A conversation with Su-Chen Hung: resonances from the past and a look into her future projects

Su-Chen Hung

Su-Chen Hung. © Su-Chen Hung.

My first meeting with visual artist Su-Chen Hung dates back to April 2013, when her latest solo exhibition Ants in the City opened at Intersection for the Arts, a multidisciplinary center for the arts located in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood. The focal point of the exhibition was an immersive video work in which Su-Chen Hung documented an ants colony swarming on a path of red stained sugar syrup, comparing their tireless scurrying around with human’s frenetic life in San Francisco and other big cities.

Like this recent project, many of Hung’s works reveal a deep social, cultural and environmental awareness. Both her studio and her large outdoor installations are designed to interact with the observer and to create a physical space for otherwise invisible phenomena such as the passing of time and the fluctuation of memory. The color red, as well as sewing tools such as thread, spools, and needles, are among the most recurring motifs in her visual language. While the first is associated with rebirth, good fortune and happiness in Chinese culture, the sewing tools refer to an old-standing tradition in the artist’s family and serve as instruments for meditation and introspection.

Su-Chen Hung, Ants in the City, 2013.

Su-Chen Hung, Ants in the City, 2013, video installation (6 HD video projectors, 6 media players and sound system), Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, CA. © Su-Chen Hung.

In December 2013, in preparation for this article, I visited Su-Chen Hung in her house in San Francisco. I felt very privileged to meet her in such an intimate atmosphere and to get to know the placid, ordinary person behind the internationally acclaimed and pluri award-winning artist whose work has been exhibited throughout Asia, Europe, and the USA.

Su-Chen Hung was born in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, in a large family of seven siblings. Thanks to the liberal education she got from her parents, she developed a lasting fascination for music and literature, but she never even considered becoming an artist. Not yet. Instead, she graduated in Sociology from Tunghai University, Taiwan, planning to pursue an academic career. Her life radically changed in 1977, when she left to the United States with the intention of settling in New York. On her way to the East Coast, she made a stop in San Francisco and felt in love with the city’s gentle climate, eclectic mix of Victorian and Modern architecture, and multicultural society, and decided to stay. Inspired by the great openness and vitality of the local art scene, she took up her studies at the San Francisco Art Institute and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography in 1981, followed by a Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking in 1985. She has worked as a visual artist ever since and has realized dozen of temporary and permanent, public and private projects in a wide variety of media ranging from video to performance and from sculpture to installation.

Since the earliest stage of her career, Su-Chen Hung’s work has reflected a vivid interest for moving image and the effects of sound and light on our perception of reality. The human body also continues to play an essential role in her practice, as demonstrated by one of her most recent projects entitled Glassy Red Lips. This series of glass sculptures featuring a set of fleshy red lips was produced in October last year during the artist residency program she attended at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA. Assisted by the professional team of the so-called ‘Hot Shop’, the museum’s glass blowing studio, she experimented with a medium she had never handled before: glass. “Glass is malleable and transparent, that’s why I thought that using glass would have been interesting”, states Hung. To my question “why did you choose to represent lips?”, she responds: “As an artist, I’m interested in the human body in its entirety, as I consider it as a landscape that mirrors the world around us. But lips, in particular, are the most expressive body part to me, because they come in so many shapes and colors.” With this idea in mind, Hung mixed different shades of red and used different models of lips to sketch a basic lips-design which she then re- and re-adjusted to confer each piece its particular expressions. The experiment succeeded, and by the end of the residency she had created some twenty of these unique and sensual objects, one of which will be added to the Museum of Glass’ permanent collection. The question now is what she’s going to do with her series of Glassy Red Lips: considering it as an independent artwork or integrating it into future projects? “It’s too early to answer”, states Hung. “I have planted some ‘art seeds’ but I have no idea what kind of trees they will produce. Once they will be ready, they will pop out and mix with other seeds I have planted a long time ago giving rise to something new. But you never know in advance. It’s a very stressful process, but I kind of enjoy this stress.”

Su-Chen Hung, Glassy Red Lips, 2013.

Su-Chen Hung, Glassy Red Lips, 2013, blown glass in different shades of red, variable dimensions, Museum of Glass, Tacoma, WA. © Su-Chen Hung.

Su-Chen Hung’s project at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma was preceded by a number of works including performances, videos, and installations, all of which involved the use of the lips. Among others, East/West, Sweet Red-2, and The Kiss are the most representative examples.

