Laurens Tan’s ‘Babalogic’ offers vehicles of communication

“Dan Sheng (Birth)” by Laurens Tan.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Three stars

Babalogic in the Desert Through September 1; Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; free. Artist talk & reception August 11, 6 p.m. Clark County Government Center’s Rotunda Gallery, 702-455-7340.

Rickshaws, ideograms and a pagoda: Clark County Government Center’s Rotunda Gallery has never been so beholden to the East. Laurens Tan’s Babalogic in the Desert (up through September 1) brings China to Nevada in a show exploring the effects of cultural contact between Asia and the English-speaking West. With two large sculptures—one a bright Chinese red, the other a pure enamel white—and two videos, Tan’s works have a fresh, disarming feel.

As multicultural as his work, Tan was born in Holland to Chinese parents, and raised in Indonesia and Australia. He now divvies his time between Sydney, Beijing and Las Vegas. The problems of communicating in foreign languages are the springboard for the show’s theme. Using Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel’s iconic work “The Tower of Babel” (1563) as inspiration, Babalogic replaces mankind’s yearning to reach God in the Biblical story of Babel with a contemporary allegory of cultural assimilation. Since 2009, Tan has been inventing and refining the multimedia works in the Babalogic series, now totalling more than 20 pieces.

The key work in the Rotunda Gallery, “Babalogic III” (2009-2012), features a modified white enamel rickshaw mounted on a slanting platform with an exact 3D scale model of Bruegel’s tower of Babel in ABS plastic positioned behind the seat. Each level of the tower contains Chinese ideograms in the doorways, from pure Mandarin at the bottom to characters for English words like “birth control” near the top. The new-car-platform slant and three-wheeled vehicle suggest an ominous instability in both Chinese language and culture. In the myth, the tower fell, but the message of doom is bested by the humor of the trike and its ridiculous cargo.

In another large rickshaw work, “Dansheng (Birth)” (2009-2012)—painted bright enamel red—the load is an enormous egg from which emerge 50 identical Chinese toys, each miniature figurine clutching shopping bags. Emblazoned in Chinese characters on both sides of the egg is “The Depth of Ease.” Below the sculpture, 2,000 eggs are piled like stones or gravel. Once again, comic aspects of the work usurp the allegory of national fragility.

The sparse exhibition would be strengthened by a couple more of Tan’s crazy wheeled vehicles. Similarly, the two videos—each devoted to language codes—would gain relevance in different viewing conditions. Due to gallery restrictions, the videos are shown on small, solar-powered screens, while in China Tan’s videos run on screens 90 feet wide by 35 feet high. The shortcomings are due in part to the constraints of exhibiting in a very tricky public space. That said, the irony, humor and postmodern ethos—in the vein of Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei—make Tan’s Babalogic worth a visit.

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