Loving how Berlin-based artist Wei Tan incorporates a love for music into gorgeous, intuitive abstract compositions. Find more at the links below!
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I am currently based in Berlin, Germany. I was born in Malaysia and grew up in different cities around the world. I’ve always had an interest in both art and music, but in high school we could only pick one arts subject – so I picked music. I went on to pursue classical music and music technology in London and New York. All this time I never picked up a paintbrush, buying into society’s idea that once we choose a profession, we must stick to it forever.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
At the end of my Masters, I kept wanting to integrate art into my music work. I made an instrument that converts live painting into sound and I designed a group therapy that involves music-induced automatic drawing. After all that I wasn’t satisfied. Then I realized what I really wanted was to paint. I found an abstract painting teacher online and started to take lessons at her beautiful little East Village apartment. Soon our lessons became collaborations, and we made more than ten large abstract paintings on paper over the course of a month. That was a life-changing moment for me – I felt so liberated making art without the burden of academic knowledge and the judgement that comes with it. I experienced the sense of freedom and naivety that I was losing in music.
What is your process like?
The way I work is mostly improvisational. I have no plan or composition in mind. I usually start with a period of mindless doodling, throwing random colours onto the canvas and mixing them up like ingredients in a soup. After a while the painting settles down and a form emerges. I combine drawing and painting, mixing acrylic, soft pastels and oil sticks. I find that my strongest paintings are the ones where I was most able to lose control – these paintings usually “finish themselves” as a surprise. However my way of working has been evolving as I finally meet the limits of improvisation. I was realising that no matter how much I improvised, I was bound by the habits of my hands and eyes.
Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?
Recently I have been drawn to painting real-life objects. The abstract shapes and gestures in my paintings increasingly resemble boxes, tables, vases, shoes and ladders. At first they appeared on my canvas as my eyes would wander around the furniture of my studio while I painted. Then they slowly took the front stage and I was appealed by the sense of story and character they convey. There is a certain melancholy in these objects laying around by themselves in a quiet room. Now I am going through a phase of painting chairs. In Berlin you see all sorts of chairs and sofas on the street all the time. They are abandoned by their previous owners and waiting for someone to pick them up. I photograph these beautiful chairs and place them into the abstract world of my paintings.
Do you have a day job or other work that you split your time between?
Apart from painting, I am also in an indie dream pop band as lead singer and songwriter. The band is a comforting contrast from the isolation and introversion of being a painter. My music and art continue to influence one another. A lot of people suggest that I should combine them into one but I love having them separate at the moment.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
Someone posted an interview of David Bowie on Facebook and it captured me so much that I wrote down what he said and framed it:
“Never play to the gallery. But you never learn that until much later on I think. Never work for other people at what you do. Always remember that the reason you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. I think they generally produce their worst work when they do that.”
Hearing an accomplished artist say that makes me feel less naive about wanting to “do my own thing” instead of “playing to the gallery”. I still doubt myself every now and then and wonder if I should paint something more consistent or develop a more obvious visual style, but I have learned to let my style unfold and evolve on its own.
Are you involved in any collaborative or self-organized projects?
My friend and I started this project called “Dear Garbage”. We would meet in the parks of Berlin, pick up bits of garbage (there is plenty) and put them together into a mini sculpture. We have found cigarette buds, hair scrunchies, pens, balloons, poker cards, straws, bottle caps, cookies and many other strange things. After taking photos and videos of the sculptures we would leave them in the park. Children and dogs are usually the most curious about them. You can find them here: deargarbage.squarespace.com