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Visual Arts

Insights: Grace Tan

Explorations in quantum physics, symmetry, geometry and four dimension space


Published: 10 Nov 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Dimensions draws inspiration from the study of the existence and characteristics of naturally occurring particles like atoms, photons and electrons in the field of quantum physics. Tan engages with various materials to investigate notions of symmetry and geometry found in nature. The works surface the inherent qualities of these materials, allowing their natural forms and inclinations to emerge.

Foreground: <i>Deconstructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 8 Cubes</i>, Grace Tan, 2023. Background: <i>Constructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 16 Vertices and 32 Edges</i>, Grace Tan, 2023.

Tan investigates how a four-dimensional object could be deconstructed and constructed in a three-dimensional world by referencing a tesseract’s properties in a body of works. Constructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 16 Vertices and 32 Edges is a suspended structure comprising 16 neodymium magnet vertices and 32 steel rod edges. United by magnetic forces, the arrangement coheres into a single entity. Based on the tesseract configuration, Deconstructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 8 Cubes endeavours to extract the eight overlapping cubes within the suspended structure. This body of works investigates the recalibration and tensions that arise when translating from one realm of existence to another.

Installation view of <i>Dimensions</i>, Grace Tan, 2023.

Displayed on a structure of tiered pedestals are works created out of plastic tag pins or cable ties, informed by the study and making of specimens. A break in the symmetry of each work results in a change in its pattern and form. Studies in Symmetry and Deletions endeavour to investigate and experiment with forms using a standardised material and systems of symmetry and geometry. Studies in Knotted Structures is created by linking cable tie loops using methods inspired by knotting and chainmail techniques. They explore the impact of incremental change on foundational building units and the corresponding effect on structural forms.

From left to right: <i>Purple Tubular Structure</i>, [25 x 9] x 13, <i>Pink Lattice Structure</i>, 10 x 10 x 35, <i>Blue Sheet Structure</i>, 15 x 1 x 234, Grace Tan, 2023.

Tan draws upon ideas of dimensionality in material science and quantum physics for Pink Lattice Structure: 10 x 10 x 35, Blue Mesh Structure: 15 x 1 x 208 and Purple Tubular Structure: [25 x 9] x 13. The artist uses a single-looped plastic cable tie as a base structure. This cable tie loop is then repeatedly linked to create various compositional configurations and patterns.

Central to this exhibition are the artist’s experimentations with forms and systems of construction and explorations of different realms of knowledge and understanding. Dimensions surfaces and explores the tensions between the natural and the engineered, order and deviation, and transitions between the micro and macro.

You recently had an artist residency at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT), organised by the NUS Museum. Could you share on what you explored during this residency, and how it informed or shaped the development of 'Dimensions'?

The residency totally changed my perception of quantum physics. José Ignacio Latorre, the director of CQT said quantum physics is about controlling the individual atom, or matter, down to the individual subatomic particle like an electron or a photon. This is carried out in a controlled environment at almost -273 degrees Celsius where atomic particles stop moving. The changes could be subtle, but it is at this instance that strange phenomena happen. It is impossible to fully comprehend quantum physics, but Latorre revealed the fundamental truth about science, which is about creating from nothing.

During the residency, I met and visited theorists, investigators and laboratories. I realised scientists operate similarly to artists—working with the unknown to explore certain phenomenon. This is the reason why I found some of the things the scientists are exploring to be rather abstract. It is about tirelessly perfecting the process. Materials are as important to scientists as to artists and the ways they work with them are mind-blowing, down to the precision of etching aluminium using photon beams.

Detail of <i>Deconstructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 8 Cubes</i>, Grace Tan, 2023.

I had to rethink my understanding and concepts of materials and structures. One of the exciting things I discovered are two-dimensional materials. In quantum physics, “two-dimensional” materials have the thickness of a single atom. These materials are either natural or created in laboratories. A two-dimensional material behaves differently from a three-dimensional crystal. For example, two-dimensional graphene has different properties from three-dimensional graphite. Ultra-thin two-dimensional materials could be layered or stacked to form lattice structures with unique quantum properties, something scientists look out for because they can manipulate and tune the material to create or simulate certain effects.

I relooked how I work with my usual material, and this became the starting point for the development of Dimensions. I wanted to introduce the concept of dimensions beyond the physical and measurability of things. I was interested to explore the conditions and abstract dimensionality of the materials and works in my practice, and how they emerge, exist and relate to us. I was keen to explore the various dimensions and scales of things. The works were presented in an order that allows viewers to zoom in and out of different ‘dimensions’ as they move through Jendela. Darkening the gallery to create a long dark passage heightens the experience, evoking a journey into a deep space. At the end of Jendela, viewers encounter strange objects suspended mid-air that look curiously like magnified microscopic structures.

'Dimensions' manifests your interest in systems of geometry and symmetry that exist in nature, and in the ways forms are constructed. In this exhibition, how did you endeavour to build upon or push the ways in which you engage with these concepts or methods of making?

Detail of Studies in Symmetry: Nested Specimens and Studies in Symmetry: Polygonal Specimens, Grace Tan, 2019 – 2023.

In the tag pin works, the process of individualisation succinctly articulates the nature or significance of the tag-pin as material and object. Through the processes of removal and reconfiguration, the tag pin is transformed into something unique. By combining different unique parts, a complex object specific to a particular situation could be realised.

