What does it mean to transcribe a work from one medium to another? Is the result a kind of translation, a form of documentation, a new piece of art, or all three? In a fascinating range of media—painting, video, found objects, weaving, and sound—Manila-based artist Gerardo Tan investigates these questions through three different projects presented in his solo exhibition Hablon Redux and Other Transcriptions at Random Parts.
The idea of Tan’s work as transcription is elucidated by art historian Lisa Ito in her essay “Rewriting Materiality” that accompanies the exhibition. Sadly, Ito’s solemn text fails to communicate the irresistible low-tech madcap charm that pervades the artist’s objects and ideas, such as his Turntable Paintings. To make them, Tan puts an LP record (from the labels, they are clearly thrift store finds) on a modest record player, setting its needle into the disc’s groove to play. A paintbrush attached to the playing arm lightly touches the black surface, dragging through the drips and narrow pools of liquid acrylic that the artist then squeezes onto the moving record, in various vivid hues. Astonishingly, as the needle passes through these gaudy wet circles of pink or blue, the music continues—though it is, as Tan admits, the last time that the record will be playable. The wall of paint-altered records displayed in the gallery suggests both a new version of their lost sounds and a MacGyver-esque reconfiguration of the ways that so-called spin art has been made intermittently since the 1960s.
In Fade to Black (2016), a continuous line of smallish rectangles—each all but covered with horizontal stripes of black paint—is installed very low across one of the gallery’s walls. The line continues past the corner, as if an infinite number of these objects could exist. Like with the altered records, Tan describes this as an ongoing project. Each painting was created by dipping a video camera’s lens into black oil paint and dragging it across the surface of a mirror in successive bands, leaving only tiny bits of the reflective surface exposed. A monitor—its back to the room—has been placed a few inches from an unpainted mirror the same size as the others, inserted in the line. On the monitor’s screen, a video plays; seen only through its reflection, the video shows the painting process as captured through the same paint-smeared lens that Tan used to make the thick stripes. The brush that obscures reflection thus becomes the eye, over and over. Each painting is the same, yet is also unique, like the vinyl discs hanging on the opposite wall. The title of the piece may provide other clues: “Fade to black” is a stage lighting direction, describing a change in light level to complete darkness. In a sense, Tan’s piece transcribes this direction into actual form.
The third project of transformation or transcription of mediums, Hablon Redux (2016), is the most ambitious. A monitor sits on the floor, playing a video loop of a woman weaving in a dimly lit workshop, rapidly passing her shuttle back and forth and pumping her feet on the loom’s treadles. She is a hablon textile weaver from the Indag-an Primary Multipurpose Cooperative in Miag-ao, Iloilo. In conversation, Tan noted that traditional weaving practices like the one pictured are endangered in the Philippines, as younger generations of women find better paying work. In the video, the repetitive thump of the shuttle, combined with a shadowy flicker of ambient street noise, creates a soothing and hypnotic effect. Tan took a recording of this landscape of sound to Filipino musicologist Dr. Felicidad Prudente, who diagrammed it into musical notation. Completing the circle, Tan sent this notation to the hablon weavers, who made a version of its jagged black-and-white lines on a loom. The resulting textile hangs on the wall behind the monitor—a modernist-looking pattern of triangles and lines.
Tan describes this complicated, multistep, and multilayered process as a collaboration with Prudente and the weaving cooperative. He plans to try again; the communication with the weaver did not result in exactly what he hoped for. By facing outwards and addressing issues of craft and production, social change, and support, Hablon Redux steps outside of the art world apples-to-apples translations of the other two projects here. In addition to asking us to think about postmodernist issues of painting, perception, authorship, and the like, Hablon Redux asks what art can do to make existing traditions and practices more visible, through a process that goes beyond interpretation into inspired invention.
Hablon Redux and Other Transcriptions is on view at Random Parts in Oakland, CA, through October 22, 2016.