Danse Macabre: Sydney Shen

Sydney Shen in Conversation with Xin Wang


The Japanese toilet is truly a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light. The novelist Natsume Sōseki counted his morning trips to the toilet “a physiological delight.”… Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste. [Although] it turns out to be more hygienic and efficient to install modern tile and a flush toilet… that burst of light from those four white walls hardly puts one in a mood to relish Sōseki’s “physiological delight.” There is no denying the cleanliness; every nook and corner is pure white. Yet what need is there to remind us so forcefully of the issue of our own bodies… How very crude and tasteless to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination. The cleanliness of what can be seen only calls up the more clearly thoughts of what cannot be seen. In such places the distinction between the clean and the unclean is best left obscure, shrouded in a dusky haze.
—Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, 1933

New York–based artist Sydney Shen operates with an eclectic yet peculiar appetite for objects, aesthetics, and narratives that fathom both the depth and the randomness of the human condition. Aptly describing herself as a “regulator of the ultimate void,” Shen relishes creating sculptures and installations—including one in the form of a video game—that might be described as profane, anachronistic, and poetically macabre. Her latest exhibition, Misery Whip at Gallery Vacancy, Shanghai, features finely crafted works that draw on overlapping histories of surgical procedures, punishment, and vernacular taste, particularly those in close proximity to Medieval flagellation devices and illuminated manuscripts. The conversation that follows surveys the terrain and texture of the artist’s creative mind-scape.

XIN WANG: Voracious references and imaginative, myriad connections among disparate objects and subjects are core elements in your practice. I wonder if you struggle with sifting through and distilling what might mesmerize you as you work on specific artworks or exhibitions.

SYDNEY SHEN: It’s definitely difficult to prioritize which ideas are worth following down the rabbit hole. The novelty of something might make it interesting at first, which leads to a hyper-focus, only for me to later realize that I didn’t want to work with it at all. While I was preparing my current exhibition at Gallery Vacancy, I got really into the Pillsbury Doughboy, which didn’t make it into the show. Now, a couple of months later, I can’t imagine why I was so invested in learning about this character.

XW: What intrigued you about the Pillsbury Doughboy? He certainly deviates from the severe and perverse romanticism you usually pursue.

SS: I was browsing eBay, one of my favorite activities, and came across Pillsbury Doughboy figurines in various poses, like reclining on his stomach, supported by elbows. In the same eBay session I found an “unborn” doll in the same pose. I had the idea to buy this antique shaving mirror with a really beautiful stand and place the Pillsbury Doughboy on one side of the mirror, take the mirror out, then position the unborn which would be taken out, baby doll on the other. The Pillsbury Doughboy reminds me of Longaberger baskets because both speak to an iconography of North Americanness.

XW: Like a kind of Americana?

SS: Exactly. There’s a building in Ohio shaped like a functional basket with handles. It’s the former headquarters of the Longaberger company. The company sold baskets that are supposed to exude an aura of being handmade and handcrafted, yet the company operated as a multilevel marketing scheme, like Mary Kay or Avon. Multilevel marketing, or MLM, relies on consumer “representatives”—stereotypically middle-class suburban housewives—to coerce their friends into purchasing products. Like Beanie Babies, there was a Longaberger craze, and now tons of these baskets are on eBay, super cheap. That was part of the reason I was fascinated with them, but I also think they’re quite beautiful. At the time I was searching for baskets for my home to store my junk, realizing that I was going down this farmhouse-chic rabbit hole, which again epitomizes Americana as style.

XW: The Longaberger basket building reminds me of the uncanny monuments of Claes Oldenburg, but even weirder because it was conceived of sincerely. Speaking of buildings, I recently experienced a walkthrough of your game Master’s Chambers (2016) and thoroughly enjoyed its classic horror ambience and exploratory itinerary. As a horror game fan, I always indulge in inspecting the space and hoarding any object I can take, which I notice was a repeated action by the player in the walkthrough as well.

SS: The player keeps grabbing batteries to power their flashlight—a limited light source.The on-screen captions that appear when this happens are sinister versions of spiritual-sounding aphorisms. This is in homage to “Trisonic,” a New York brand that prints optimistic proverbs on the packaging for all their household products, from batteries to toilet plungers.

XW: I noticed that in the player’s monologue—written by you—as they navigate around and comment on odd objects encountered, there’s an intriguing line about a “steampunk Etsy merchant,” which I thought was an apt characterization of those wonderfully bizarre aesthetic sensibilities we sometimes encounter at corners of the internet or in archives.

