Suki Chan: Viewing Through Prisms of Senses

Still Point, Film Installation (2012)
Abstracting from a smorgasbord of experiences, influences, and issues, installation artist and curator Suki Chan traverses multiple terrains and teases out the familiar and the unfamiliar. Describing her work as using light, moving image, and sound to explore our physical and psychological experience of space, Chan's artworks invite viewers to participate in an entirely experiential experience, literally immersing themselves into the parallel universes she constructs. Whether navigating the journey from macro to micro or engineering a marriage between sound and image in her works, she seeks to both resolve her personal questions and ponderings as much as compel the viewer to view through multi-faceted prisms of senses and accordingly engage with her art.

In the following Q & A, Chan provides a fascinating account of the processes through which she approaches and constructs her productions.

You were born in Hong Kong and now reside in London. How have both these places defined your work? Do your roots influence you on a subliminal level or do you access a more universal range of experiences in your work? 

Your question reminds me of a wonderful quote by Borges, “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.” Many places that I have lived in throughout my life have defined me and my work, ranging from my early childhood experiences in Hong Kong to Oxford, teenage years in Winchester and then, studying in London. Each of these places, with their own character, geographical and cultural differences - rural versus urban, traditional and modern, Western and Eastern - have left their imprint on me at significant points of my life. My early works were informed by often contrasting experiences of these places. 

The move from Hong Kong to Oxford is perhaps the most significant. For me, it is the juxtaposition of places that triggers certain interests or attitudes towards a subject matter. I am always curious why certain ideas, customs, beliefs and values exist in one society and place but not in another. From a young age, I experienced this contrast of ideas between living in England and Hong Kong. Growing up straddling two cultures, I was exposed to different viewpoints, beliefs, customs, traditions and value systems as well as the inconsistencies that exists between languages, when meaning does not follow through from one language to another, especially if they have a completely different structure and symbol system. The concept of time in Chinese for example is not conveyed through the use of tenses and verb forms and that was very confusing for me as a child as I was learning English. As a child, I found those inconsistencies perplexing but as an artist, it is such a rich terrain to draw from. 

Moving from one place to another, or one culture to another, you come to understand a little more the interrelationship between people and places as well as the importance of context, when things do not necessarily relate and connect. My roots influence my work in many ways, sometimes subliminally, but I consciously choose to explore concepts and emotions that are universal, from the abstract and metaphysical, such as time and space, to the personal, such as home and belonging and the somewhere in-between, our relationship to our environment and to society.

What impels you to create a work: an arresting sight, fragment from a dream, or a line from a book/writing that refuses to go away from your head? Subsequently, as you build up the work, what are the influences motivating the process of creation? Do you read extensively, journal and make notes, and/or expose yourself to kinds of cinema?

It is all of these things and more. I have previously been inspired by the memories of a place, the sight of a starling murmuration, a line from a poem, an idea or a metaphor from a novel, a conversation, a chance encounter on a train, a difficult political situation, meditation and walking. I am impelled to make work because of my curiosity to understand why things are the way they are or why we feel and behave in a certain way in a given place. Much of my process of making art is intuitive though I enjoy looking for patterns of thought. I often ask myself why I am drawn to this and not that? Why do certain things resonate with me more than others? Sometimes, ideas and thoughts that seem to be separate will come together later on as I build up the work. Often, it is the contrast between ideas and materials that allows me to draw attention to it or imbue it with new narratives.

Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address, Video Installation (2008)

Architecture is another subject that clearly intrigues you. In the video installation, "Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address," I read it as a city abstracted from glass tumblers, some intact, some shattered. Is it to do with architecture? Or were you delving with other themes and subjects altogether?

Architecture interests me because it seems to aspire and convey our need for fixity and permanence. We construct buildings that alternately express our belief and values systems, our desires and fears. From the design of houses to entire estates, the typology of our built environment -- for example, what kind of dwelling we live in, its proximity to our neighbours, the amount of shared or public space versus private space, the existence of borders -- says a lot about our relationship with each other.

