Staten Island, NYSnug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden
March 2 – December 29, 2019
Heal the Man in Order to Heal the Land breaks from Tattfoo Tan’s past focus on environmental consciousness. Here mental health and self-awareness supersede environment, indicating a new avenue in his exploration of ecological activism. Interlinking networks are the basis of ecological inquiry, yet eco-artists very rarely focus on one fundamental link in the ecological chain: interior well-being. Tan posits that individual health must be attained before we can heal the environment.
One enters the long and cavernous main hall of the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art where Tattfoo Tan has mirrored its length with two enormous rectangular banners. Combining hand drawn text and image, the first reads: “LOVE YOURSELF,” “LOVE THE WORLD” or “LOVE ANOTHER.” Then in bold black letters the banner on the right asks, “WHICH LEVEL OF CONSCIOUSNESS ARE YOU AT?” Despite these strong statements, the text is dominated by the responsive shape of the banners floating in space like twin architectural blueprints. Thus, the viewers’ attention flickers between the meaning of the text and the experience of the installation’s environment.
Three galleries branch out from this main hall. A room to the right of the entrance serves as an introductory gallery with a three-part mirror piece, low hung redacted birthday cards, a vintage typewriter, and a variety of empty vessels. Continuing up the hall, one enters a room focused on sacred space—no shoes allowed—featuring a crinkled gold thermal blanket, hung on the wall as the backdrop to an altar. Minimalist and sparse, it is a space for focusing the visitor’s mind, a respite from the maximalist chaos of everyday life. Smaller installations beside the golden blanket teach viewers how to make a gratitude jar or a portable altar.
A set of tiny rectangular window gels that act like stained glass from a distance allow a beautiful color-study-stripe to appear on the gallery floor, flanked by two bars of blank sunlight. Upon approaching this window beside the altar, the clipboard wall text to the left includes the title Fulfilling Or Foolfilling. This play on words undermines the magic of the light piece but drives home Tan’s point—the maximalist color study is a modern distraction from seeing the whole light. The text of the clipboard reads:
Everyone wants an amazing life, a colorful life. Sometimes experiences make us unaware of the true nature of life, the true purpose of life. The true color of light is white, these filters make it colorful. See the light as it is.
Directly across from this room focused on sacred encounters is the third and final gallery featuring the New Earth Resiliency Oracle Cards (NEROC) (2016). Sigil ceiling banners and a workbench encourage Tan’s audience to draw and build their own deck of oracle cards as part of NEROC. A network of visitor-generated oracle drawings accumulate on the wall over the course of the exhibition.
All three galleries are unified by clipboards with graph paper that display the titles of each installation as well as quotes, instructions, or the artist’s thoughts. Tattfoo Tan’s intentions are specified by this instructional text. The physical objects are “speaking objects” that tell the audience what they are and how they function through the wall text. Throughout, it is his presence whether through selected texts or his appearance in the gallery which frames, directs, and choreographs the visitor’s experience. In fact, his presence as a facilitator, instructor, or guide radically alters the exhibition. During my time at Snug Harbor I was staring rather blankly at a work entitled Who We Are: a cluster of empty cups, jars, jugs, and buckets that lie like a constellation on the floor. My mind was preoccupied by the accompanying text attached to a clipboard:
… the form and shape of these vessels are different, yet all of the space within is the same. That space is not empty but connected. In parallel, we are all made for a different purpose. We might have individual thinking and preferences, yet our actions affect each other. Collectively we are a single consciousness.
Tan entered the gallery and caught me staring at the vessels. He walked to them, squatted down, thrust his index finger into one and swirled it around like a pendulum. He did this five more times and then turned and said very simply “these are not lonely, empty vessels. They each are filled with space and are connected by the space they hold around them, like we are connected by the environment around us.”
Walking through the exhibition alone is a compelling but confusing experience. The text and prompts in the gallery prepared me, but ultimately, his personal emphasis on the link between interior individual experience and shared environment and conditions was necessary for understanding how this installation—focused on singular beings—was related to healing the land.
In comparison to the insular field of contemporary ecological social practice artists like the Futurefarmers collective, this work of Tan's complicates his classification as an eco-artist. Heal the Man in Order to Heal the Land reverses the traditional subject-object relation, proposing it is only through self-awareness that the environment can become a personal discovery and concern. In this new territory, he still utilizes many of the frameworks associated with eco-art—an emphasis on design, collaborative work, natural materials, and informational texts—but attempts to convert them to a new branch of inquiry. Thus, this work is not directly about the environment or about aesthetics, material making, or community. It is about shifting individual focus from the exterior world to interior experience. Presenting as perhaps too solipsistic in this early iteration, the interior turn is nonetheless an exciting expansion of Tan’s previous work.