SS: Totally. Wonder is an apt description for the sense of discovery on the internet and in archives. It’s also related to my persistently conflicted feelings about steampunk. I love it and hate it at the same time, but the things I’m most interested in are often things I feel conflicted about—full of contradiction, repulsion, and desire, which also describes my work. I suppose I’m attempting to understand ambivalence through my art. Steampunk is this pretty reviled sensibility, particularly among the art cognoscenti, because it’s about ornaments, the excess of which is associated with a lack of sophistication. There’s something vulgar and “wrong” about treating things such as gears and mechanical parts as ornamental, decorative. It’s absurd to make objects that were formerly meant to be purely functional and not even designed to be seen into decorations, but that’s part of the appeal for me.

This nostalgia for “pure function” is also a feature of the Americana I spoke of earlier. For example some of the sculptures in Misery Whip are based on two-person saws that were once used to fell trees. Now antique or antique-style two-person saws are a great decoration to hang above your gaming computer in your “man cave” to signify your valuing of things like the virtue of strenuous and dangerous work before there were labor laws. Or there are boutique workshops that make functional specialty handles and restore old saws if you wanted to actually try to cut down a huge tree the authentic, old-fashioned way for fun. I’m not even saying this to criticize the nostalgic impulse. I think it’s kind of inevitable to yearn for the past. It clearly has a hold on me, too.

Lately I’ve been thinking about—again related to steampunk—how anachronisms allow for a lot of speculative potential. Another steampunk trope is the patina, which might also be considered vulgar because it concerns faux aging of surfaces, and is hence superficial and frivolous. You’re faking the passage of time. But to me patina could be something that covers up information. I was thinking about its relation to declassified documents, or texts or data recovered from parts of a black box or censored in some way. Or when something has been photocopied over and over again, to the point of disintegration. In that sense the ornament becomes functional, and the function is to make things more unknown.

XW: What I find enchanting about your work is that you’re obviously collecting and exploring a lot of objects and sensibilities that you feel ambivalent about, but that ambivalent aura—to put it in a jargon-y way—continues into your work. Sometimes treating readymades as art objects could diminish their connotative power, whereas you seem to be working with how they may still stay alive, unstable and often macabre.

SS: So many things that I encounter are already too good as is. Why intervene at all? They’re already pretty perfect.

XW: Many of your sculptural pieces and installations do strike me “perfect objects,” which doesn’t mean they are pragmatic, but in the sense of polish and contradictory coherence. An example that comes to mind is Please Dont Eat Me (2015).

SS: For that work I found these dustpan brooms in a dollar store, basically already as they were in the show. I didn’t want to do much to them because they’re beautiful as is—down to the broom handle saying “Made in Italy” on it, which I’m sure was not the case. The violin-shaped handle was also a readymade. When I saw it, I was like, “This is so stupid, it’s genius. I wish I had that idea.” Maybe that’s what I aspire to—this type of absurdity, and an unstable quality. And part of working with found objects is to figure out how to accommodate and bring out the qualities that give them life that are not immediately apparent. It might end up not being used, but that object’s proximity to something else is the real kernel of what’s interesting. So, it’s always unclear at first.

XW: I might assume that you took a smooth handle and sculpted it.

SS: A lot of people assumed I sculpted it because the object is too insane in itself to exist. Particularly in hindsight, in the scope of other things that I’ve made, it shares a lot of motifs that I’m invested in. My recent sculptures, for example, are based on the silhouettes of shame fiddles, or shrew’s fiddles, from the Middle Ages—punitive instruments for public humiliation for people who committed petty crimes, like gossiping. It’s a portable pillory that you would be locked into and have to walk around in. A burdensome symbol of shame on your body that forces the body into a gesture as if one is holding a violin. I made these myself—the overall composition, layout, materials, everything. The cutout maze interiors were based on my sketches and digital renderings. Imagine the creative cruelty of this! “Why don’t we make this punitive object and shape it like a violin in the meantime?”

XW: Throughout your creative output there seems to be a constant fascination with these overlapping categories of objects that punish, heal, and eroticize, all derived from the functional objective of subjecting or reducing one to certain physical conditions.

SS: I’m definitely interested in extreme physical conditions and the experience of transcendence, such as religious practice of flagellants and wearing punitive clothing like hair shirts. It all reflects the idea that there is something beyond this world, but it can only be achieved through the obliteration of earthly materials. It’s not only a religious or spiritual or even erotic kind of desire, but in some other ways it’s at the core of why people do anything at all. The fallibility and futility of that idea seems to me the most essential thing about being human, of wanting to know more than what even exceeds our ability to know.

