Digesting a rota of weary headlines that the economy’s gone on a jolly, “The Riots” are planning a reunion tour and that the chaps in charge are a reliable as a pack of £1 batteries has slowly become a part of an exhausting national routine, a jig of mediocrity. There seems to be no accountability to this belching shit stream of incompetency but looking at the bigger picture you might retire with the comfort that things could be worse, if only to prevent a skull splitting aneurysm. That being said, the mewling of those who only switched online when they noticed the price of chinos had rocketed might be just as capable of catalysing a family of stomach ulcers. If there is one rival stressor to the banality of failures polluting the news it’s the entitled lunatics who are only interested in joining a catwalk of blind outrage.
What could be more humbling, then, than to connect with a young artist like Ting Tong Chang, an artist who appears to understand the fragility of politics beyond flashy, pandering sentiments and crude judgements? Chang, who was born and raised in China, introduces his experiences of growing up in a system stereotyped by its benign and intrinsic corruption.
His work, split into installations and etchings, is broadly anti-elitist but resists resorting to any brash caricatures. Rather than invoke a tirade of rhetoric he invests in finer, quieter detail that offers the audience space to arrive at its own analyses.
The etchings based on iconic and personal photography are at first glance bleak and oppressive. The sketches are drawn in a grid of diagonal monochrome dashes capturing his subjects as if they were caught in a torrential downpour. The precision and symmetry of each of these constructing lines gives each portrait a faded, photocopy quality, the idea being that there’s an element of secrecy to them; that the original copy might be hidden somewhere else. It works succinctly with the downbeat, rain swept backgrounds to build a sense of lingering menace.
The juxtaposition of his family snaps among some dour and fusty portrayals of government officials also has an unsettling appeal to it. Their inclusion sits awkwardly and brings a hidden narrative out of the collection. However you assess it, it's a prim yet ample narrative device that elevates the collection unexpectedly into a talking piece. The way in which the pictures are arranged as well (whether deliberate or not) aren’t organised thematically but hung decoratively, mimicking the sort of jumbled photo montage you see hanging at your grandparent’s. These little touches makes the appearance of those shady g-men all the more unsettling.
The comic book quality of his style plays further into a repressed memory motif. Some of the etchings stick out with pin-point detail while others have a looser, playful quality, characters drawn with fancy-dress glasses or unnaturally round faces. Some are more abstract with nocturnal scenes played out across barren fields and meadows. The disparity between these and the clinical accuracy of the “official” portraiture makes the latter’s inclusion particularly uncomfortable.
You get the impression that the collection should be kept together (prints are knocking off at £70 tonight) but Chang’s evocative, impressionistic style is going to turn heads however it's staged.
Among the other work on display, there’s the “shopping trolley rainbow” that made an appearance at Surface late last year brought in for a second viewing. A new installation shows a sculpted figure made from paper plates, sort of in the same territory as one of those 3D jigsaws that knocked about for a bit during the late 90s. Sitting to its side, a desk fan gradually blows away the figure, plate by plate, with pieces littering the gallery floor. It might fit into the themes of fragility and omnipotence unearthed earlier but on its own it feels a little weightless (isn’t that the point?).
The satire, melancholy and imagination that’s been invested into Chang’s sketch work is a marvel. He shows a delicate humility towards the issues he attempts (and succeeds) at highlighting that doesn’t assume the viewer lacks the sophistication to decipher the message nor too ignorant to have to have it spelt out to them.
It’s such a refreshing elixir to see weighty topics like censorship, human rights and democracy relayed by someone who understands and respects their complexity rather than have them trampled into mediocrity by obnoxious show-offs too. It alone justifies a visit as an engaging lesson in vibrant, young political art. Gobby drop-outs beware.
Ting Tong Chang - "Fallacies of Compositions" runs at Surface Gallery until 21 July