The works of Phillip Lai demand attention for the shape of things and foster a freedom to let thought orbit objects. They put things before you which are singular in the way they are made and behave towards each other, as well as in the manner they change the character of the space and the mood in which you may approach them. They do so in a mode that is as pronouncedly factual as it is subliminally unsettling. In resembling objects of everyday use, their material presence may at first not strike you as overly odd, yet once specific details draw you into the logic of their make-up, glitches appear in the order of things and tensions arise as elements won't add up in the way you'd expect.
In this key Lai's works neither exist nor speak in isolation. They put relations into play that resonate with forces at work in the realities they stem from. Their material characteristics speak volumes, in a manner that is equally concrete and abstract. What they can thus be perceived to address are dynamics at the very heart of the economies and ecologies governing life today. The works speak to the contrast between abundance and scarcity in an age where the opposite of supply is no longer demand, but waste, and infrastructural erosion undercuts belief in wholesale solutions, while calling for a deeper grasp of what survival means.
These are big topics. In Greek “topos” means place, and indeed Lai provides a place for a global discussion to be had, yet on the scene his pieces set, that is, in the key of the precise material language they employ. This place is no parliament, courtroom, or medical theatre built for the universal representation of this or that. Neither is it imbued with the air of authority stately architecture invokes to instill belief in the permanence of rule. Instead, the topography Lai's pieces lay out is one of places where people put up dwellings, but it’s unclear whether they do so to stay for long, or move on to a different site where labour, water and other resources might exist.
Objects take the lead where structures become impermanent. Existential improvisers rely on things that work. Be it simple tools that are still ready to hand when you’re nowhere near infrastructure. Be it bespoke instruments which you take with you wherever you go because the craft needed for their making outlasted centuries, and so they speak of survival, like a talisman of know-how passed on for generations. Either way, the objects may testify to what is at stake in the struggles in place. Unlike evening news or twitter feeds, however, Lai's work does not talk of these struggles in the fashion of reports on current events. His pieces speak in the more silent tone of embodied witness accounts. Their material make-up, as it were, keeps the score.
While thoughts the works provoke travel far, their material qualities will always draw your attention back to moments of uncertainty: “What is this? Where is it from? What is it for?” These questions won't leave you when you look at Lai's works. This is not because he makes them ostentatiously weird. He rather keeps them inconspicuously strange. They'll arrest your gaze in particular ways. The random perfection of industrially mass-produced objects is designed to let them be identified as desirable upon purchase, and trashed without a second thought after use. Not so with Lai's pieces.
Despite the seeming simplicity of their shape, a closer look at the texture of their surface may reveal them to be hand made. Irregularities in the fabric of some objects betray that, contrary to what their standard design of the object may have signaled, it wasn't produced in the millions by machines, but manually slipcast in small quantities. The surprising perfection of other pieces may evince a degree of which, in the global North, largely died out with the demise of small skilled manufacturing. This is no ode to craft. It’s a quiet avowal of manual labour in all its persistent forms.