The video East/West, one of Hung’s first and most celebrated artworks, is based on her citizenship interview from 1984. The video shows a split image of her mouth answering the interview questions simultaneously in Chinese, on the left side, and in English, on the right side of the screen. “East/West is a reflection of my daily life as an immigrant, of how I straggle in between two cultures”, states Hung. “The lips never perfectly overlap because of the fundamental differences between my native and my adoptive country. Although I’ve been living in the US for many years now, it took me some time to feel more comfortable with my double identity. It’s like walking on the top of a roof and trying to keep myself balanced.” 

Su-Chen Hung, East / West, 1984 / 1987.

Su-Chen Hung, East / West, 1984 / 1987, single channel video (3:40 min), New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York. © Su-Chen Hung.

Sweet Red-2 was both a live performance and a video featured at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. The artist was positioned in the so-called “Window on Broadway”, an exhibition space next to the museum’s formal entrance at 583 Broadway (today relocated a few blocks south-west, at 235 Bowery). Her presence was screened off by a sheet of white rice paper stretched against the storefront glass. From the street, the audience saw a piece of red string dangling from a hole in the paper. As the artist began eating the string, pulling it in her mouth from the other side of the window, the vague form of her lips appeared through the semi-transparent surface of the rice paper. Once the string completely disappeared, a bigger hole was cut to reveal a monitor playing a video of the artist’s mouth eating the red string, thus replicating the act staged during the live performance. In this project, Su-Chen Hung juxtaposed two different evidences—one direct and ephemeral, the performance, and one mediated and permanent, the video—of the same sensory experience—eating the red string—to exemplify the utterly relative nature of time and movement.

Su-Chen Hung, Sweet Red-2, 1986 / 1987.

Su-Chen Hung, Sweet Red-2, 1986 / 1987, performance / installation (white rice paper, red string, monitor, VCR, videotape), New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York. © Su-Chen Hung.

The video installation The Kiss from 1996 consists of two TV monitors facing each other and bounded together with red string. The monitors, barely visible to the viewer, simultaneously play the video of a mouth in the act of kissing the screen surface. This work poetically refers to Constantin Brâncuși’s homonymous plaster sculpture featuring a man and a woman engaging in a prolonged kiss. In contrast to this early example of Proto-Cubism and to most other works from art history carrying the same title, however, the two persons ‘trapped’ in Hung’s installation never actually touch each other’s lips, as they are divided by the physical barrier of the glass. Still very topical for our days, this installation rises question about how we relate to each other in a time where global connectivity has changed our way to share not only information but also emotions.  

Su-Chen Hung, The Kiss.

Su-Chen Hung, The Kiss, Video Installation (1 videotape, 2 Video monitors, VCR, red string), 1999, Porter Troupe Gallery, San Diego, CA; 1996, R. Nelson Gallery, University of California at Davis; 1996, Mill Valley Film Festival, CA. © Su-Chen Hung.

When I ask Su-Chen Hung what she’s going to be up to during the next months, she lists a series of projects including the development of an outdoor installation for the annual Chinese Lantern Festival, promoted by the Treasure Hill Artist Village in Taipei, the participation to the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, CA, and the opening of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Taipei. While both the Djerassi Resident Artist Program and the solo exhibition at MOCA Taipei will focus on her recent video production, her public project for the annual Chinese Lantern Festival will consist in an ‘environmental sculpture’ featuring a curtain of bamboo sticks suspended on a large metal structure in the form of a spiral. Whenever the wind will blow through the sculpture, the bamboo sticks will knock against each other filling the surrounding with a soothing natural melody.

In addition, Su-Chen Hung will be looking for a venue to present her newest work, entitled Falling Red, which will deal, once again, with the invisible phenomenon of time. Falling Red will feature a rolling machine pulling red sewing thread from large spools mounted on the ceiling of the exhibition space. The thread will gently fall on the floor in a fluid movement forming a red spot. After several days and nights, the spot will be grown into a mound, thus allowing the observer to visualize the inexorable passing of time. 

Su-Chen Hung, Falling Red, 2013.

Su-Chen Hung, Falling Red, 2013, Installation (rolling machine, spools of red sewing thread). © Su-Chen Hung.

Su-Chen Hung is one of the most ‘complete’ artists I ever had the pleasure to come in touch with. Her creative approach displays a great sensibility for both the content and the aesthetics inherent to a well-thought work of art. She is a master in creating multiple layers of meaning and connecting with her audience on a personal level even when she deals with universal themes such as body, identity, or time. Despite her rather minimalist visual language, which leaves the observer plenty of room for personal interpretation, her works are always diverse, accessible and elegant. Moreover, her deep commitment towards cultural and environmental issues makes her practice not only of high artistic quality but also socially relevant.  

Just like Su-Chen Hung, I can’t wait to see what kind of trees those ‘art seeds’ will produce this upcoming year. 

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by Diana Gadaldi
in Focus on the American West

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