Phillip Lai

30 June 2014

Phillip Lai, “Besides”
Camden Arts Centre
11 April 2014 – 29 June 2014
by John Ros

The new installation in Gallery 3 of the Camden Arts Centre is at once a conundrum and a consort.  London-based Phillip Lai (B. 1969, Kuala Lumpur, MY) built an environment of archipelagos, firmly set on the ground yet floating wildly in the gallery, levitating above the A41 below.  The firmness and lightness with which Lai toys gracefully combines emotions of the familiar with a fascination for the unusual — melding together in rich form and precise translation.


Upon entering the magnificent gallery space, one is immediately hit with height and light.  The mood is set by these elements (which I would find hard to compete with.  Luckily, Lai graciously embraces both throughout the 7 pieces in the space.)  Each piece is set meticulously, with careful consideration paid in respect to each other.  Likewise, the room just feels right.  Everything in its right place — not in a obviously way, but in a meditative one.  We are greeted with “Servants”, 2014, to the immediate left and “Ulterior”, 2014, straight ahead.  Upon further acknowledgement, one might notice the metal floor panel directly to the right of the door, an element not necessarily part of the installation, but happily contributing to the overall completeness of the room and success of Lai’s use of materiality.

“Ulterior” specifically catches your eye.  Simple yet incredibly complex.  A board parallel to the floor seems to grow out of the wall, the contact point near-imperceptible.  The two leg supports seem ornamental as the piece seems to float just above the gallery floor.  Placed in the center sits a lit utility lamp tied to the ceiling and attached to the lighting track way above.  This gentle white line draws us immediately to the height of the room and acknowledges Lai’s commitment to the space.  On my hands and knees I notice the subtle glow emitting from the lamp.  It is turned on yet the light is trapped inside the fixture, except for a small sliver emitting from the contact point of the two materials.  This one element alone is a game changer.  It shows such consideration with an attempt to delve deeper into the inner workings of things (the materials and the room).  This element easily goes unnoticed, even to the trained viewer, but the payback of its awareness is unmeasurable.  Knowledge of the pent up energy of light sitting dormant, trapped in its vessel, makes the whole room vibrate.  The energy waves can be perceived as the tension penetrates all other objects and viewers alike.

“Placeholder”, 2014 seems to do just that.  It’s heavy reinforced concrete top, hovering about 3 feet off the ground by 4 steel pipes that extend through to the top of the piece, seems impossibly soft.  The idea of hovering is tangible here, especially with the weight of the cement.  It is an amazing feat to make such a heavy material feel so weightless, which also comes back to the height of the space in general.  This placeholder seems to live in a contradictory space.  An over-sized paperweight and a delicate homage to the air.  This push-pull keeps the viewer alert and at ease — in the perfect space of contradiction.

The two smaller pieces “Skin and bones”, 2014 and “Untitled”, 2014, lay directly on the floor.  (Though all the objects technically lay directly on the gallery floor, these two pieces are more aware of that fate.  The others, like “Ulterior” growing from the wall and “Certain pressures”, 2014, nested on an acrylic “plinth”, all have a float-i-er sense of themselves and do not feel as if they are placed directly on the floor.)  I mention these two, not because they are self-conscious about the fact they are on the floor, but exactly the opposite.  It is so important that they are aware of this.  Humble.  Silent.  Yet humming the loudest tune, almost screaming it — if one could scream with ease.  “Skin and bones” comes from bundles of fabric and threaded material and cutlery, almost pushed aside as if in a rush to clean it up.  The heaviness of the symbolism of the spoons, forks and knives used seem to transcend themselves.  Though one cannot help but think of their immediate usage, they become a foreign material at the same time.  Just another sense of the contradictions Lai employs.


Of equal weight is “Untitled” which comprises cut tire pieces placed in a black plastic trash can lid.  Some how heavier-feeling than “Placeholder”, this piece hums a response to the lighted piece (Ulterior), remarking on the emission of light and energy with its own density.  “Untitled” grows out of the gallery’s wooden floor, heavier than concrete it feels like it would take four large bodies to move it.  Again, this pent-up potential energy seems waiting to explode, while gently oozing its power.

Aside from obvious remarks to materiality, this exhibit plays more with the ideas of placement — both in physical placement and ones own sense of themselves, or our “placement” in any given place.  The hums of energy, the constant contradictions and the dialogues each object has with one another somehow creates an environment of a frenetic energy of calm.  We become a part of the matrix that Lai has created for us and therefore become more aware of ourselves within this space of seemingly simple indirect objects.

Lai puts this in his own words:

I have been looking at how we have proposed, been directed and found ourselves relating to objects, spaces and images; the form of subjectivity and our complicity and displacement in the exercise of power and influence … . I have aimed to reprocess and reconfigure these relationships, sometimes contrasting the haunting from these ideas and that of the narrative speculation of our lives, with a simple material consciousness that is about how things are tangible or how they can be known.(01)

Though I write this at the close of this exhibition (which seems to be my m.o. these days) the message remains.  The mystery that lies within every corner of an exhibition, especially in regards to installation, must be carefully attended to.  We must unfold these riddles for ourselves.  We must open ourselves to possibility and even impossibility.  Art (though we are often taught otherwise) is not about what we know, but about what we may discover.  Lai keeps us discovering beyond the walls of the Camden Arts Centre, which is the greatest feat any artist can ever attain.  In doing so he makes us aware as well as allows us to become a confidant in his process of collecting, arranging and seeing.  He has taught us all how to fish, rather than simply supply us with one meal.

This exhibition of new work was created specifically for Gallery 3 of the Camden Arts Centre.

Images provided by Camden Arts Centre website.

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