File Note 87: Phillip Lai - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Ian Kiaer



Besides Images References Quote Biography Credits


Besides – suggests that further reasoning will follow, as if what has already been ventured might not quite be enough. It offers the promise of similar thought but this time with a slight change of tone, perhaps more conciliatory or with a lighter touch. Besides, the name or title for this group of works, next to two rooms by another artist, conscious of their part in an exchange, ever alert to past gestures and alternative strategy.

There is an off-white canopy somewhere in the gallery; I’m sure because I’ve seen it taking shape on two visits to Phillip Lai’s studio. Yet, as I write this, quite how it will be presented is still not set. An uncertain gap then occurs, between his making, this writing and how the work will eventually be placed. The gap, determined by the artist’s many contingent decisions, is important only because often it disappears with the object’s final rest. It might by now be standing over some kind of cloth; its fibreglass shell suggestive of synthetic shelter.  

Black jute and gas piping… their relation like many things here is not so clear. I recall colour photocopies taped to the studio wall, of tents made from similar material. Their dark forms flattened by an intense desert light with primary coloured plastic containers collecting around their entrances for improvised use. The artist seems content for an ethnographic figuring to touch the work while remaining alert to the need for negotiation with these intoxicating, and hence highly problematic, images. Rough weave conjoins with those pipes into clumps of cloth. There was talk of their position below the sill of this old library building, with outside traffic serving as a reminder of something less distant. 

It’s not only tents that occupy Lai’s wall, there are other things; photographs of 19th century opium smokers lying beside their paraphernalia. There is something odd about these pipes being both objects of beauty and efficiency, equipment that has been carefully designed, fitted and refined to despatch their users into dream states of personal reverie. What now takes the form of plastic bottles crudely cut, or spoons and blackened foil, were then still decorous. He tells me that smokers often attended their business in pairs, not so much to share experience as for mutual assistance during moments of inertia.  

These reclining smokers seem to prompt several figures present in the work. As body follows mind into inaction, their chosen position appears intently floor bound. A painted cream tin lamp is placed face down on its plank. An object more normally lifted high by its cord is here left to smother its very intention, its perfect rim ensuring only the slightest perception of light. Thought this way, the work might appear deeply negative but that would be to wrongly assign it some allegorical reading and to misrecognise its inert power and deliberate gesture to remain simply a lamp on a plank.

Spoons are also presented here as a type of tool, enfolded in cloth. Their appeal to use may not be wholly misplaced even if they are so snugly tucked into personal pleats. A certain care is implied by this treatment of silverware, more usually arranged on tables or kept in drawers, as if such attention delivers them from the familiar movement of hand to mouth and asks for another kind of thought. “This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the worldless joy of having once more withstood want,”1 yet whatever sentiments the earth and its unveiling might manifest, Lai’s spoons are of a different order to Heidegger, perhaps more appropriate to be laid out on the cities’ pavements for the idle perusal of a passer-by.

On the same roadside one might come across another offering, this time a twin handled open basin, holding slivers of car tyre for any imaginable need. The openness of this work could be considered both generous and unsettling in its demand, as if the deliberately altered material assumes a capacity for invention we no longer possess. There is also a question of origin with these cut fragments, whether they are from the studio or a market that has not lost touch with a pragmatic relationship to things. Either way the artist, still mindful of childhood memories of Malaysian rubber plantations, remains sensitive to this substance that so aptly bridges nature and industry. 

It may be that the dish of tyres won’t make it into the exhibition and instead will be left under a table to oscillate somewhere between work and equipment for later employ. If so, the indeterminate relation between technology and craft will be carried by another collection of objects, seemingly recognisable yet abstracted by a process associated with modern manufacture, though traceable to the tombs of the Pharaohs. An assortment of cylinders have been metal spun to resemble something close to pan rings, vessels or even car wheels, and then simply positioned, frustrating attempts to identify quite what form of techné might be at hand.

One piece that seems to resolutely resist the floor comprises a cast concrete square with four equally spaced pipes as legs that hold its weight several feet from the ground. Lai has referred to a letter Rodchenko wrote from Paris, where the Russian personified objects to play a social role, “Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades.”2 This exhibition is perhaps distinctive in how the works have an autonomy that appeals less directly to the immediate context than previous interventions. For his 2012 show at Stuart Shave / Modern Art, he inverted the gallery entrance, allowing for only a shop window view onto a doorway that he had found earlier, forcing the visitor to walk round the block to enter by way of the basement. This involved a conceptual figuring that might appear absent in the present exhibition, but that would be to fail to attend to these things as equals… besides.


1. Heidegger, M., 2001, Poetry, Language, Thought, Trans. Hofstadter, A., New York, Harper Collins, p.34

2. Rodchenko, A., Rodchenko v Parizhe. Iz pisem domoi,” Novyi Lef 2 (1927) p.20, trans. Kiaer C., OCTOBER 75, Winter 1996, pp.3–35 © 1996 October Magazine Ltd. and MIT.

Bas Jan Ader Nightfall 16mm film, 4 min. 16 sec. (1971)

Giorgio Agamben The Man without Content Stanford University Press (1999)

Daniel Birnbaum The Hospitality of Presence Sternberg Press (2008)

Jorge Luis Borges A Universal History of Infamy E P Dutton (1972)

Gilles Deleuze ‘Desert Islands’ in Desert Islands and other texts 1953 – 1974 Semiotext(e) (2002)

Jimmie Durham A Certain Lack of Coherence Third Text Publications (1993)

Robert Scholes Fabulation and Metafiction University of Illinois Press (1979)

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky Roadside Picnic Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. (1977)

Michael Taussig ‘Tactility and Distraction’ in The Nervous System Routledge (1992)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Dir.) Blissfully Yours (2002)

'And what I'm doing, all-important, breathing in and out and saying, with words like smoke, I can't go, I can't stay, let's see what happens next' Beckett, Texts for Nothing


Phillip Lai (b. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1969) lives and works in London. He completed his MFA at Chelsea College of Art & Design, London (1993–94) and BA Fine Art, sculpture, Chelsea College of Art & Design, London (1990–93). He currently teaches Fine Art at Goldsmiths, London. His recent solo exhibitions include Stuart Shave | Modern Art, London (2012, 2009); Visitor, Galleria Franco Noero, Turin (2012); Introduction and Jargon, Transmission Gallery, Glasgow (2009); Open Container, Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Berlin (2008). His work has been included in the following group exhibitions: London Twelve, City Gallery Prague, Prague, Czech Republic; No Soul For Sale: A Festival of Independents (Mousse contribution, curated by Jonathan Griffin), Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London (2010); Seven Times Two or Three, Cubitt, London (2008); In the Poem about Love you don’t write the word Love, Overgaden, Institute for Samtidskunst, Copenhagen, Denmark, Midway Contemporary Art, Minneapolis, MN, USA and Artists Space, New York, NY, USA (2006–07); If It Didn’t Exist You’d Have To Invent It: A Partial Showroom History, The Showroom, London (2006). Phillip Lai is represented by Stuart Shave | Modern Art, London and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.


Ian Kiaer is an artist who lives and works in London.

The artist thanks Goldsmiths Art Department for its support.