Hong Kong artist Angela Su’s intricate anatomical ink drawings attracted scores of admirers at Art HK a couple of years ago. This year she did it again with her contribution to Hong Kong Eye, a group show of contemporary Hong Kong art at ArtisTree. Her works in the exhibition, ‘Deliver me from all my automatic reactions and restore me to my true freedom’ and ‘The Hartford Girl and Other Stories’, explore representations of the body in states of pain and distress, both in literature and to her own person; it is her own body in the Hartford Girl covered in the pink welts of ink-less calligraphic tattoos that resemble lashes from a whip.
The diminutive artist is arresting, with a severe black bob and bold oversized glasses. She’s a little bit goth and a little bit S&M mistress, aesthetics that bleed through into her work. With a background in biochemistry, Su draws on inspiration from old medical books and literature, and the works of several French writers and philosophers—the Marquis de Sade, Gilles Deleuze and Octave Mirbeau— to create dark, gothic hybrids of human anatomy, Victorian medical and torture instruments, and the world of flora and insects.
Su invents a cabinet of curiosities challenging the way we see the body, enchanting and repelling the viewer at the same time. Previously featured at the Shenzhen Biennale of Art and Urbanism and the Sydney Biennale, at the time of our catch-up the artist had just secured a six-month residency in Penang to continue developing her work.
She chatted with Framed over a pot of tea about art in Hong Kong, and her beautifully intricate and macabre-inspired work.
“I always wanted to do art. In Hong Kong the system prefers that you study literature, finance or science. I initially chose science, which I love. It was a natural path and also an easy way to please my parents. If I pursued art, my parents would have worried about my inability to support myself. After I did science, I decided it was time for me to take up art, which was my lifetime wish. I worked part-time and paid for everything myself. It was a great switch for me … I was doing representational and figurative paintings at art school and thought that was just what I was supposed to do. Then I came across a book called The Pictorial Archive of Natural Science. It contained all sorts of engravings and woodcuts from anatomy, astronomy, science and botany. It was fascinating. I have always loved anatomical drawings, so that’s what initially inspired my style of work.
WRITING ON THE WALL
I came across Deleuze’s work whilst doing a series and the book seemed to really complement what I was doing. It was about pain and desire without the interference of other organs. I was also interested in de Sade and began to read more about masochism and how it can be subversive and empowering … Much of the writing incorporated in my works is from a book by Octave Mirbeau called ‘The Torture Garden’. It was written at the turn of last century about a couple going to China and witnessing torture rituals. There’s a beautiful garden nourished by the flesh of the people tortured and executed. It was a very intense novel for that time, but a beautiful one and I wanted to somehow incorporate it in my work.
The first tattoo I got was because I was curious about the pain. I didn’t care what the design was. I went to Ricky’s Tattoos in Wanchai and got it done by this cool 70 year-old guy. It was quite an experience. This new one in white ink, like a scar, signifies the termination of a relationship and I wanted to put something on my body symbolising it.
I’m looking at experimenting with animation next. I think it would be an interesting transition to develop my drawings into animation. I’ve worked on a short film before, but it was really just a series of stills fading in and out. That work was shown at Exit Gallery last year. Next year I will also be working on another project, but it’s still a secret. It may be a performance piece, or something more experimental. I’m not sure yet. We’ll see.
ART IN HK
Space is a problem for artists in Hong Kong. If you’re working on a video you can get around the issue. But if like me, you work with paintings or drawings, you need a large space. I had a studio in Wanchai and it was rented out to artists at a low rate but the artists get kicked out after a few years to make space for fresh graduates. Rent is so expensive in Hong Kong so studios are a problem. Property prices are sky high so I don’t know what will happen with young artists. An artist’s residency programme would be a great idea to support artists. It can be hard to gauge what’s happening outside Hong Kong in the emerging contemporary art scene. I flip through art magazines to get a sense of it, but it’s not the same. You see a tiny picture and you have to imagine what it’s like. Down the track with West Kowloon, I think the art experience in Hong Kong will change.
A friend told me about the Penang residency. It’s for six months in the middle of a tropical forest and I’m looking forward to the change. Maybe I’ll start drawing more insects and plants, but I’d also like to explore some tombstone carvings in Penang. There’s a course where you can be an apprentice to a master carver. I want to look at different ideas, be more relaxed and come back to this intense city with a new perspective.”
Published in FRAMED magazine, September 2011