Installation image of the exhibition.

JJ Chan: What do we know (anyway)?

Courtesy of the artists and Bloc Projects.

Traces of a temporary tattoo. Made from fragments of iridescent vinyl, stuck onto the wall. Shining. Reflecting in ultraviolet colours. Like an emerging fingerprint coming into view. We can add our own traces if we like. Look closer. Concentrate. There are words in there. They are camouflaged, like the four pairs of eyes looking at you from the installation to the left: planted in metallic bark. Look closer. Let your gaze play. Right there. Staring at you. At last, the letters are in view:

‘Forever Undermining the prevailing Now’

Installation wall painting with words 'Forever Underminging the prevailing Now' in blue and pink. Two metal mask sculptures wall mounted to the left.
Kate Davis and JJ Chan, ‘F.U.N. (Forever Undermining the prevailing Now)’; Left: David Snoo Wilson, ‘Being Looked Upon’ (Sculptures).

The artwork-statement is set apart from the other works, giving it authority as a connecting thread to all that we see. The statement acts as a command. Forget what we know and what we have learned. Reset and recalibrate.

A collection of 73 works[1] has been crammed into this ‘exhibition’, spanning the period JJ Chan has encountered them, whether as a student, undergraduate, postgraduate or tutor. A cacophony of film, text, textile works, sculptures, photographs and protest statements envelop the viewer. Within our systems of learning and formal education, everything is simultaneously significant and insignificant. Everywhere you look, there is an irregularity, a displacement, an idea of collapsing, melting, submerging. From the bright neon Perspex question marks, perched on the windowsill, punctuated with pictures of bodies that are still, asleep or coded in dead words, ‘…your lips turned blue’ appears in white lettering, tufted in a wall-hanging, and ‘ashes to ashes’ positioned over the pastel coloured clouds by Sarah Staton: all this in the entrance foyer. And quietly, rolled up in the corner, is a canvas considered too graphic and disturbing in a public display to confront the viewer directly. Instead, the viewer is invited to a private unrolling. A problematic curatorial intervention which perhaps does not necessarily ‘undermine the prevailing now’, but instead capitulates to laws, regulations and unwritten codes?

The viewer/ visitor is asked to consider all these works (or as much as you can take in) which are in constant, chattering conversation. For example, as one walks clockwise around the room, the temporary tattoo is talking to the sprawling murky green, fabric tentacles, pinned to a pyramid point in the corner, outlining the letter ‘A’. This then speaks to the A-shaped gesture formed by the person’s hands in a photograph, alongside the rutilated greenish stone next to it. Labradorite, I think? Even one of the A-frame structures in the main exhibition space has had an intervention. For there, perched on its ledge, is an open, half-turned, bright red lipstick. War paint. Teetering like a torpedo, ready to drop at any moment.

framed print hanging in foreground; lipstick on rafter beam; textile work hanging on wall in background.
David Moore and Kate Davis, ‘Satellite (Intallation); Eleanor McLean, ‘Protect the Daydreamer’ (Textile).

And then of course, there is the babbling brook. An etching by Chan’s high school art teacher which captures a gushing moment of water, swishing across moss and stones. The artist asks us to consider the entity of water as a type of methodology for undoing what we know. For if we think about it, we start life as a group of cells, an embryo in an amniotic sac. Then the waters ‘break’ and we are born into a world where we gasp for air. My body, like yours, is made up of about 60% water. Water is a life-giving force that sustains and generates us. It has the power to heal, reform and make new. Yet the equilibrium is fragile. Too much water is deadly; it has the power to drown, submerge and erode. Yet we would never consider water in terms of success or failure so why should we label ourselves as such in our creative endeavours? And you don’t have to be creative in what you make or do, rather it’s in how, what, where, when and why you see what you see, think, dream, feel, taste, touch and experience, all that you know and cannot yet know.

Well, there are some things that we probably do know and that is largely based on what we are taught in educational institutions. This is emphasised by the array of books carefully placed in the centre of the main exhibition hall. The tables have been arranged into an L-shape. The idea of ‘L’ for Learner Driver comes to mind. The viewer is invited to sit at the table and Learn. You are in the driving seat. Read. Absorb. Navigate. For in this society and in many systems of education, the site of knowledge is associated with the book. As if the Learned are contained within and spring forth from them. The pages, the covers, are all carefully positioned to be handled and pored over. Rippling pages make rippling words. I catch glimpses as I flick through a book, ‘…Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky’. I can’t remember the title of the book. It was a fleeting encounter, but I seem to recall the titles Visualising the Invisible and Drawing on the Past.[2]

A table in the centre of the room with printed materials and books.
JJ Chan, ‘What do we know (anyway)?’ (Printed Matter), displayed with Rosie de Selincourt, ‘Make Paper Fly’ (installation)

These textbooks collectively represent an interruption, a state intervention that we cannot avoid. We are all squeezed in and through this system. And notice the prominence of English as the text, a universal language? The dominant language? What was once the language of ‘empire’ and ‘conquest’ has become the language of global business, politics and transactions. Have we allowed this to happen through a process of acquiescence? This is what I consider and ponder as part of a displaced diaspora. What is my power in this system? How can I extricate myself and find my own path?

