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Issue 237

Kent Chan’s Overheated Future

At Gasworks, London, the artist envisions a time when half the world’s population is living in a tropical climate 

BY Nevan Spier in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 19 JUN 23

As a child growing up in subtropical Brazil, I experienced a climate in which hot and humid summers steadily gave way to winters that dipped below zero degrees. Today, however, the gradual temperature increase caused by human environmental impact has resulted in the outer edge of the tropics expanding ever-further into the subtropics. According to the supporting material for ‘Future Tropics’ – Kent Chan’s first solo show in the UK – this expansion will result in more than half of the world’s population living in a tropical climate by 2050, while some regions of the existing tropics will become uninhabitable.

Kent Chan
Kent Chan, Warm Fronts, 2021–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Gasworks, London

Chan’s eponymous, two-channel film (2023) contains fictional characters who, backdropped by open windows and sweltering heat, describe how the seasons have vanished into a yearlong summer. Those who used to live in the now-inhospitable Old Tropics have either fled to the expanded New Tropics or taken off to Venus (in a bout of science fiction) in hopes of acclimatizing to its evaporated oceans and infernal temperatures. ‘Many came, but few landed,’ narrates a figure sitting on a stool at a shore with their feet in the water. ‘One can step foot on land, but not everyone has the privilege of landing’, they continue. Others reminisce of generational homelands that have long been engulfed by rising sea levels – a devastatingly realistic prospect for some island nations, such as Tuvalu. To watch the film’s widescreen projection, which takes up an entire gallery wall, visitors must sit under a heat lamp, rendering this tropical nightmare even more stifling.

Kent Chan
Kent Chan, ‘Future Tropics’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Gasworks, London; photograph: Andy Keate

In the main gallery space, Chan has paired another overhead heat lamp with yellow-coloured lights and a number of large water tanks, which he has transformed into robust humidifiers and dispersed between both rooms. The installation, Monsoons (2023), replicates the seasonal weather changes of tropical regions, such as in the artist’s native Singapore. At first, the air thickens as a cloud of steam settles low to the ground, eventually rising to waist level and flooding the otherwise sparse room. Meanwhile, pulsing electronic music blasts out from two speakers flanking a column of four vertical screens. This final work, Warm Fronts (2021–ongoing), features audio-visual transmissions of DJs from tropical countries – Guillerrrrmo from Brazil, Makossiri from Kenya, Kaleekarma from India and Gabber Modus Operandi from Indonesia – alongside a collection of wall-mounted mirrors inscribed with tropic-futuristic manifestos.

Kent Chan
Kent Chan, Future Tropics, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Gasworks, London

The definition of ‘the tropics’ as a specific region with its own characteristics during the 15th century established the dominance of European colonial empires and the subsequent political, economic and environmental subjugation of postcolonial nations. This tropical imaginary often evoked a primitive paradise overflowing with palm trees, exotic fauna, sexualized bodies and disease. Chan’s installations seemingly seek to vaporize this fetishizing aesthetic into intangibility, while mundane shots of rotating fans and cityscapes strewn with air-conditioning units serve to ground the film in the reality of coping with unbearable heat. These works speak to how some of the most devastating effects of climate change – which the capitalist machine of the Global North disproportionately causes while exploiting and deforesting the Global South – are felt most violently by those in the tropical belt. Chan’s response in ‘Future Tropics’ is to position this conceived region at the forefront of what is to come. Tomorrow is here and – more akin to heavy techno beats than the low hum of the AC – our overheated future is crashing in loud and fast.

Kent Chan’s ‘Future Tropics’ is at Gasworks, London, until 10 September 2023.

Main image: Kent Chan, Warm Fronts, 2021–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Gasworks, London

Nevan Spier is a writer and artist based in London, UK.