 I spent many weeks building this piece up. I would visit charity shops in my neighbourhood to buy drinking glasses. When the local ones ran out of glasses, I would go further, trekking across the city just to buy glasses. Sometimes, there would be one, two or more of the same design but I often felt that there was one or two missing, possibly because they were broken. The fact that the glasses are odd and were discarded by their previous owners (who no doubt have replaced them with new ones) was important to the work. A lot of my work is about impermanence, change, fragility and multiplicity of perspectives -- the idea that there is not one truth but many truths.Thinking about this aspect when constructing the piece, I often thought about the gleaming skyscrapers in Dubai and Shanghai and how cities across the world compete with verticality. In Shanghai, the skyline is lit at night with an array of tall buildings, all different shapes and sizes, seemingly expressing a confidence in technology to overcome nature. In Dubai, this is taken to the extreme with often a very destructive attitude. 

The work also coincided with the beginning of the economic crisis and I was interested in conveying the collapse of our current economic system. I would spend hours as a child building towers out of cards. I was always fascinated by how out of a two-dimensional card, a complex three-dimensional structure can be built, many times the size of the individual piece. I was interested in the fine line between strength and fragility, stability and precariousness, as the towers would have these dual characteristics, depending on which side you pushed, the towers had varying degrees of strength and stability. It was exciting to see how high and far I could build this structure and what piece I could take away before the tower collapsed: it became a game. 
What appeals to you about the power of repetition, as evidenced in "The Bookshelf Series," for example?

Repetition creates a strong visual impact that is immediate and universal. For me it is a very powerful tool to draw attention to the ordinary. There is something very everyday and mundane about repetition. We are surrounded by repetition: we encounter it in the sun rising and setting each day, in the sound of a clock ticking, our daily rituals and routines, an architectural detail in a building. If we zoom out from Earth we would see that although we like to think of ourselves as unique individuals, we are to some extent a repetition of other human beings and we are much more alike than we are unlike. In the natural world, it is through repetition that we lose sight of the individual – which has an evolutionary advantage, as observed in animals that migrate in large groups for safety.

 The bookshelf series came about after a visit to a library in a stately home in 2009 where the books on the shelves were chained. This coincided with a time when libraries across the country were closing due to local authority spending cuts. I became very interested in the idea of information – who has access to it and who is denied it. Having grown up with the idea that information is readily available, either in the form of a book or on the Internet, I was interested in the changing history of books - how books were initially so expensive to produce that they needed to be chained and how libraries were not accessible for all and the power struggle between the elite and the working class. I wanted to explore our relationship to a book and to the space of a library, which are like cathedrals of knowledge. I was also very inspired by Borges’s The Library of Babel, where a library is analogous to the universe. 

A Hundred Seas Rising, 100 Channel Sound Installation (2012)

Interval II, Film Installation (2008)

You also mention navigating the transition from macro to micro in your work; what fascinates about you doing so?

 It fascinates me because the transition from macro to micro enables me to play with scale and explore the relationship between the whole and the parts. I am fascinated by how the process of zooming into something minute and zooming out of something enormous can reveal similar patterns. I think of William Blake's poem, Auguries of Innocence: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.” By comparing macro to micro, the nature of both to comes to the fore. 

Apart from your installation projects, you have also contributed to books and curated shows. How has the latter experience been and how has it informed creating your work and vice versa? 

Curating shows firstly allows me to connect with new artists, which is fantastic as demands of developing your own practice sometimes does not leave much room for this. It is also a great opportunity to research subjects that I am interested in, sometimes at a tangent or in parallel to my own work. This process always informs my work. The show I curated for the Jerwood Space in London, For the Sake of the Image,  is inspired from a quote: “If you wish to see: listen. Hearing is a step towards vision.” I was interested in it because it was actually written by an abbot named St Bernard of Clairvaux around 12th Century in France, but strangely relevant our world of 21st Century technological multi-sensory experiences. I wanted to investigate with the show how artists explore our sensory perception of light and sound, both of which are inseparable ways in which we experience our world. Hearing is one of the first and last of our sensory experiences in this world, so it seemed interesting to subvert the relationship between image and sound – sight being the dominant of all our five senses. 

Sound has always been, intuitively, very important to me in my work, but perhaps this is because I was inspired by cassettes tape recordings of my grandmother’s Hakka songs to make the films Interval and Interval II. The relationship between moving image and sound is a very powerful tool to create a unique perceptual experience in the audience and it is not only about how one might accompany the other -- a simple equation of adding the intensity of one to another but a much more complex relationship involving the multiplicity of the force of one with the power of the other. 

You can find out more about Suki Chan's work here.