XW: There’s indeed a fine line between pain and pleasure, which can be mutually enhancing. I read in your interviews with Banyi Huang, whose naughty jewelry pieces I enjoyed, relevant discussions around BDSM practices.1 I only recently heard about “consensual non-consent” and it just blew my mind, as it represents an almost perfect, oxymoronic contradiction in one’s desire to lose versus retain oneself—one’s agency.

SS: It’s like you have to find the perfect, delicate balance between the real and fantasies.

XW: This reminds me of The Agony of Eros (2012) by Byung-chul Han, who essentially argued that neoliberal “rituals” of dating, love, and desire-satisfaction products have eroded the Other in favor of sameness and safety.

SS: Yes, as in, things are so defined that there’s no room for play and possibilities.

XW: Do you think, then, that that kind of frustration leads to a fascination with the so-called Dark Ages, with medieval times—which I know is one of your favorite topics? Precisely for its very chaotic, or perceivably chaotic, Romanticism?

SS: There is a wide range of elements, but I think there’s something about the way we contrast the Middle Ages with the Enlightenment, even in the way lightness and darkness are evoked as metaphors in a dichotomy of good and bad. Knowledge was organized and codified at the expense of things that fit poorly in those systems. Jun’ichiro Tanazaki’s book In Praise of Shadows (1933) was influential to me because it doesn’t consider darkness marginal at all. Also, a not-insignificant series of passages are devoted to analyzing the aesthetics of toilets. Are we going through a Dark Ages right now? I don’t even necessarily intend that as cynical. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room to live or even thrive. The question is how we work with it.

XW: I was really drawn to your work Opera Is a Bad Influence (2017) for its coherent constellations of seemingly discursive materials. I’d love to hear about how you arrived at a work like that.

SS: I had wanted to make dolls for some time. I was interested in cuteness, and how sinister it actually is. Sianne Ngai’s essay “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” (2005) was very important to me; in it she discusses how the perception of cuteness stems from feeling both protective of and more powerful than the cute subject, which also means you also have the power to hurt it. I wanted to make dolls that were failed scarecrows, made from straitjackets stuffed with hay, but not presented in a manner that renders them foreboding. They’re just lying around, splayed on the ground. I embroidered different types of vermin and pests on the straitjackets—dung beetles and mosquitoes—as well as texts that refer to elemental phenomena like rain, prisms, salt, time. I like the friction between these lowly creatures and things that seem noble and sublime, both of which were embroidered on the straps of the full-body straitjackets. The insects also have the capacity to bring great pestilence. Their existence and contribution is as essential to the world as weather.  I was glad that this work could be revisited in conversation with newer pieces for its re-installation at Gallery Vacancy, because I think of the pastoral as a site of transcendence and the supernatural beyond. In the installation mockups for Misery Whip, I referred to the area of the gallery where Opera Is a Bad Influence is installed as The Barn. An audio piece Mud Sale was installed in the same room. The audio is taken from a found video of men at cattle auctioneering school, saying the tongue twister rhyme “Betty Botter” over and over as a vocal warmup. The result is trance-like and droning, like a spiritual chant.

XW: I also wonder how you came up with your works’ titles. They often remind me of riddles or Latin terminology.

SS: The titles Gunne Sax (2021), 1st Knowing (Manifesteange Metamorphose temps de fille) (2021), and Moi même Moitié le Momo (2021)—all works in my current show at Gallery Vacancy—are borrowed, altered names of clothing companies. What they all have in common are frilly, beautiful dresses with a nostalgic femininity to them. Gunne Sax was a US brand synonymous with both “Boho prairie” style and Renaissance Faire garb. Moi même Moitié and Metamorphose are Japanese “Elegant Gothic Lolita” brands, “EGL” fashion invokes the eternally young porcelain doll.

In general, I really like hyperfeminine, beautiful clothing, but physically I like to dress comfortably, so these dresses almost represent an aspirational fantasy—to wear these costume-like dresses every day seems really brave.

My choosing of these things also has to do with ideas of the pastoral they evoke. The Gunne Sax dresses, associated with the US West, or elegant gothic Lolita, are similar to how steampunk is fascinatingly anachronistic—the Edwardian, the Victorian, and the Rococo all mashed together with a nod to the French aristocracy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I was thinking about Marie Antoinette’s fake farm at Versailles where she could pretend to be a peasant girl, which felt resonant with my own need to find the perfect basket to create a farmhouse-chic aesthetic at home.

