The piece that immediately catches my eye upon entering Veda Sun’s solo exhibition, Lonely and Gorgeous Tears, is an angelic depiction of an anime girl. When speaking to Sun about this piece in her studio at Bunker Projects as she was preparing for her show, she and I started to go off on a tangent about anime’s role in our childhoods as young Chinese American girls growing up on the East Coast.
“It’s a painting of this illustration I saw, but then I also made Cardcaptor Sakura more Asian. You know, she has green eyes and brown hair, but I was like, ‘I want to see myself in this.’”
Sun mentioned how this imagery relates to the concept of her show. At its core it is a dichotomy of femininity, childishness, and comfort coexisting with alienation and oppression. Anime “culture” as a concept or genre sometimes combines these two sides - its aesthetics often lend themselves to young, girly imagery in a perverted context.
“It’s interesting because I don’t actually watch that much anime. I feel like I’m exploring it again because I felt so much shame for watching it growing up. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be that person.’ But now as my adult self, I want to explore this again because in California, everyone just grows up with this visual vocabulary and they don’t question it, while on the East Coast, it’s so different.”
In thinking about Sun’s show, I don’t think I can extract our common experiences from how I view the collection as a whole. We both grew up in a Philadelphia suburb as first-generation Chinese Americans. We both have a sister (mine is older, Sun’s is younger). We ended up going to universities in Pittsburgh and moving to East Asia after graduation on Fulbright grants.
After speaking to Sun about her Fulbright experience at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (my father’s hometown), I feel that this time was formative not only for her current style of painting, but also in fleshing out her feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sun tells me her entire visual language “dropped” during her two years in China because of a lack of understanding between herself and her peers. Cultural signifiers in her work just didn’t translate, and so her pieces became reduced to the most formal, basic shapes. She then started experimenting with subverting the Chinese landscape painting--a genre that is very male-dominated--and including feminine and yonic imagery into her works (tubes, ribbon). Sun’s current work is a mix of these different styles, with digital and pixel art added in. From initial reception, what may seem like an experimental hodge-podge is really a stylistic journey that seeks to surface the simultaneous existence of loneliness and beauty; the sinister and kitsch; the romantic and ironic; the divinity and mortality of the objects around us.
Lonely and Gorgeous Tears includes two windchimes modeled after a childhood one Sun had growing up. In collaboration with Nico Zevallos, Sun created an installation that features these delicate windchimes in constant motion thanks to motorized fans held up by 3D-printed sculptures reminiscent of suburban lawn ornaments. As I walk through the exhibition, I am met with these ethereal, serene sounds interrupted by the mechanical whirring of fans. Looking closer at the sculptures, they reveal themselves to be not, in fact, made of stone but of a synthetic material. A faux aura of the spiritual masks the tacky nature of these pieces.
This relationship is flipped on its head in Sun’s only piece with text. In flocked, dark-green Comic Sans, the text seems straight out of a comment I would’ve found on 4chan or in my Tumblr inbox back in the day. There’s a very “emo” nature to it, in contrast with the bright pink, orange, and purple background. The Rilakkuma-esque teddy bear figure is defeated--splayed out on his colorful bubbles with a sigh. Although it has an ironic nature, the work undeniably brings up teenage angst for me. The edgelord starts to reveal his true fragility and turns it into apathy as a coping mechanism.
Another concept at play in Sun’s work is the artwork as object. During her time in China, Sun worked with the same eight canvases, painting them over and over and eventually cutting them up and adding sewn-on pieces. She describes this act as “violent” because she is changing what the painting inherently is. In several works in her show, she uses metallic paint that gives the canvas a type of satin sheen. Mixed with ruffles, some made of canvas and others of fabric, these paintings are turned into objects more akin to decorative pillows or overly-garish duvet covers--not unlike the girly bedroom decor that appeared in anime and manga I consumed during my pre-teen years. In one painting, she takes the backdrop of a traditional Chinese landscape painting and overlays a blown-up, pixelated image of a generic desktop background featuring a hand holding a dandelion. The entire piece is split with a cream-colored satin ruffle with a dainty flower pattern. It is as much about the materiality of the work as it is about the actual imagery. In this way, Sun breaks down the hierarchy of stylistic forms--she makes the Chinese landscape, one of the “highest” forms of Chinese art, barely comprehensible behind these other tangible and strangely evocative elements.
