What separates man from beast? The idea of communication and language, some would say.

“That we can judge the degree of someone’s humanity based on their degree of language is very bothersome,” says artist Tan Zi Hao.

Tan’s complicated relationship with language had an early start in Chinese primary school and national-type secondary, where he found those who spoke English to be branded “show-offs” and ostracised.

The situation reversed when he started his diploma in advertising and graphic design at Petaling Jaya’s The One Academy, where English is the language of instruction. However, he then felt intimidated to speak in English, although he read voraciously, he rarely spoke the language.

Tan Zi Hao

Tan’s works Minorities For The Masses (emulsion paint, rust, and sticker on galvanised iron sheet with metal framework, 2017).

In hearing Tan expound on academic theories and the research associated with his current doctorate in South-East Asian Studies (at the National University of Singapore), one would never think the 28-year-old ever struggled with how he speaks.

“I think language affects people in a very intimate way. Sometimes when you speak a certain language, you’d feel embarrassed or people will not speak to you because you speak that language,” he says in a recent interview at the A+ Works Of Art gallery in KL.

The gallery is showing Tan’s debut solo exhibit, simply titled M.

For this show, Tan analyses the dynamics between Malaysia’s various languages and idiosyncrasies, resulting in a series of sharp observations deceptively packaged as signage boards.

The last piece to be completed, Minorities For The Masses is based on two signboards he saw at hair saloons around his home in Seri Kembangan in Selangor. In huge capitalised letters, one of the signboards announces “Kedai Gunting Rambut”, then translates it to Mandarin and English.

Tan Zi Hao

‘I think language affects people in a very intimate way,’ says Tan.

“There’s a political hierarchy in the order which the words are arranged,” says Tan.

However, Tan isn’t using his artwork as a platform to criticise such prejudice. He aims for a journalistic rather than interpretative approach and believes that dragging a street sign into a foreign space is enough to decontextualise it.

“If you saw this (sign) outside you won’t even think about it. But if it is in a gallery, you’d have to consider why it’s there.”

Overall, the exhibition has a uniformly clean aesthetic, something Tan attributes as an unwritten rule for conceptual art.

His background in graphic design is probably also responsible for the polished look. In fact, he admits that it was his interest in typography that led him to dabble in language, though the humble artist says he’s far from a trained academic of linguistics.

Tan disagrees that his works are overtly political. The massive The Danger Of Translation, a series of 18 signboards, each with a word that touches nearly every hot-button political issue in recent memory, might suggest otherwise.

However, what Tan is against is the nationalisation of language by the State.

“The moment you tie a language to the State, it creates this image that if you don’t speak it, you deserve less rights and protection,” he says, adding that given how cosmopolitan a certain language can be, it is ironic to consider the notion of “purity of language”.

Tan Zi Hao’s M is showing at the A+ Works of Art gallery (D6 Trade Centre, Jalan Sentul) in Kuala Lumpur till Nov 25. Open: noon to 7pm, Tuesday to Saturday. FB: A+ Works of Art. Call: 019-915 3399.