Mark Tan Art: Printing Memories


Mark Tan Art: Printing Memories

Words and Photos By Adam Jeffery

HOM Art Trans & Cetak Kolektif

I had recently been invited by a contemporary Malaysia-based artist to an exhibition that he and a few others are showcasing at HOM Art Trans located somewhere in Ampang, Malaysia. The exhibition, TP II, short for Trial Proof, a printmaking term referring to the “draft” that a print maker makes to check or alter, if needed, the details of his work before a limited number of editions are printed. Eight young printmakers and artists showcase their various printing styles in TP II and are also the actors in Cetak Kolektif, a collection created to bring together artists interested in the art of conventional & traditional print making and meshing their unique styles into the 21st century. These prints and the artists behind them are truly exceptional individuals bringing a youthful invigoration in the Malaysian art scene…as observed by an art newbie (who has worked in an art gallery - so I do have some idea of what I’m babbling about)!

How was I invited to such a grand exhibit you ask? Well, what can I say, once you've tasted La Vie Umami, no other blog can ever satiate your hunger for witty writing full of brilliant photos, a handsome young blogger, and posts full of cynicism. I jest. In truth, if you want the boring story, I know Mark Tan, one of the artists showcased in TPII, when we were high schoolers in ISKL. Mark is also the artist whom I’ve chosen to feature in this post and to kick off La Vie Umami - Culture! Mark, you lucky duck you. Before you scream such things as “bias reviewer” at the top of your lungs (or with the Caps Lock on) it is not simply because I know him that I’m writing about his work but because I truly “see” something in his art…so says my creative eye and “fine art consultant” gut!

Mark Tan and his Prints

Mark Tan's Art is, in many ways, an autobiography of his life. It is an all-encompassing and multi-sensory discourse with his self in search of memories forgotten, or locked away, by the limits of identity, self, and society in general, amongst many others, as well as an observation of the new memories he is continuously making as he live his youthful days in the hipster scenes of Malaysia as well as the adventurer’s life abroad. It is an art that uses the artist’s own life and observations as a reflection of the current status quo reflecting society at large or individuals passing through the annals of time.

Taking a step into the space allotted for his prints, my first thoughts were “Am I friends with a psychopath?” The space before me was a crime scene of a psychopath’s slab where he acts on his vendetta against the eight-legged aquatic creatures, the octopus (or squid). In the centre of the space is his “slab” where black “blood” has soaked into rags of cloth and staining them black; tins, rollers, and sharp things dipped in the blood of his “victims;” and hung on the three walls are his trophies for his enjoyment. The loon of the printing world…Okay…so it’s nothing as grim as I’ve wasted your time reading but it paints a picture of how much black he uses, doesn’t it (well, it’s not like you can’t see the photos).

What do you see? A dog. A cake. A two-headed Italian-American boss who smiles in front of you but backstabs when you’re far enough not to hear what poison leaks out from that fake smile…I have unresolved issues. At first, a viewer may see his work as random with simplistic lines and shapes, a mess of black splotches here and there, ultimately, a chaotic art without meaning but that is far from what they are and what they represent. Let’s go through two of his curated series, Transition and Displacement and my thoughts on them. Nothing technical (not an artist here) but all thought-provoking (I hope)!


The three part work titled Transition is an interesting set of prints that highlights a sense of movement, in its individuality and its entirety when viewed together. It has a sense of change but at the same time, inevitability. The two components of transition, made up of two squares with the thicker square at the forefront and a slightly grainier one in the background, which makes up for Mark’s first piece, Transition I. As the pieces transition from the first to the third, they “move” and the two squares ultimately switch positions. However, despite the fact that by Transition III, the two pieces have essentially switched positions they are not the same as Transition I. For one, the two pieces are now grainier than the first Transition. Why did Mark not create a piece that was similar to the first? Was it merely the result of the print making process?

It is important that we consider the inspiration that goes into his work; everything is very personal to the artist as he depicts the remembrance of his past, the retrieval of his forgotten memories, the connection of past & present, and the inspired future. These are works that take into account the movement of oneself through Time and Space. Both Mark and I are Third Culture Kids (TCK), meaning that both of us have lived in geographies and cultures that differ greatly than the one we were born in. TCK’s tend to go through a lot of “soul searching” in an attempt to find themselves (who are we? Where is home? Are lifelong friendships possible?). Even if you are not a TCK the search for identity and purpose is one that every single individual will go through (such is the nature of living in modernity with freedom and possibilities). If we consider this search and the inevitability of change (on a psychological, sociological, and even biological level, every single individual changes with each passing second) then I believe that what makes these pieces interesting is not only the sense of movement but it highlights this one aspect of change; will I continuously lose myself tomorrow?