Viewing Sun’s work is like seeing complex motifs from my childhood blown up and covered in fairy dust. Some images that seem bright and fun melt away to reveal the gloom underneath. Lonely and Gorgeous Tears elicits these nuances of my identity in a way that makes me continually want to process how I relate to the world around me.
Essay by Karen Lue
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Artwork by Veda Sun
Photo Documentation by Tom Little
Copy editing by Anna Nelson
Publishing by Jessie Rommelt
Essay by Taylor Fisch
“The future is a choice between Utopia and Oblivion,” proclaimed the architect, theorist, and futurist, Buckminster Fuller, “Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch and go relay race right up to the final moment…Humanity is ‘in final exam’ as to whether or not it qualifies for continuance in Universe.” Five decades later, with the world presumably still at its desk, Kevin Clancy has cut these words into reflective acrylic, and invites us to see a future beyond the final moment.
The future is alluring upon arrival. A glow of magenta light emanates from the three second-story windows of 5106 Penn Avenue. Greeted by the slightly eerie, slightly calming electronic soundscape composed by John Also Bennett, we might have just landed at an Apple Store in the Twilight Zone. The domestic interior of the gallery, with its uneven hardwood floors, slices of exposed brick, and fireplace, is now a space that is not entirely in this world or the next.
The gridded walls and built-out bays backlit by LED lighting, mimic commercial displays offering a bevy of plaster cast faces, hands, and phones. A sterile alcove is built into the fireplace, housing a pair of floating hands holding an ironically torched burner phone (2019). Pink and green light blaze through the film-covered windows, engulfing the white washed gallery in gentle hues, while saturated tones and mirrored images bounce off the dichroic film lining the series of plaster cast electronic devices. Neons, visual echoes, and seductive sculptures entice us, but this feels far from a utopia.
Clancy uses low-tech sculptural processes of plaster casting found readymade objects to examine information technologies of today and tomorrow. He delves into the subject of Internet culture without directly engaging with the software that defines it. We are viewing a museum of our technological past from a future moment in time, or a “speculative museum of natural history,” as Clancy states.
He comes at his work as a millennial consumer, not a technologist, programmer, cryptographer, or hacker. This exhibition is for and about the consumer. Those whose phones are the last thing they check before sleep and the first thing they grab when rising. Those who enjoy the benefits of having the Internet in their pocket but are skeptical about its utopic potential. This exhibition is also for those of us in Pittsburgh, a Rust-Belt city turned tech hub. Those who are trying to manage their enthusiasm for the rebirth of a city endowed to another big industry. Will we tour the National Robotics Engineering Center like we now tour Carrie Blast Furnace?
In Clancy’s museum, each of the grids loosely advertises a theme of technological exploration. We have DEAD (2018-2019) where the grid parades skeletal extremities dancing on plaster cast iPads: without their armor the iPads’ fragile bodies would shatter instantly. The assemblage of cast and ready-made devices confuse the eye, creating an uncertainty for what is real and what is a copy, a reference to the world lived both on and offline.
In hollow holo (2019) a grid shows hands attempting to embrace through a screen and hands holding phones of the future. The screens are not black but luminous mirrors; we get caught in the act of looking and become part of the narrative. A “how to” on “how to interact with your phone,” Clancy memorializes the various awkward yet familiar gestures that are so ingrained in our day-to-day. The phone has become an extension of the hand, with the hand now catering to the phones particularities. Clancy continues to ask what the value of increased digital connection is when physical connection is gone.
Plaster cast artifacts preserve the vestiges of the animate and inanimate; flesh and hardware remembered in history as one and the same. What is lost and what remains when we take the digital out of the physical? An object whose lifespan conveniently expires to ensure we have not missed too many of the latest models. Once the technology stops working, the objects are merely ephemera, an artifact of a historical moment. aether net (2019) aestheticizes the seemingly mundane ancillary Ethernet cables, USB cords, and iPhone chargers that Clancy finds on walks across the Bloomfield Bridge and in electronic dumpsters around the city. In this world, they are displayed as coveted heirlooms woven into intricate patterns and sacred knots. Presenting us with monuments of the present that will soon feel outdated, Clancy encourages us to take time to consider the technological moment of today, one that will, left to its own devices, push us into tomorrow.
