Spencer Lai: Sweet Impulse

Spencer Lai serves up desire with gemstones and faux fur.

Words: Diego Ramírez

Spencer Lai’s upcoming exhibition at Neon Parc, Melbourne running from 14 July to 12 August 2023, builds upon their trajectory by repurposing and reproducing objects reminiscent of middle school debris, tainted by the perversity of 20th century modernism. The hilariously long title of their show, Let us be silent so that we may hear the whisper of God: strained tremors of life rise from dark billows of muteness as a modern wind soars beneath engineered wings, is a combination of mystical quotes that signal a state of kitschy ascension. Using a range of materials such as synthetic felt, steel, balsa wood, and fabric, Lai presents an ironic version of self that is elevated with coded styles. The exhibition also includes collaborative photographs with Tim Hardy that feature subjects drawn from the artists’ lives, ranging from peers to former teachers (notably Lou Hubbard). The pictures are humorously set in places of conformity, such as universities and upper middle class neighbourhoods, where the aesthetics Lai is drawn to are either rejected or embraced.

Lai frames their exhibition largely in terms of desire, commenting on the “yearning to be free, the emancipation of the self through knowledge and identification and fulfillment of various desires (material, sexual, intellectual etc).” They continue: “Desires known and not. Our desire to be loved, to provide love, to care for one another. To have people remember our birthdays, to be provided guidance, to guide others. To better oneself through education (skill, labour), achieving virtuosity through our appearances (material language accessories, fashion, codes of presentation), thereby expressed through physical expression (demeanour, gesture, behaviour, poses). To do what is expected of us. To become formed through instruction, as we are shaped by the hands of many.”

This conflicting longing for freedom and acceptance finds shape in the relationship between objects and spaces that Lai establishes, for one feeds the other.

A case in point is their sculpture Egg: form (watermelon), 2022, which features a powder coated steel egg form inlaid with foam core and felt shapes, a riff on Constructivist and Bauhaus sensibilities. Paired with the collaborative photographs with Hardy, which features university as a backdrop, one encounters an abstract narrative of knowledge and how it circulates amongst us.

Lai follows an intuitive process to let the materials unravel their meaning, letting them speak of belonging and class through pastiche. After all, it is through objects that we signal our position in the world and the ideals that we put forth.

Their upcoming exhibition Let us be silent so that we may hear the whisper of God: strained tremors of life rise from dark billows of muteness as a modern wind soars beneath engineered wings comes after an exhibition at Theta in New York, called Academy for the Sensitive Arts, 2022 and a collaborative show with Jürgen Baumann titled A Patience Game, 2022 at Holden Garage in Berlin, making this exhibition an exciting opportunity to see the recent developments in Lai’s practice after working in the context of major art capitals.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 105, July-September 2023. 

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