DISINI Discovers – Richard Streitmatter-Tran
Richard Streitmatter-Tran’s depictions of three orangutans appear at first to be playful representations of the animals but, upon closer inspection, hint at deeper and darker interpretations. Each of them sits upon a metal beam at a height, as if avoiding an invisible flood beneath them. By exposing the sculptures to the mid-year rainy season in Singapore, viewers are invited to witness the sculptures’ gradual disintegration – as they are made of raw red clay. There is meticulous detail in Richard’s technique, contrasted against a hands-off approach of releasing the sculptures to the power of nature. Looking past his awe-inspiring artworks and achievements at international biennales, Richard himself exudes an unmistakable warmth and friendliness. DISINI looks deeper into his practice – from his beginnings as an artist to how his practice has evolved today.
1/ Could you speak more about the Orangs that you refer to in your DISINI works?
From my understanding, orang in Malay simply refers to people. The word orangutan refers to the indigenous Southeast Asian species of apes that we are familiar with. However, since the etymology of the root word isn’t specific to a particular species, many ethnic groups of people are also called orang, such as the orang seletar - who are sometimes referred to as ‘sea gypsies’. Both human and non-human orangs can be considered endangered. The word itself reveals the delicate and direct connection that humans and animals have in this world.
2/ Why did you decide to leave your DISINI works unprotected from the outdoor elements?
I have a history of making ephemeral works, or works that physically change over time. Those changes are often closely related to the concepts of the works. Last year, I spent two months in residency with the NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) and spent a lot of time around Gillman Barracks, while the works remained in the studio. I’d have some visitors drop in occasionally, but they seemed a bit intimidated. Thus, it’s nice this time to have something outdoors, where others can see or interact with the works on their own terms. Conceptually, my work deals with the impact humans have on the environment. I feel strongly about this issue and I think presenting the work indoors would limit its impact.
5/ How would you describe the relationship between art and activism?
I remember attending a protest at the Burmese Embassy in Singapore years ago, around the time of the Saffron Revolution. It was a small group and the police were present. I don’t think it had any real effect, other than raising visibility and providing us with the self-assurance that we were acting upon our own convictions. I felt that that kind of action wasn’t effective for me. A year later, Burmese artist Chaw Ei Thein and I made an artwork at the Singapore Biennale which had much more influence. So, personally, I’d rather make art than to go through tried-and-tested activist tactics these days.
6/ You were born in Vietnam and raised in the United States. How did these diverse environments influence you?
It’s hard to say, since I’m not particularly analytical with regards to national identity. To be honest, my work is rarely autobiographical, so I largely feel at home wherever I am. On the outside, I’m always sort of out of place. I grew up as the only non-Caucasian in a white working class family, but my godparents are African-American. I live in Vietnam, but I’m not fluent in Vietnamese. I speak standard American English, but can easily code-switch to the Boston accent when I’m home. My name is not Asian, but my racial profile is. I really don’t care so much about filling in the fields. I’m a mongrel and my work is “mongrelized”. That’s just the way it is.
7/ How did you become an artist?
If I’m going to be honest, it was almost an accident. Although I’ve always gravitated towards creative things, I was prepared for other careers. Strangely enough, I started my adulthood in the military and I envisioned myself going into law and human rights advocacy. Like many of those in their twenties, I was a bit lost and didn’t complete university during my first attempt. I was, for a while, a college drop-out; cleaning toilets, landscaping, being a grocery store cashier – the kinds of jobs where you punched a clock for wages. However, I truly believe it made me the artist that I am now.
I applied to art school simply because it was the only option where the deadline had not passed. It was in art school that I realized I had quite a bit of freedom - not only to express ideas that were previously only possible for me to put forth in writing but, more importantly, the ability to simply be happy with who I was.
10/ What other art skills would you like to develop?
I need to improve my portraiture skills. I’d also like to learn stone and wood carving, welding, as well as bronze casting. Last year, I started to paint on silk and other surfaces with watercolours and have good control over that medium now. It’s all a matter of time invested and curiosity.
11/ You are an artist, teacher, writer, curator – what other field would you go into if you had the chance?
