Beyond the Oecumene: Joseph Tong imagines a world without humans, where nature reigns supreme

The 'oecumene', a Greek term for the known, the inhabited, or the habitable world, represents the society we live in today. It references all we know about development, culture, and our lives in the context of industrialisation and technology. In his new exhibition, Beyond the Oecumene, Joseph Tong presents the exact antitheses of our existence — an artistic insight into a life prior to civilisation where nature reigns supreme; a world where the unspoiled purity of nature prevails.

“Everywhere on Earth, human development has caused significant changes to nature and the climate. Think concerns over rising global temperatures, warming oceans, glacial retreat, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification,” says Tong in an interview with Firstpost.

He decided to focus on the concept of anthropogeography — the study of the geographical distribution of humankind and the relationship between human beings and their environment. Tong feels that geography must be conceived in relation to humans. It is not merely a description of the Earth, rather it accounts for the history of man’s relationship with it, mankind’s movements on its surface and its transformative impact on the world.

 Beyond the Oecumene: Joseph Tong imagines a world without humans, where nature reigns supreme

Beyond the Oecumene / Part V, 2019. Aquarelle, wax pastels, UV-print on aluminium beneath linear Plexiglas. 180 x 160 cm / 71 x 63 in

A multidisciplinary approach

The essence of this phenomenon – of nature as pure and reigning supreme – is presented through each work in the exhibition, comprising digitally generated impressions superimposed on a composition of sampled images, enhanced by hand-drawn motifs in wax pastels and aquarelle.

“My works tend to be conceptual. Therefore, by working in a multidisciplinary manner (oil and ink painting, sculpture, photography, site-specific installation and digital art), the utilisation of divergent media allows me to explore the nature of perception, reality and representation and challenges the notion of materiality,” says Tong. He strives to challenge the traditional notion of the passive viewer by achieving a sense of tension between the viewer and the artwork itself, by combining a vast range of highly aestheicised materials in his work.

Tong also explains that his multidisciplinary approach is not invariable, and his evolution through the exploration of media is ceaseless. He says, “As an artist, I am in a constant mode of re-invention and experimentation, where I am eager to create simulations, atmospheres, and/or settings in which familiar objects are altered or detached from their natural functions, applying specific combinations and certain manipulations of mediums to inspire different contexts; thereby questioning the conditions of appearance of an image.”

Substitute for Sorrow / Part IV, 2018. Calligraphy ink on Xuan paper beneath marbled Plexiglas. 153 x 153 cm / 61 x 61 in

Substitute for Sorrow / Part IV, 2018. Calligraphy ink on Xuan paper beneath marbled Plexiglas. 153 x 153 cm / 61 x 61 in

Mansarovar Part II, 2018. Calligraphy inko on Xuan paper, Poly Film beneath linear Plexiglas. 90 x 90 cm / 36 x 36 in

Mansarovar Part II, 2018. Calligraphy ink on Xuan paper, Poly Film beneath linear Plexiglas. 90 x 90 cm / 36 x 36 in

Communicating with the viewer

Speaking further about how this impacts the audience, he says that the changeable and numerous materials create a “visual narrative". The work actively communicates with the viewer, inciting recognition through the natural elements and landscape, yet the audience must first confront the illusory feature of the structured Plexiglass positioned on the surface of the work, which generates an optical illusion. This grants the viewer a moment to pause and observe as the pictorial elements gradually emerge — reorienting themselves to a visual narrative where both the real and unreal coalesce.

The conceptualisation of the artwork is achieved through the technique — the brush strokes, colours, and forms — which Tong explains is unique to each artist. “No single mental process is alike. Although methodology may be similar, I believe our intuition guides us uniquely in each stage of production,” Tong elaborates. He adds, “I believe taking a work at face value is sometimes just as important as getting to understand the concept underlying a work. Each viewer’s reaction to a work is just as important as some deep meaningful analysis of an artist’s work.” An example of these varying depths of analysis and understanding comes from using the material Plexiglass in his work — a transparent structured medium that distorts the background. Tong explains that the Plexiglass creates an optical illusion that morphs the images in the background, leading to further interpretations of the work. Thus the technique and media lend themselves to create meaning and interpretation.

Joseph Tong. Photograph courtesy of the artist

Joseph Tong. Photograph courtesy of the artist

The scale of the exhibition highlights the variance in perception, as the large size and layers of the works force viewers to look from side-to-side, from afar, and from up close. “A side perspective will conjure different visual connotations than that of a frontal perspective,” says Tong.

Universality of themes

Tong’s geography looks very different from the geography of the viewers in Mumbai. Tong was born in Hong Kong, China, and now lives and works between Hong Kong and Berlin. Upon being asked about how the cultural context of the audience impacts the reception of the work, Tong says that the works may conceived differently. “No matter how diverse we are, culturally, there are certain ideas and norms that we will intrinsically conserve. Thus, we may interpret an idea or a concept based on foundational cultural pretexts. However, I do feel that there are notions that are universally boundless angling a viewer in India and Hong Kong to relate to a certain work with a similar interpretive viewpoint,” he says.

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) / Part VI, 2018. Ink on Xuan paper on mirror beneath linear Plexiglas, aluminium frame structure (4 panels). 240 x 240 cm / 96 x 96 in

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) / Part VI, 2018. Ink on Xuan paper on mirror beneath linear Plexiglas, aluminium frame structure (4 panels). 240 x 240 cm / 96 x 96 in

Tong hopes that his viewers leave with a positive impression. He concludes, “Perhaps, what is paramount is that the works allow the viewer a moment for reflection and contemplation.”

Beyond the Oecumene is showing at Galerie Isa till 20 August, 2019

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2019 10:26:07 IST