MESH
Laurens Tan's Octogene
Laurens Tan represents the new breed of digital artists who happen to be based in Australia but who think and work globally. His clients range from multinational corporations to local community councils; art museums to Internet cyberparlours. Tan lives his actual life in six virtual places at once, crossing international date lines via modem, mobile phone and fax. He says that it's a real drag having to haul his physical body around in a car all day and night from university to home, from this meeting to that interface. Always in between states of being - on the road like a rock band (or rather surfing safari) that never stops touring - Tan's analog self gets mixed up with his digital demands. Along with other digital wave-chasing artists, he is everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.

Artists such as Laurens Tan operate in the post-industrial era of increasing obsolescence and imminent arrivals of new models, versions, upgrades and downloads. Theirs is an era that yearns for endings and becomings that are already past, or never over. The aesthetic rhetoric of the last decade, where advertising has ruled the image waves, is one long home delivery of deep fried quotations ('in 90 seconds or your money back!'), recycled mythologies and reconstituted histories. Artists and audiences alike have become quiz show geniuses at picking differences between the art marketing genres and isms of the 20th century. From kitsch Koons souvenirs in the high Rococo style to post-Marxist/ post-Freudian/ post-semiotic Kruger slogans with aditude, today's artists are media savvy. Laurens Tan is no exception: he recognises that his art works are commodities that depend as much on external market forces, media agendas and cultural currency futures as they do on any Modernist aesthetic notions of internal formalities at play. The singular art work is dead, long live the multimedia image/sound/text/T-shirt/logo. The merchandising exists before the object. The venue is virtual before it is actual. The artist is a media construction, an event born from an advertising strategy rather than a garret loft.

Not content with exhibiting solely in gallery spaces, or focusing purely on metacritical aesthetic issues for art's sake alone, Tan works across traditional boundaries of media and creative practice. Official funding discourse would now place him in the hybrid arts slot, but this would be too narrow. Tan is concerned with drawing together and re-working industrial design and cultural media fields as disparate as tourism havens, gambling casinos, funeral parlours, entertainment arcades, high art theatres and Internet virtual shopping malls. Tan is an art director in the strict sense: he both designs and coordinates the funding, manufacturing, installation and distribution/publicity of major public sculptural objects that both fascinate and challenge the viewer's sensibilities and assumptions.

Tan's recent work, Octogene, is an imposing digital video sculpture installation mounted in the foyer of Sydney's Capitol Theatre. Its body of shiny galvanised steel houses eight porthole video windows and a large central projection screen. Combining flybys, walk throughs and moonscans of real and fantastic landscapes, Octogene is populated by even more incredible life forms.

As the throng enters the theatre a few people notice a crustaceous form of pulsating electronic organs that has somehow attached itself to the wall just above their heads. They take with them into the theatre an image of this carnivalesque memento of nostalgic fascinations. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but then again, as Arthur C. Clark once quipped, the future ain't what it used to be either. Retro-futurist fantasies of cars look like Cold War rockets and televisions built like aircraft carriers rise up before one's eyes. The title Octogene comes from the H.G. Wells story In the Days of the Comets, provoking a link to the sublime relationship between technology and art. In Wells' day this relationship was mechanical and utopian. Now it is electronic and often dystopic. Tan highlights current dependencies on digital micro-narratives, snapshots and loop-dreams that form the virtual menu of our own futurist addictions.

The 1960s Jurassic technology (in keeping with this year's Biennale theme) of the shell-like carapace of screwed sheet metal panels looks as fragile as a cicada compared to the latest post-Gulf War stealth bomber's seamless black carbon fibre body. Silence, invisibility and precision have replaced horsepower, rumble and showy speed as desirable attributes of not only military technology, but also of economics, games of chance and even the aesthetics of science and art.

When any new technology blasts onto the market it initially mediates its radical ability to construct new languages and images by stroking old cultural icons. Old 1960s TV sci-fi shows such as Lost in Space, The Jetsons and The Thunderbirds look jokingly clunky, even naive, in their adherence to social, moral and political values that read as hopelessly rigid at worst or as dumbly innocent at their analogue best. Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and biomorphing viral Aliens all exploit the metaphorical laws of simulation and inversion. Tan cleverly marks out the aesthetic and political mythologies at work in nostalgia dressed up as innovation.

Tan marries these popular cinematic and TV forms with the logic of shopping mall information kiosks, casino poker machines and domestic interactive games such as closed circuit Nintendo or open ended Net-based sites. The virtual technology of Tan's work peeps out of its hermit shell, belying its true nature - that of infinite mutability. The secure vision of the decorative ornamental facade from the past (the post-modern motive par excellence) cushions the blow for the milder at heart. Tan's Octogene revitalises the traditional wall-mounted sculptural form by literally pumping new electronic energy into dumb base materials while sparking associations to past experiments in technologically inspired art.

Octogene reminded me of the wonderfully unwearable costumes of Oskar Schlemmer's mechanical Triadic Ballet from the 1920s Bauhaus - a philosophy embedded in the hydraulic and thermodynamic relationship of body to space. Then I was transported to the plastic snow dome worlds of Lost in Space and The Jetsons, worlds which testified to Cold War atomic economies of material progress, rupturing Christian family values in the face of increasing teenage alienation and counter-cultural politics. Tan, in turn, delivers us fresh millennial metaphors for our digital gambling habits with an ecology of the mind that perversely winces at the disappearance of seahorses from our coral reefs while revelling in the pleasures of surfing the Net.

Kurt Brereton

MESH film/video/multimedia/art #10,MESH is the journal of Experimenta Media Arts