If I could do mathematics, I would love to work at CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics, Geneva, Switzerland) and work on cutting-edge particle physics. I would also become an astronomer or a geologist. If I could pinpoint something that would give me deep pleasure, I would become a bespoke paint maker borrowing from history, chemistry and art. If I was younger and hadn’t broken my neck, perhaps a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter?
12/ How has teaching impacted you?
Teaching is a two-way interaction. It forces me to organize information; to transmit it, share it, and allow it to be experienced. I was a teacher for over a decade and I’m glad I’m not teaching full-time any longer. Towards the end, I was almost acting on auto-pilot and I did not want to cruise through my life that way. I owe so much to my teachers and, I too, know that I need to become a student of sorts again - on my own terms.
14/ What’s next for you?
I don’t know. Even after over 15 years of working as a professional artist, I still feel that the future is uncertain. I have taught for the most of my career, which provided me with a salary and the means to support my art practice. I am now in my third year of being a full-time artist and I’m making my own work, while taking on freelance projects now and then. I’m dirt poor again, but much happier – I’ve achieved freedom at a cost. I don’t need much, in terms of money, to be happy. I was born into extreme poverty and was thankfully adopted to America. However, I did live in a relative poverty there, being of the working class, relying on welfare, etc. I’m quite accustomed to not having much in terms of wealth. I’m happy with what I have. Whatever the future holds, I’ll try to be happy with that too.
15/ When do you feel most satisfied/fulfilled?
a) When I learn something.
b) When what I’ve learnt can be utilized.
c) When said utilization is actualized into something real.
d) When I can share it, or when someone else learns from it. Then, at least, I’ve left a trace of positive impact during my life.
3/ What do you hope that people will think/feel when they see your art?
I never bear any expectations. I have the conviction that if I put my full effort into the work, something will happen. Of course, for more inquisitive people, I would hope that they consider the concerns and issues raised, and that the works may make an impact on their lives and actions.
4/ Would you describe yourself as an activist?
Not really. I would have done so in my twenties, when I was involved with a lot of advocacy groups, protesting for the ideas that I believed in. However, I’ve become more of an introvert as I age. The beauty of art is that the communication of ideas can take forms other than those typically associated with activism (such as sit-ins, marches, petitions, and boycotts). I think I’m comfortable to speak my mind on issues that are important to me, but I don’t think most people would consider me as an activist - despite having completed a number of political works, or works that deal with controversial issues.
8/ What was the journey of being an artist like?
The journey was anything but straightforward. I’m not one of those who has always known they were going to be artists from a young age. I’m not naturally gifted, I’m just a hard worker. It takes some time for me to process and understand more complex ideas and theories, and even longer for me to translate those ideas from my mind to my hands. And it is ultimately in the process of doing, that I can manifest ideas along the way.
9/ Your practice began with new media and performance and, since 2013, you’ve returned to traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture. Why so?
Whoa. I suppose this would be the key question that defines where I am right now. Being a product of an American art university, where ideas and concepts are often valued above craft, I graduated with a Distinction despite still being unable to draw stick figures. At that time, I believed that as long as I could come up with good ideas, I could have others fabricate objects and materials for me. I would deal with the immaterial components. But, I noticed I was never satisfied with that structure as the artworks didn’t reflect my personality or aesthetic. Over time, I forced myself to learn to draw, and found out I had a natural talent of realizing things sculpturally with my own hands. Painting is a struggle, but it’s one that I’m making good progress with.
I enjoy the slow development and progress, which results in the satisfaction of understanding the materials and their possibilities. It is a positive feedback loop – the more I know and do, the more I can improve. And at the end of the day, it’s about being happy.
13/ You formed DIA/PROJECTS in 2010 – what is the most experimental project you’ve done?
It’s hard to identify it in that manner. Starting DIA/PROJECTS itself was an experiment. It is almost like a persona that I’ve created, in the form of an organization. It became an umbrella for curatorial projects, writing, networking; all of which were distinct from my own studio practice.
I can say that I have made and have continued to make a lot of connections for artists through DIA/PROJECTS. In fact, even though I’ve closed DIA/PROJECTS as a space for exhibitions and programming, I have had two artists in residence this year in Vietnam – one from Japan and one from the UK. I’m good at matchmaking in the arts, since I’m able to share my networks and knowledge with others; I introduce a lot of people to opportunities. I’m kind of like Tinder for art.