Hansel Tai, a young Chinese artist based in Estonia, emailed me at Current Obsession in June 2016 with a submission: his graduation project from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, titled Dirt Container. He wrote, ‘It’s about new forms of desires in the internet age. And I did some experiments about jewellery with lights. I love lights.’ That was the moment I discovered the disruptive universe of Hansel Tai, and once you see something like this, you can never look at the field in the same way again.
by Marina Elenskaya
May 15, 2019
Tai’s work talks about queer culture and the digital age with the effortlessness granted to those who cannot remember ever not having a PC connected to the internet. His work focuses on the impact that the internet’s subcultures have had on him, growing up as he did, with a computer ever-present in his room. It was the internet that first taught him about sex, violence and other taboo aspects of life. Everything he knows about real life, he first saw on the internet. (First you watch porn, and then you have sex.) Only someone in this position would think to make mixed media jewellery featuring close-ups of nude human skin collaged with the pixelated digital skins of computer game characters and avatars…
The internet has taken over. In our current moment, for the first time in human history, virtually any question that arises in conversation, any unknown or uncertain thing, can be answered, sorted out or resolved by a Google search. There’s no need to appease the ancient gods through ritualistic sacrifice or worship. We, as human race, have amassed a stand-in for a deity: a universal archive of knowledge. And we keep adding to it.
While the internet can be seen as a kind of placeholder for the sorts of justice and truth that we seek, a strong nostalgia for materials and symbols that might retain obscure powers still persists, regardless. The stunning nude figures of slender young males that can be seen in historic museums scattered around the world – the Kouroi of Ancient Greece – celebrate the divinity and perfection of the human body. Hansel Tai subverts this symbol – so iconic that it has entered our collective subconscious – by replacing these divine bodies with images of male torsos taken from gay porn found online. He then collages these images, trying to find his own definition of beauty. These are real men, and their images sometimes appear rough and glitchy, in low resolution, so the work gives off a recognisable sense of what the internet is really sometimes like. However, while the images of these men are glorious, they do contradict cultural norms – they are the internet Dirt Containers.
His series of highly glossy and highly polished metal brooches, titled BMP (Blue Milk Pierced), DBMP (Diamond- Blue Milk Pierced) and CMP (Cyber Milk Pierced), are shaped like liquid splashes dotted with piercings. And just in case the intention behind the series was to somehow escape the viewer, Tai chose to have the pieces shot on the faces of shirtless men, their features distorted by expressions of ecstasy.
“Everything he knows about real life, he first saw on the internet. (First you watch porn, and then you have sex)”
With his latest work, Nude Jade Pierced, Tai takes on China’s most sacred material: jade. Celebrated as the ultimate symbol of perfection and purity and valued for its translucent, skin-like glow, jade is often carved into intricate mythological and religious forms. Tai’s pendants, formally reduced and abstracted, are penetrated with heavy ready-made circular barbell piercings. With this gesture – which is inconceivable, on many levels, to those familiar with traditional jade carving – Tai subdues the sacred jade, evoking a strong emotional response from the viewer. He connects the desire and fetish for jade among a wider Asian audience directly to the repression of the LGBTQ community in China’s hyper-conservative political climate.
Hansel Tai’s work exists against the odds. His upbringing and education in China, and his later exposure to the work methods of the Estonian Academy of Arts, with its very pronounced aesthetic, barely left a mark on him. He takes the best from both worlds, and with precision and determination he produces work in which materials and techniques are the means to a very specific end. Each of his pieces acts with its own agency. He excels in transmitting his ideas through the medium of jewellery, and there is an urgency in his work like in no other.
About the Artist: HANSEL TAI is a Chinese artist and designer currently residing in Estonia. He graduated in 2016 from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he studied Art Jewellery. He has continued his artistic research at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn as well as at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. He has exhibited in the Netherlands, Germany, France and the USA among other countries. Tai’s work focuses on the Post-Internet Epoch, in which naturalness is shadowed by the body cult, deformation, subcultural signs and high gloss metal, and digital voodoo is materialized into fetish objects.