HENRY TAN

Henry Tan, portrait by Ketsiree Wongwan

LET US INTRODUCE YOU TO THE GUY BEHIND TENTACLES, BANGKOK’S NEW ART SPACE

Henry Tan’s interest in art began in high school when a group of his friends took a drawing course as they were preparing for the university entrance exam to enter the Faculty of Architecture, but his personal interest in economics and finance led him to choose the Faculty of Economics of Chulalongkorn University over his interest in art. During his sophomore year, Tan was a frequent visitor to his friends at the Faculty of Architecture’s Department of Industrial Design. His junior year was when he got an internship at an advertising agency where he learned and worked as a part of the event organizing team for six full months. The majority of the time during his senior year was spent at TCDC (thanks to the rather cheap premium membership fee for students) where he joined several design workshops and got so into them that it came to a point where he actually wanted to be a professional designer but finally ended up being an artist.

Tan’s first exhibition was the painting series, ‘Never Awake’ (2008) held at a gallery called nospace. One year after the gallery’s official opening, Tan returned to the space that debuted his artistic career with a performance (nospace is now permanently closed). In 2010, he enrolled in a university in Beijing where he studied Chinese while interning with a gallery named Red Gate and was mesmerized by the art scene of the capital of China at the time. “The volume is so huge. It’s like Chatuchak weekend market except that the whole place sells only art, and they have this sort of tradition that the artists who are fresh graduates would rent houses in this village where they work seriously on their art.” Living in China, Tan’s experience in art was a substantial one. He once performed a time-based performance following the idea of the Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh, the mind and initiator of a ‘One Year Performance,’ a project that spent the entirety of ‘one year’ working on an extended series of performances where the artist tied himself to a friend or locked himself in a cage for one year. Tan approached a similar concept in a more contemporary manner using Facebook as a platform. Throughout the period of one year in Beijing, he posted one Facebook status a day and later brought them together into a document, as his life in China gradually became another series of performances. Tan came back home to Thailand in 2012 and continued to work on his Performance art before deciding to found an art space for young artists called Tentacles in 2014 at Studio Miu with the entire program being curated following his own personal experiences and interests.

Tentacles, photo courtesy of Tentacles

“I have been interested in and seriously acknowledged  the importance of artist in residence programs  since 2012. It was the year when I was a part  of a residency project in South Korea and it helped  me to actually see what other artists were doing.  It opened my world as a professional artist and it  helped me grow a great deal, so I wanted to do something  like that in Thailand.” Tan recalled his memories  and told us about the AUTOPILOT project he did  with BACC as one of the artists of the Young Artist  Network by BACC project in 2014. He tried to convert  the space on the seventh floor of the BACC into a  space that could accommodate an artist in residency  program to question whether a gallery space could  serve any other possible purposes. Within the one month  period of time, Tan negotiated with the BACC  for artists who participated in the project to be able  to stay overnight in the gallery space (the main exhibition  space is normally closed during the night).  BACC proposed the condition that the artists would  not be allowed to sleep at night (but they could take a nap during the day). Tan would also get to redefine  the space’s original meaning by allowing artists to  live in, as well as open a booth selling soft drinks  and snacks, inside the gallery. What Tan gained  from the project was a greater knowledge of the  limitations in managing large-scale art organizations, not to mention the connections, which more or less, contributed to Tentacles’ opportunity to host an extended activity called ‘The Art of Surviving in the Arts’ (2016). It was also this particular event that earned Tentacles more recognition from the general public.

As Tentacles was relocated to its current home at N22 in 2015, the relocation and expansion gave birth to a partnership between eight friends who are now serving as both the staff and business partners of Tentacles. With the larger amount of expenses coming from rent and financial support for the larger number of staff, the eight partners came up with a business model that allows for the team and the space to be self-sufficient. Tentacles is currently hosting six programs; an art shop, workshops, reading groups, exhibition space, artist in residency (with a separate house rented specifically for the program) and a screening room with workshops being the only source of income for the space. “Another level of difficulty is that we work with young artists, which makes Tentacles different from most galleries where they are able to survive for several months from selling one piece of art. We think that the role of Tentacles, which is to try to be a mediator between young generation artists and large art organizations (such as the Japan Foundation), is what’s important right now.”

Work by Henry Tan, Photos courtesy of Henry Tan

Work by Henry Tan, Photos courtesy of Henry Tan

Tan gave an interesting insight about the absence of young Thai artists in today’s contemporary art scene. “It’s quite often that when curators discuss young artists, especially within this region, what seems to be missing are the names of Thai artists who are in the 25-35 year old age range because the majority of our contemporary artists are in their late 30s.” The Art of Surviving in the Arts project is, therefore, organized from this particular dilemma to help nurture the newly graduated artists to pursue the first 5-10 years of their artistic careers. It’s the same concept with Tentacles’ program that attempts to support the work of young artists by inviting artists from other countries to join Tentacles’ residency program while pushing Thai artists to participate in other residency projects outside of Thailand where their world and view on art can be opened, and at the same time, the regional network of young artists can be expanded. One example is the project, 1095 Taichung ASEAN Square Cultural Exchange Project in 2016 where Tentacles sent four Thai artists to join a residency project in Taiwan for a period of three months. Tentacles also plays the role of an organizer of art history workshops, including English language workshops for artists to strengthen their communication skills, which is what Tentacles views as one of the weaknesses of the young generation artists. They are also running an art reviewing website that welcomes the works of students and individuals with an interest in art while offering the space as a platform for young artists to show their works. “I want to give young artists a chance to put their works out there. It’s a matter of providing them with opportunities as well as a platform. If nospace didn’t give me a chance back then, I could be doing something else for a living by now.” said Tan.

NEVERTHELESS, CARRYING TOO MANY THINGS IN ONE’S HANDS MAKES IT EASY FOR ONE TO DROP OR LEAVE SOMETHING BEHIND

Henry Tan, portrait by Ketsiree Wongwan

While many think that Tentacles is a non-profit organization, what’s interesting is the ‘reciprocal’ relationship between Tentacles and young artists. And while it may appear that Tentacles is the only one investing in this relationship, with the greater number of exhibitions/activities/organizers/curators and the larger Tentacles’ portfolio has become, the easier it has been for them to gain financial support and sponsorship for their future projects. It’s a win-win situation and business model on both the artists and Tentacles’ part. Nevertheless, carrying too many things in one’s hands makes it easy for one to drop or leave something behind, and in Tentacles’ case, the activities or programs that don’t generate any profit such as the exhibition space still require improvements in terms of their standards in order to become a truly legitimate art space.

It’s been three years since Henry Tan gave birth to Tentacles. The difficulties he had to deal with from day one and is still dealing with now, such as finding a budget to finance the space, are something Tentacles is struggling with. It’s a rough road ahead but they continue to move on with the most important thing being the freedom to do the kind of work they want to do, even if it might be just for the time being. Once the sponsorship and support finds its way, the chance for creative control and the freedom from being restrained in the future is, to a certain extent, an unavoidable possibility.

Henry Tan, portrait by Ketsiree Wongwan

TEXT: NAPAT CHARITBUTRA
www.tentaclesgallery.com

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