Notes: other canvases

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

By Christopher Cozier

Kali tattoo, by Pierre Bong a Jan; photo courtesy the artist

The idea of Pierre Bong a Jan using skin as another canvas coincides with the painted decorations on Paramaribo minibuses, reaching out to a larger contemporary public and extending the dialogue about visual production.

The buses and the tattoos, like t-shirts and angisa headkerchiefs, speak with and about the concerns of people living in this space, and also operate far away from traditional art spaces. As suggested by the art historian Kobena Mercer, they become “viral” in their vernacular forms, threatening to infect our much-cherished ideas about “ART”. It’s not just about surfaces, but also about iconography — the meeting point where traditions of body adornment and unlikely mythological confluences play out, as new identities and sensibilities are produced. Where else can a calendar Kali, Botticelli’s Venus, and the stylizations of Vargas or Frazetta meet, if not in Paramaribo?

Handmade tattoo machine; photo courtesy Pierre Bong a Jan

Tapping into a family tradition of ingenuity and self-determination, Bong a Jan has also made his own working tools and devices. His plan to do a live tattoo on the opening night of the SPAN exhibition engages my interest in the less declarative and more provisional implications of exhibitions as events. The artist, within his or her experimental pursuits, creates critical moments that seek to open up or expand our sense of what is possible or expected.

Like the home-manufactured confectionery of Ellen Ligteringen or George Struikelblok’s caged broilers, the event staged or generated is an experience that can live in our mind’s eye, like an encounter with an image — and can be internally processed, devoured, refashioned, and re-enacted. It is a proposal, a question in an ongoing visual conversation. Our presence or response makes or is an active element of the work, as much as we are also incorporated or co-opted within this moment.

Pierre Bong a Jan’s sketchbook, in his tattoo studio; photo courtesy the artist