And then consider the statement ‘performing porosity’. What does this mean? And can this collision of artworks provide an insight? Well, perhaps those are the wrong questions to ask. Afterall, what do we know, anyway? But there is some help at hand in Chan’s published essay, in which they state, ‘To perform porosity then requires us not only to become more porous (receptive) but also to make porous other bodies, to perform a porosity into other agencies in pedagogic exchange. It is to make receptive the bodies that oppress us’.[3] Chan does not have all the answers but instead proposes interventions, breakages, disruptions. As a visitor, we are invited to reclaim our agency by making paper aeroplanes from Chan’s past certificates of achievement. Qualifications are but mere moments in the way we have encountered different ideas and should not be heralded as medals of honour. They are to be deconstructed. If knowledge is power then we must recognise that knowledge does not lie in a book. Knowledge, power and creativity is within all of us.

A wooden framework in foreground with words 'I can't see you can you see me?' on perspex sheet; a painting of a reclined man in jeans and bare torso in background.
Saul Wright, ‘Can you see me?’ (Installation with painting)

In this exhibition, the identity of artists are not given prominence. In fact, most names are written in faint pencil, handwritten on the walls. You would have to stoop and scrutinise the surfaces to see their names. As if to underline this playful irony, two parts to an artwork are deliberately placed to overlap one another. One is a pane of glass, suspended in a wooden frame, reminiscent of a hangman’s noose, painted with black capital letters alerting the viewer to arrange the words so that they read ‘I can’t see you can you see me?’. Behind this is a portrait of a nude male torso, looking out at you, looking for you. In the centre of the back wall is a giant photo of a sliced watermelon. It’s peachy-pink flesh provides a plinth for semi-precious gemstone jewellery of juicy opals, pink coral and amethysts. An advert for mouth-watering jewels. We are confronted by greed, consumption and the underlying profiteering and exploitation of all those institutions which have profited from sugar, turning this sweet picture sour. Above this is a tapestry of a window frame, disrupted in its centre by jagged, red stitches. Trauma. In the top right corner of the same work is an empty chair, sitting in isolation under a cloudy sky. A reminder that the ‘entwined, troublesome and problematic frameworks, leaning on systemic, historic and emerging practices… produce inequalities’.[4]

As you pick your way through the exhibition it’s clear that you are not being invited to consider works on their own but rather the collection as a meandering train of thought, from one idea to the next and so on, like a fast-flowing river. It takes some time to negotiate. Chan, the curator, artist, teacher and alchemist, proposes a methodology. A way of thinking about all that we are and all that we can be. We are creative agents in this world forever moving beyond, within, between, embracing all encounters. Let your creativity flow and continuously ignore the status quo.

JJ Chan is artist-in-residence at Bloc Projects’ inaugural longitudinal residency Blueprints for the Otherwise, from March 2021-March 2022. The residency focuses on ‘critical care’ in the practice of more mutual art commissioning and organisational processes, and includes the exhibition What do we know (anyway) from 10 July to 21 July 2021. For a full list of all the artists in the exhibition and more information, visit the Bloc Projects website.

Uthra Rajgopal is an Independent Curator based in Yorkshire.

With special thanks to JJ Chan and Sunshine Wong. All images courtesy of the artists, JJ Chan and Bloc Projects.

[1] The exhibition includes works by Abi Braley, Affrica Berezicki-Stevens, Ahlam Ahmadi, Alaw Glesni-Griffiths, Alex Beeston, Amrit Sanghera, Andrei Damian, Annie Gooderham, Annouchka Bayley, Caitlin Jackson, Catherine McCaw-Aldworth, Charlie Gere, copsocker, Chantoya Leslie, David Johnson, David Moore, David Snooo Wilson, Davide Vanacore, Denise de Cordova, Ellen Ball, Eleanor McLean, Elizabeth Rennison, Eleni Sofokleous, Federico Clavarino, Flo McCarthy, Frances Drayson, Gerry Davies, Hannah Boaden ( + Daniel Redford), Harry Coday, Imogen Andrews, Jenna Fox, Jakob Buraczewski, Jordan Baseman, Jayne Simpson, Jaz Bartlett, Jen Southern, Jennie Murton, Judith Gao, Kara Marba, Kate Davis, Katherine Smith, Kirsty Dawson, Leigh Day, Leon Flint, Leon Watts, Omalola Mau, Marisa Ferreira, Martin Doyle, Martin Salmon, Michalina Marciniec, Mike Atherton, Mina Fairchild Ünal, Maggie Coffee, NanoHour, Noelle Genevier, Phoebe Mae Thompson, Pip Dickens, Partisan Social Club, Pragya Bhargava, Ratiba Ayadi, Rebecca Birch, Rhiannon Dunn, Rosie de Selincourt, Rups Cregeen, Sai Ashrafian, Sally Sole, Sally Stenton, Sarah Casey, Sarah Staton, Saul Wright, Todome the Fox, Tianya Liu, Tom Railton, WARD.

[2] Drawing Investigations: Graphic Relationships with Science, Culture and Environment, Sarah Casey and Gerry Davies, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. The authors were JJ Chan’s tutors on their undergraduate course.

[3] JJ Chan, ‘Performing Porosity: Is there some method?’, Performance Research 25.5: pp 129 – 134.


Published 12.08.2021 by Lara Eggleton

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