Studio Visit: Mike Tan

Interviewed by Joyce Lanxin Zhao

Photographed by Stoltze and Stefanie

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Mike Tan runs the gallery, Rubber Factory, on Ludlow Street in Lower East Side.

Joyce Zhao: Where are you from?
Mike Tan: I’m from Ipoh, a small tin-mining town in Malaysia.

J: What brought you here (to New York City)?

M: I feel like it happened by accident. I finished high school, and I didn’t really feel like going to University. So, I worked for a couple years, then applied for college in America. Eventually, I chose to go to NYU Gallatin for Fact and Fiction in Visual Storytelling. It was a combination of philosophy, art history, visual culture and fine arts.

J: I wanted to talk to you about Rubber Factory. How did you start this gallery?

M: I have been thinking about it for four years, and it really came down to finding a good location in a neighborhood that I want to be in, and that I have the support of the artists who I want to show. As a first time gallerist, will they trust me with their work? I live a block away from the gallery, so I walk by this place every day.

When the store was vacant, I had told myself that if the space is still available in a month, I’ll take it. And I knew that in a couple of years, this neighborhood would be out of reach, so I have to do it now. There is never a good time to do something risky. For example, you live in Alphabet City, right?
J: Yes.
M: Do you know Ray’s Candy Shop?
J: Yeah.I know that he’s been there for a couple decades and when he was going out of
business, people in the neighborhood raised money for him to stay.

M: Right, so ‘Ray’ is actually not Ray. He’s actually a Persian guy. He abandoned the Iranian Marines when they docked in New York City. He was like, “New York is amazing. I don’t want to work in a f**king Marine.” So he abandoned them. He changed his name from a Persian name to a Turkish name. He recycled glass for ten years, collected 10,000 dollars and bought this candy shop. Then, he changed his name again to a Puerto Rican name, because he was scared that the Persians would track him down and kill him. He changed his name to Ray Alvarez, and he has never ever closed the shop since 1965. Literally, he was sleeping on the floor, and he was the happiest motherf**ker I know. He is a neighborhood legend. And I think what comes to it is this sense of ownership he has of what he does. He really loves what he does, and that’s so rare in this world. I want to live like him. In the city it’s so hard to do now. But to do something that’s completely yours, it’s amazing.

J: I saw that on your website that Rubber Factory is showcasing works that explore the boundaries of different mediums, can you explain?

M: We are primarily a photo-based gallery, expanding on the ways that we want to explore photography as a medium. Personally, I am most interested in how Photography could be many things;  Sculpture, Moving Image, and New Media. I think that as a gallery, the main challenge I have is how do I distinguish your experience in a physical space with photograph from this (Mike points to a phone)? What can you experience differently from a flat screen, and how can you experience more deeply and more powerfully? The advantage I have is that I have physical space. I have touch, smell, and all these senses that you can’t have over flat screen. That’s the context, the subtext in presentation that I’m interested in, so that’s what we do.

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J: That’s awesome. Why did you name your gallery Rubber Factory?

M: So my family back in Malaysia runs a rubber factory. I thought I wanted to carry on that tradition, at least metaphorically, so I can say that I run a rubber factory, you know. It’s the idea of, especially coming from a big Asian family, carrying on traditions of your family. I feel like that’s probably a big reason why art is not that big in Asia, because people are held back socially, economically to fully experience it, or even to invest in it. So I want to take that personal narrative, and bring that into a gallery mission.

Also, originally, Rubber Factory was meant to be in a loft-like space, kind of like S Magazine’s space, actually, but obviously, we want to have a store front. We were inspired by the 60s and 70s, when people can go to each other’s loft and experience art in a very intimate setting. That was the original idea. It kind of ties into Warhol’s factory, so there’s also some distant art context.

J: What kind of works are you showing in your gallery right now? And what are the upcoming exhibitions?

M: We are currently showing Russian artist Anna Yeroshenko. She’s an architect by trade.What she brings to her works is explanational dimensionality within the photographs. An architect always work between 2D and 3D, in some way, that is the kind of what she does with her photographs. She takes the photo, makes a photo sculpture and rephotographs the sculpture. Like a building that always exists on the flat surface of the photograph. And that’s sort of the question for all the artists I work with. Our primary tension of the photograph is, why does it have to be so flat? Why can’t it be more dimensional? So Anna’s work is very architecturally-driven, but very much about the condition of a flat photograph.

The next artist we have is Moira McDonald. She is based in San Francisco and we are showing a body of work where she hand-crafts cameras that meant to be in birdhouses. They only take one exposure, but it’s an exposure throughout a period of three months to a year. She leaves the cameras in landscapes, for about a year. What they end up doing is collecting the photographs themselves, collecting  the rain, the materials, and also documenting the landscape over the period of a year. Her work are records of reality, allowing nature to make the work. I’m really excited about this show, because it’s going to be the highlight of our season.

One of the things I want to do is to have artists with diverse backgrounds. Some people we are showing next year are from places like, Shanghai, or Mumbai. We trust that the conversation people are having in Mumbai or Rio or Toyko are equally relevant to this bubble we have within contemporary photography in America. I feel like everyone in all the creative fields has this sense of entitlement, especially in New York, that “Oh, we are the sh*t. You are here because you are the best.” I don’t think that’s strictly true anymore. There are incredible site-specific works that are being made, and I really want to bring those to the City.