by Marisa S. Olson
Fancying himself a bit of a private dick I search of the naked truth, Thomas Chang photographs empty strip clubs, Las Vegas brothels, five star hotel rooms, and other private spaces, launching investigations into their occupants, and focusing on the spectacle of decadence. Indulging a habit of shooting vacant spaces, Chang tries to comment on the missing persons by looking at their remnants. Like a true detective, Chang enjoys the sense of mystery his work invokes, forcing viewers to chase their own stories and questions. "We understand a photograph in terms of what we do not see as much as what we do see, " says the artist. "This shift of absence and presence is mediated by our own everyday experiences." With an education including the usual doses of Benjamin and Baudelaire, Chang's conversation is laced with the weighty jargon of critics who are as abstracts as they are well-intentioned. The actuality of what goes on in a strip club is a little too obvious for Chang. He does, however, appreciate the ambivalent portability and transience of burlesque décor. "These could be airports, or corporate lounges. There are only a few cues clueing the viewer in to the actual function of these spaces, and the fact that something tawdry may be going on."
Soft-spoken and clean cut, Chang enjoys the "seedy side" of his brand of voyeurism. And occupational hazard some men would die for, Chang estimates he has crossed the threshold of ten strip clubs for every one that has let him take pictures. Bringing his portfolio helps. But Chang generally does not like to show proprietors his finished product. "This is a critique. I am criticizing what happens in these spaces, " the artist plainly states. To his surprise, some club owners have liked his work enough to commission commercial shoots. But Chang isnÕt sure they "get it." And in any case he is not comfortable crossing the line between critic and consumer.
"Mystery, helplessness and the barriers between time and space are what disassociate individuals from society, in these clubs," Chang says, justifying his beef with the subjects of his Strip Tease series. Anything but a prude, Chang's concern actually lies in the lack of sexual satisfaction inherent in the strip joint exchange. " they are offering false promises. People go in seeking one thing and inevitably come out more frustrated, alone, or dissatisfied," explains the pseudo-sociologist. "Club owners and patrons are playing a complicated game, [offering the] illusion of a reward."
The bottom line throughout the entire body of work is that the spaces we most often esteem as attractive generally turn out to be the most vulgar. Questioning the façade of pleasure's design through the manipulation of scenery and ornament, Chang diagnoses the maladies of superficiality. This effort extends far beyond the reach of the stripper's pole, into the living rooms of Beverly Hills' elite and the garages of suburbiaÕs fathers.
In his Decadence series, Chang moves beyond looking at absence, into looking at the presence of unnoticed signifies of luxury. Large hotel spaces occupied only by a perfectly-placed exotic plant or piece of furniture express disgust with both unsuccessful luxe and the waste of materials in the name of class. Images of drained hotel and residential swimming pools (the "ultimate ornament" in Chang's book) read contradictorily as both elaborately staged (perhaps because of the artist's signature large-scale exhibits), and on-the-fly, by virtue of their ribaldry. Who would dare allow Chang to expose such dirty vacancy to the world? "We try to console ourselves with decorations - things we place on shelves, swimming pools. We seek out these spaces Ð strip clubs, hotels, pools - in search of need fulfillment, wanton for a sense of comfort, familiarity. Inevitably we are unfulfilled, emptier and out a lot of money."
As Chang describes his philosophy, it seems we lose this game in so many aspects of life: fashion, design, perhaps even spirituality. It's hard for most of us to face up to Chang's dogma. But the artist is reassuring: Seeing beyond our statuettes and tree-lined driveways to the beauty in the banal, vernacular and everyday subjects and exchanges of ordinary livelihood, Chang hopes that others will come to assign the same romanticism to real world interaction.
It may be this self-effacing, unfiltered portrait of American materialism that is indeed the sexiest aspect of ChangÕs work. Empty strip joint stages canÕt hold a candle to good old-fashioned self-reflection. Fortunately, our Ôtrue selvesÕ emerge much more glamorous on the other side of Chang's rosy lens.