Bags of Stories, No. 19 – S.E.A. Focus

Bags of Stories, No. 19

Tan Zi Hao

Medium: Lightbox

Size of work: 302 x 116 x 9 cm

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Artist Statement
Over the years I began to pay attention to an insect popularly known as “household casebearers” or “plaster bagworms” (Phereoeca spp.). Pervasive in domestic spaces, they live in the most inconspicuous corners, clinging on to the most marginal fringes like droplets of gray. As the name suggests, a household casebearer survives as a larva bearing an oval case before metamorphosing into a moth. To weave the case about double its length and triple its width, the larva generates silk filaments to string together soil particles, insect droppings, dust accumulated from household goods, human hair, and others. They feed on spider webs, dead insects, textile fibers, human hair, and other organic detritus.

Apropos of its scientific name, Phereoeca (literally, a “bearer of house”), the household casebearer’s habit of towing a house of its own within our domestic space readily illuminates a posthuman ontology where distinctions between culture and nature, domestic and wild, human and nonhuman, blur. When these cases are magnified, as in this series of macro photographs, what from afar has a monochromatic appearance suddenly dissipates into a vibrant mesh of material difference. A piece of hair fragment is now next to a microplastic; a paint chip fallen from the ceiling now lives cheek by jowl with a separated arthropod leg; an eraser crumb fragment sits within strands of textile fiber that were disentangled from a floor cloth, dotted with dead skin cells from the soles of our feet.

These household casebearers present a parallel universe in which a part of ourselves, or discards from our bodies and our homes, are woven into their cases, their homes. These cases are massive—not in terms of size, but in terms of scale—for they weave together debris from different time and space, creating a cosmos of its own, where we are just a speckle of dust. We are equalised in this process of decomposition and decay as in the process of nurturing newborn larvae. The plausibility of ontological symmetry in the Anthropocene is attested to by these carrier cases. Here, we finally see ourselves becoming dust.

About the Artist

Tan Zi Hao is an artist, writer, researcher, and educator. His practice employs a revisionist strategy to contest essentialising and totalising tendencies prevalent in postcolonial nation-states. His works have covered a wide range of subjects from translingual practices, multiscript typography, imaginary creatures, to carrier shells and household casebearers. Dwelling on issues of ontological insecurity, his works present a deep investigation about what it means to be singular-plural in an age of global and ecological interdependence.

As an artist who moves across different disciplines, he also holds a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, undertaking fieldwork research on animal imagery in the Islamic art of Cirebon, Indonesia. His scholarship has been published in Art in Translation, ARTMargins, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Indonesia and the Malay World, and Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.

His recent exhibitions include Prosthetic Memories, A+ Works of Art, Malaysia, 2023; Dream of the Day, Ilham Gallery, Malaysia, 2023; Synthetic Condition, UP Vargas Museum, Philippines, 2022; Kathmandu Triennale 2077, Nepal, 2022; A Short History of Instant Noodles, A+ Works of Art, Malaysia, 2022; Phantasmapolis: 2021 Asian Art Biennial, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan, 2021; Crypto for Cryptids, JWD Art Space, Thailand, 2021.