Perhaps loss of self may not have been the point that the artist had wanted to highlight but it begs the question. With the passage of time, we (the squares) become porous from the experiences we’ve lived in the present, after all, we are not monoliths that can withstand the test of time. What do we do then with this inevitable loss of memories and even our selves? Should we remain porous and cling to the past, forever searching but never quite attaining the same parts of who we once were? Should we merely forget those pieces and fill ourselves with the present? Or, should we, like Mark, try to reconnect with our Past selves and mesh them together with present experiences? I, for one, would rather go with the latter. I am a man who loves and respect Creativity and being such I believe that the notion of “creating something new” is not something that we come upon by chance (though that may be possible) but by the remembrance of past experiences with the acquisition of new knowledge (like going to an art gallery and telling the pieces your life’s story while everyone stare at you weirdly).


The title of the two pieces intrigued me as they are set in a work that appears to be “chaotic” in which he names them Displacement. Perhaps by nature of the title of these works and the use of images of his surrounding (which I assumed to be parts of buildings from the lines and shapes I see) Mark has used these objects floating in an empty black space like remnants of a planet destroyed by some galactic being to suggest that they once had their own place in space and time. What is the difference between Displacement I and Displacement II? Absolutely nothing! That’s what my brain might have screamed if I hadn’t immersed myself in all this black at his exhibit. Well, the differences aren’t that subtle since you can clearly see that the composition, and perhaps the depicted images, are not the same (and is it me or do I feel it to be more orderly in Displacement II?).

Similar to the Transition pieces if we take a gander at these prints with the idea of rediscovering forgotten memories then the images can be easily interpreted as “memories” which floats in our mind. It’s a funny thing for me to call them “afloat” when they could easily be attached to a position in that particular space on the paper. So why “afloat?” I think the answer lies in the title itself, Displacement, which give the viewers a sense of detachment. These objects in the dark ink of his prints are not attached to any particular anchor, thus, they float. Displacement II, on the other hand, has a greater sense of congruity than the first which I believe is partly thanks to the creation of straight lines formed by the arrangement of the images.

As we transit through key, and everyday, moments in our life we are constantly being displaced, be it physically, spiritually, or psychologically. The composition of both pieces suggests to me that we may go through life without ever finding a “place” but with the right stimuli from ourselves and the external environment it is possible to make sense of our memories and current experiences into something “relevant” or “coherent.” I’ve been displaced so many times in my life as I move from one country to another that the idea of being anchored into one place is somewhat foreign to me (and I’m not looking to be anchored to any person, place, or time…not yet anyway).

An Artist & Curator

Before I give my final remarks on Mark and his artwork let me just say that Mark Tan is not only a brilliant artist but a thorough curator. In the space allotted to him at HOM Art Trans he sets the stage by having his workspace at the centre of his artwork. On this table he has placed a number of prints, a plate which he has etched some kind of artwork on, pieces of white cloth (dyed black), a mysterious tin (with black goo all over it to add a little character like a good pair of worn out leather boots), and a couple tools of the trade. What’s the point of all this? I couldn’t speak with him directly but there may have been two purposes: firstly, to educate his viewers on the process of his printmaking (such was the purpose of the Cetak Kolektif) and secondly, to further develop the viewers into his artwork. Mark Tan’s work incorporates himself in every piece that is produced from his black-stained hands and you can see that from this worktable he has brought as part of his installation. There is a deeper connection with the artwork on these walls despite the artist not being there (and perhaps it was good that he wasn’t present to interject his life into my viewing).

Speaking of artwork hanging on walls, the entire gallery is filled with artwork hung in various ways and some are framed while others are left naked. Mark has curated his artwork to be, for the most part, “naked” except for his Entity series which were framed. I found that, going along with the concept of “a personal journey with Mark Tan,” the lack of a barrier between the artwork and the viewer has enhanced the relationship between the two.

Mark Tan Art and the artist behind the studio, Mark Tan, has produced marvelous prints (with which superb techniques and masterful skills… though brilliant they may be… are lost on me) that speaks volume with minimal noise. Mark envelops the viewer into a world of black and bringing us deep into a dark rabbit hole that prods and pokes into the viewer’s mind, memories, and experiences. While Mark has used his own experiences as medium for his creativity to paint the papers black with memories of Old, Present joy, and thoughts of the Future he doesn’t give us a narrative of what they necessarily meant for him. I could have interpreted the entire pieces falsely but therein lies the beauty of his abstracts. Depending on the person and their experiences in the gallery and beforehand (in combination with how Mark curates his work) the meaning and symbols may change. These pieces may have very well been a picture of a monkey (hey I’m in South East Asia…Monkeys are the new dogs) if you squint hard enough. What do you see?

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