If this show were produced a decade ago, what would we see? Razrs, Blackberries, Ipods? What about two decades ago? Antennae cell phones, pagers, Walkmen? There was a time before the cloud when information would expire with the device that lodged it. Now, data is accumulated and saved on databases and servers we cannot see and often cannot control. In machine unlearning (2019), Clancy addresses how surveillance has magnified with the advancement of machine learning. The grid exhibits a series of cast faces and hands dotted and lined with markers of facial and fingerprint recognition technology. Neon orange strings form a visual analogue, tracing the geometric points of connection along the corporeal landmarks. The invisible weapons of biometric surveillance are made visible through the glowing green rods and pins that strike the silhouettes.
A hand is clad with SIM cards; a surgical glove is cast into a balloon hand splattered with yellow paint; another hand wears a surgical glove – as smooth and delicate as Renaissance drapery in carved stone. Clancy, here and throughout the show, uses tricks of the eye, dark humor, and deft craft to confront the dystopic realities of technological acceleration. Eventually though, the super-saturation of color and the no-longer-slightly-calming-sound catches up to us, generating a mounting feeling of unease.
Clancy’s thesis, dark web/bright web (2019), presents the most conspicuous juxtaposition between utopia and oblivion. In the dark web hands crush cracking phones, a translucent keyboard protector loses shape, fingers are finally able to break through screens. Two riot handcuffs are fastened into the shape of the command key ⌘ a nod to the protesters calling for an end to the government’s use of surveillance technology. The prosthetic eyeballs affixed to a cast iPhone remind us of our fishbowl existence, watched not just by artificial intelligence, but by the people behind those systems. The cracked, water damaged, and burnt devices signal the Internet as a place of violence, a mechanism of control in the hands of shattered factional interests, overlapping and clawing, with many left to its margins, oppressed and forgotten, but never unseen.
The bright web is only a bit brighter. There is homage to Fuller’s geodesic dome, geometrically akin to the facial recognition patterns lining the face casts and the laser etched acrylic spider webs. In it, the argument for utopia reads as intentionally weak. Broken and dismembered fingers and casts of babies’ hands rest on top of phones – a hand too young to feed itself let alone navigate technology. Children born into a world where opting out is not an option. The narrative of the Internet as a democratic tool that could lead to cyber-libertarian utopias has come and gone. We are too aware, yet too complacent, of how our privacy rights are compromised by the tracking device glued to our hands and the digital footprint always lingering behind us.
Still, amongst the manufactured grids, found electronics, and cast relics, nuances of humanity seep in. With close inspection one observes a cast swirl of hair caught in a facial mask, and fingerprints and palm creases marking the cast hands. Some hands adorn rings, others have chipped nails – slight details emerge from the artificial cloak of anonymity to reveal layers of accountability. Through the flashes of individuality – both within the people who lend their hands and the artist who lends this imaginative world, comes the slightest beacon of hope that Utopia or simply “continuance in Universe,” can endure.
And we are back to the choice: Utopia or Oblivion. As the exam clock ticks on, we may lift our heads and choose to see the exhibition as a cautionary tale, a tale of the passive consumer who can only view this moment from a museum in a dystopic future. We are presented with the opportunity to observe this moment in the moment, and take with that what we will.
Taylor Fisch (b. 1992, New York City) is currently living in Pittsburgh and working as the Project Curatorial Assistant for the third iteration of the Hillman Photography Initiative at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
CREDITS | Art work by Kevin Clancy, Essay by Taylor Fisch, Photos by David Bernabo, Copy Editing by Lindsey Dill, Published by Jessie Rommelt |
We launched The Bunker Projects Review as a platform to engage in conversations about contemporary art centered on the contributions of our exhibiting & resident artists to the field.