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Chasing Infinity, 2014
1977 Chevy Van, stained glass, MDF, enamel and six-channel interactive video
Dimensions variable

- text by Michael Maizels, “New View 2014 Faculty Exhibition,” the Davis, 2014. 72-78

David Teng-Olsen’s art is curiously, restlessly and insistently autobiographical. He uses himself as what
he calls a “test subject” and draws on his unusual, but nevertheless quintessentially American, life story to
examine how and why we construct our own peculiar self-understandings. The undertones of experimentation
and the pursuit of knowledge in his art betray his abiding interest in science and early academic training in
bioengineering.
     Although Chasing Infinity (2014) references a number of aspects of Teng-Olsen’s biography, the piece is
primarily concerned with a split in the artist’s upbringing. The form of the van and the video contents inside
speak to the post-apocalyptic survival exercises to which Teng-Olsen’s adoptive father regularly subjected
both the artist and his younger sister. Conducted in the California hinterlands, these trials were designed to
prepare the children to navigate, forage and even fire semi-automatic weapons. Inside the van, monitors play
scenes from his recent re-exploration of many of these sites. The video, shot at chest-height, allows viewers
to see from the perspective of a child-sized Teng-Olsen as he traipses through remote deserts, forests and
mountains.
    By contrast, the blocks scattered outside the van speak to the influence of the artist’s Chinese mother. They
are in fact a full set of oversized Mahjong tiles, a reference to her consuming passion for the game. Here
the game also functions as a symbol for the aspects of traditional Chinese culture to which Teng-Olsen was
exposed as a child native to America. Mahjong stands in as a counterpoint to the survival exercises to Teng-
Olsen’s father – the “nature” to an intense vivid “nurture.” The tiles are also playful, functioning as visual
analogs for the cinderblocks onto which Californians frequently hoist their old, broken down vans.
    Perhaps the most significant character in this installation is the van itself, which may be understood as a
totem for the artist. While its exterior is covered in Teng-Olsen’s colorful muralist abstraction—lending the
vehicle a kind of Scooby-Doo aesthetic—the 1977 Chevy G10 is entangled in his story in many different
ways. At a general level, Teng-Olsen considers the automobile a reference to classical Americana, filtered
through the hot-rod culture of his native California. On a more personal level, this 1977 model rolled off
of the production line during the year of his birth, and it was this van that carried him from graduate school
at the University of Wisconsin to his first professional position at Wellesley. When a mechanic stole it in
2007, Teng-Olsen tracked it down over the course of several years, and eventually, connived his way into
the mechanic’s yard in 2010 to steal it back. Although he credits these episodes as rites of passages into
adulthood, it is the van which itself has undergone a transition in Chasing Infinity. It has been stripped of its
vital engine parts and installed in an art museum.
    Olsen’s understanding self-discovery by means of travel and transformation has been substantially informed
by American literature. He absorbed his adoptive father’s admiration for the work of the Beat writer Jack
Kerouac especially, On the Road. However, unlike many of the great American adventure novels, Teng-Olsen’s
work is often suspicious of the open road as a means to enlightenment. This outlook too often suggests
a flight from rather than journey towards a true self-encounter. In this way, Teng-Olsen’s art does not deal so
much with travel and transformation as it does with return. The origin of his creative project is then not to
be found in the California wilderness or at the Mahjong table but rather in the process of telling and retelling
these stories through his art.