image taken from artist’s website

This photo from five years ago was dangerous, but worth it

“To the layman, there exists an impenetrable aura surrounding contemporary art, a dense fog that grows with every false exclamation that it can only be enjoyed by the rich, the educated, or the pretentious. Ru Yi Tan blows that fog away, leaving behind something that can be appreciated by all.”

Reading this again five years later, I can’t help but chuckle. I had never been to an art exhibit before. I didn’t know any artists. I boldly proclaimed that the art world was pompous and elitist based purely on vague stereotypes and preconceived notions bouncing around in my head. I remember one day, a visitor was staring at one of Tan’s collages (it may have been Under the Sea, pictured below). She contemplated the fine pencil work, the arrangement of cut-outs and strings and small rocks all glued to the board to form surreal, imaginative landscapes and figures.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, “But… I feel like my daughter could do this.”

“Ahh,” I replied. “But she didn’t.”

I think about that moment and I cringe so much, but I laugh, too. That feeling of sinking my teeth into all the pretentious trappings of what I thought to be art criticism was so delicious. It almost made up for the fact that I was being paid zero ringgit and zero sen an hour to do this.

Under the Sea. Cut-outs, sewing threads, pencil, found objects on grey board. Image taken from Shalini Ganendra Fine Art website

In my original review, I said: "Each one of these pieces encourages the viewer to re-examine everyday objects.” An ironic statement. At the time, I never stopped to consider Tan’s process or her materials. I thought, plastic bags, old stationery, and simply assumed that these objects were, in fact, commonplace. I was wrong.

To prepare for this article, I emailed Tan (who I suspect was rather surprised) and asked for an interview. She started our call by showing me around her studio, talking about how she sourced the objects she used.

“I collect ‘Japan trash’,” she chuckled. Tan explained how Japanese supermarkets would give away used, high-quality cardboard for free. “And very clean and neat. It’s not like in Malaysia.” She showed me the ‘souvenir magazines’ those supermarkets passed out, showing off seasonal produce. I asked if they were like the catalogues we get here, where you cut out coupons to redeem discounts. “Yeah, but their quality is very high. Not like in Malaysia,” she repeated.

As she talked about her history in Japan, always feeling like a foreigner, always surprised at how different everything was, I began to truly understand The Stars Seem So Different. It wasn’t trying to reconsider common objects, it was importing something brand new and alien into Malaysia. Something from a completely different place; a ‘developed’ country whose history and culture has tangled with ours and yet remains unfamiliar.

The colours they used, the sturdiness of their disposables, all of it contributed to a feeling that these things came from an alternate universe. So why not build an alternate universe with them? One where rib roast photos can be stuck together to form Meteor, fishing nets can be the head of a squid in The onion dropped into sea, where bright, multi-coloured plastic clothespins and laundry baskets can be an organic, pulsating garden fixture. And Tan, who lives astride two worlds—despite having lived in Japan for over 20 years, marrying and starting a family, she says “I consider myself… ‘Art Residency In Japan’ for the whole period!”—is the perfect person to transport us between them.

It’s funny. In emphasizing the “everyday” nature of the objects, I wasn’t doing any reconsidering at all, but time and age has given me a new perspective. I closed out my original review like this:

“Precariously balanced on that thin line separating “boy” and “young man”, I am not old, by any means. Even so, Returned — The Stars Seem So Different makes me intensely nostalgic [...]. It evokes a childlike sense of wonder, the kind one feels as a seven-year-old, alone in the house with nothing but time, a bunch of household objects, and a very active imagination.”

A lot has changed. At 25, I feel like much more of a boy now than ever I did at 20. But Returned — The Stars Seem So Different still makes me intensely nostalgic, though now for different reasons. I no longer think the art world is elitist or exclusionary—I know it is, or at least can often be, though art itself is supremely humbling. And after all this time I’m happy to say that my critique is getting more informed, or at least less pretentious with every passing day.

While this exhibit has long passed, I highly recommend you find an opportunity to revisit art that was important to you years ago. It’s remarkable how much stepping into an old exhibit as a new person feels like stepping into a new exhibit.

As for Tan herself, what has she been up to in 2021? Quite a bit. As we were wrapping up our chat, she showed me a piece she was working on earlier this year for a COVID-themed group exhibition called The Living Air. Resembling a coronavirus particle, it was made with scrap cotton taken from plush toys and tiny nails. Take a look.

Thankfully, some things don’t change, and the compelling, marvelous nature of Tan Ru Yi’s work is one of them.

A catalogue of Returned — The Stars Seem So Different can be found here. The artist’s website also has a page covering the exhibit, available here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Lim Jack Kin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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