A break in symmetry is not a bad thing in nature, because it is how patterns such as sand dunes and certain physical properties like coloured marbles emerge in the natural world. In earlier works created with pleated fabric or layered paper, I worked with the idea of repetition and waited for unusual or unexpected forms to emerge. It was about searching for a balance between the regular and irregular. Any breaks reveal the concept of non-linearity, where a constant condition is disrupted. As I moved towards ready-made industrial materials like tag pins and cable ties, the uniformity and banality of the materials present another set of conditions to explore the balance between monotony and variability.

For the three suspended cable tie works in Dimensions, the notion of irregularity is presented in the form and surface patterning of the structures. Like the concept of a tipping point, the distortion only emerged as more layers were stacked or more parts were added. The final works were distinctively different from their original imagined forms. The form the viewer sees is based on the finite number of parts and their arrangements and it is possible that if the number of parts changes, the form will likely evolve. The eventual form is dependent on the “mechanics” of how the individual parts are connected and work together.

Found materials ranging from plastic cable ties, plastic tag pins to industrial materials like steel rebars and I-beams feature extensively in your practice. What draws you to these materials and what have you uncovered while working with them over the years?

Detail of <i>Pink Lattice Structure</i>, 10 x 10 x 35, Grace Tan, 2023.

Despite the ubiquity of cable ties and tag pins, they are industrial materials just like reinforcement bars, or rebars, and I-beams. They exist as fundamental parts of a larger scheme of things that have been designed, engineered, fabricated and tested to ensure the functioning of our infrastructure and built environments.

The cable tie was a 20th century invention designed to provide a supposed better way to bundle thick electric cables in the aviation industry. While we strive towards a future of clean energy that relies more on electricity, the application and presence of the cable tie become more relevant and pronounced. The tag pin was designed for tagging and identifying commodities to facilitate tracking and management. While the plastics used to make cable ties and tag pins inadvertently presents the negative, environmentally unfriendly aspect of synthetic polymer, it is nonetheless a material humanity cannot do without in this time and place.

Detail of <i>Studies in Knotted Structures</i>, Grace Tan, 2023.

Rebars were engineered for concrete construction. Without them, concrete structures will crumble and fail under tension. In land-scarce Singapore where complicated large-scale constructions are in demand and necessary, I-beams are essential components of such structures, be it above or under-ground. The need for rebars and I-beams reveals the extent of human’s conquest of nature as we inch further and deeper into nature.

Detail of <i>Constructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 16 Vertices and 32 Edges</i>, Grace Tan, 2023.

Regardless of their scale, make-up and application, these industrial materials are equally banal yet potent. They are the materials of our generation, revealing the conditions of our world through their pervasive presence. I am drawn to them for how basic and utilitarian they are. They are almost unseen and lack aesthetic and style. Instead of working with them to achieve a certain formal quality or arrangement, I work with them just as they were, as building blocks of a system. I focus on the potential of their inherent design and properties: what could they become, how to construct with them, how do they come together? They reveal another dimension of their existence as “naturalised” materials. While nature is progressively denatured, engineered materials are becoming naturalised. The line between the two realms is gradually overlapping and becoming blurred.

In earlier works, you explored natural states of repose and the tension between order and disorder in materials like powdered pigments and dust from natural stones. Could you elaborate on how your engagement with materials has evolved in this exhibition?

The works in this show are in the same trajectory as most of my past works, which is about the exploration of materials and how to work with them. A large part of the material exploration focused on the material’s existence and relationship with humanity, allowing me to question and perhaps challenge its intrinsic qualities and values. The format of the material informs my approach in working with them. In recent years, I am drawn to materials that are “formless,” that have not been intentionally shaped or processed like the powdered and unworked form of Carrara marble. I also work with materials in other contexts beyond their intended applications such as using loose pigment as a sculpting medium.

<i>n. 365 – two slabs and a mound on a plinth</i>, Grace Tan, 2021.

These works require an equilibrium where different opposing forces work together in balance to hold the parts together. This is how a granular pile of loose Carrara marble dust could stay in shape without the use of any secondary adhesion or support. This condition is not permanent as any disruption creates an imbalance that causes the structure to give way and collapse. The essence or beauty of the work lies in its precarity, a quality that is stable but at the same time impermanent. This presents a new way to engage with and appreciate sculptural works because we are used to perceiving them as works that last perpetually.

<i>Constructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 16 Vertices and 32 Edges</i>, Grace Tan, 2023.

Constructing a Tesseract in Three Dimensions: 16 Vertices and 32 Edges was initially conceived as a large two-part sculptural work. However, I realised it was impossible for a tesseract to exist in our real world and instead focused on “simulating” the tesseract as a three-dimensional construction. The crux lies in how to present the 16 vertices and 32 edges. By not connecting these parts permanently, the essence of the tesseract was preserved. At the same time, the neodymium magnets and steel rebars exerted and revealed their physical materiality by holding the parts together without secondary appendages. While the magnetic force is strong enough to hold the structures together, it is nonetheless an impermanent binding force, and any external forces will cause the structures to come apart, deform and even collapse. I found this condition intrinsically relevant to the exhibition, whereby the impermanence and perilousness reveal the states of things and their interrelatedness.

Dimensions by Grace Tan was on view at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 13 Jan – 14 May 2023.

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