XW: Contrasting with the sweet ornaments, of course, are often the morbid functions associated with these objects you appropriate. I understand the basket in your new work is supposed to be placed next to guillotines to collect chopped heads.

SS: Yes, Myne Name Is Lubbert Das (2020) came from a desire to make works about containers that would be empty of the function/objects they are intended to serve/hold. So, the basket contains the impression of the face of the beheaded victim. I cast my own face, and there are holes on the head that reflect areas of trephination, a medical procedure where a piece of skull is removed. It’s still done for a variety of reasons, but in the Dark Ages, certain fake doctors would claim that a stone needed to be extracted from the brain to treat and contain madness.

The name Lubbert Das came from a Hieronymus Bosch painting of someone being trephinated, and the inscription around it refers to Lubbert Das, who is supposed to be an archetypal fool. Hence, I’m also portraying myself as the fool. The other basket contains silhouettes of surgical tools based on antique instruments used to perform trephination. When I was reading about trephination, I learned that in addition to cranial surgery, bladder surgery was one of the earliest recorded forms of elective surgery. It was so pervasive, and frequently done so poorly, that there needed to be a line in the Hippocratic Oath, the doctor’s code of ethics, that reads, “I will not cut for a stone.”The idea of stones—an object associated with the outside or external—existing within the body evokes both intrigue and a sense of revulsion. This ambivalence is heightened in consideration of how some animals intentionally swallow stones to aid in physiological functions. That’s partly why the marbles in the “Cicatrix” shame fiddle piece are made from the gastroliths, or gizzard stones, of dinosaurs.

XW: I am very curious about your podcast series 69 Favor Taste—the name a naughty homage to the New York Chinatown hot-pot spot 99 Favor Taste. Could you share something about this idea?

SS: It’s a collaborative interview project I started with my friend Jasmine Lee. It was a way for us to explore questions around the construction and consumption of diaspora Asian identities, by sharing meals with our guests at restaurants around Queens, the New York borough known for its culinary diversity. We are also interested in ASMR and Mukbang; the latter is a kind of internationally popular “online food show” originating in South Korea. For a Mukbang episode, the host will eat a meal on camera, often while conversing with the viewer as though seated at the same dining table. Sometimes the meals are grotesque feasts, and/or mic’d to amplify the sounds of chewing. The highly exaggerated, often theatrical aural experience of ASMR and Mukbang is a way to viscerally “connect” with viewers despite the mediated distance of the screen, so this was a format that we borrowed for our project. All the recorded interviews are still a work in progress.

1. https://specialspecial.com/blogs/journal/featured-artist-sydney-shen.
2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mukbang.

at Gallery Vacancy, Shanghai
until 13 March 2021

Sydney Shen (b. 1989, Woodbridge) lives and works in New York. She completed her BFA at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York in 2011. She received the 2019-2020 Jerome Foundation Queens Museum Emerging Artist Fellowship, and was a 2019-2020 resident of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace. Upcoming exhibitions include Queens Museum, New York (2021); and Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen (2021). Her solo exhibition Misery Whip is currently on view at Gallery Vacancy, Shanghai. Solo presentations include Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna (2019); New Museum, New York (2019); Motel, Brooklyn (2017); Springsteen, Baltimore (2017); and Interstate Projects, Brooklyn (2016). Group exhibitions include Aldea, Bergen (2019); Invisible Exports, New York (2019); Deitch Projects, New York (2018); American Medium, New York (2018); Hotel Art Pavilion (2018); Aike Dellarco, Shanghai (2017).  Shen is co-author of Perfume Area, a book of prose-poetry published by Ambient Press, New York (2015).    

Xin Wang is an art historian and curator based in New York. Past curatorial projects include Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2013); Lu Yang: Arcade, New York (2014); THE BANK SHOW: Vive le Capital, BANK, Shanghai (2015); THE BANK SHOW: Hito Steyerl, BANK, Shanghai (2015); chin(A)frica: an interface, Institute of Fine Arts, New York (2017); and Life and Dreams: Photography and Media Art in China since the 1990s, The Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm (2018). Her writing has appeared in e-flux journal, Artforum, Kaleidoscope, and Art in America. She has lectured at the Para/Site International Conference, Columbia University, Yale University, School of Visual Arts, Queens Museum, Städelschule, and as the keynote speaker for the “Asia/Technics” conference at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2019). Currently pursuing a PhD in modern and contemporary art—focusing on Soviet hauntology in Postmodernism—at the Institute of Fine Arts (New York University), Wang also works as the Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art and manages the discursive archive on Asian Futurisms at afuturism.tumblr.com.

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