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Sydney Shen

The first piece of Sydney’s work that I came across was called Alain’s Document II. It was a large abstract c-print with 3 holes cut in each side, allowing alien looking climbing mechanisms to get pulled through each of them. The piece was beautiful, it was unique, and it was exploding with restrained energy. Fascinated by my new artistic` discovery, I immediately hopped online and explored her other projects. What I found was a body of work that is remarkably varied in process, while always maintaining themes about the exploration of the darker side of the human psyche. She had made sculpture, photography, graphic design work, a video game, even a book of esoteric perfume reviews, all shown in different spaces around the world - such as Holy Motors Project in Hong Kong and Weekend Gallery in London. While all these pieces were dissimilar in their means of creation, they all played a distinct role in the admittedly hellish parallel universe she is aiming to create. I found myself overly eager to decipher the meaning of all these moldy bread crumbs she has sprinkled throughout her work, so I caught up with Sydney to see how much information she would allow herself to divulge.

N: In 2016 you created your own survival horror video game called Master’s Chambers, and your current show at Motel Gallery almost looks like a room plucked out of the game. Was that intentional?   

S: Yeah, I was definitely thinking of playing with horror motifs, especially the idea of a person's interiority manifesting as the space that they inhabit.   

N: So much of your work is about perversion. Taking spaces and everyday items that are traditionally ordinary or even comforting, and transforming them into something grotesque and fraught with terror. Where do you think this compulsion originates from?

S: Like when I became a freak? I feel like this is a question where you want to hear like, yeah, when I was a kid this traumatic event happened, but I don't know, I've always just been interested in horror and the macabre. Or perhaps I'm interested in abjection and states of extremity, and that often comes in the form of horror and the macabre.   A lot of my work is physically restrained in some way, like bound or harnessed or in a cage. I’m fascinated with the paradox that it's only through activating extreme sensation that one can transcend the body. Why would one want to transcend the body? A desire to experience, at the cost of one’s reality, what lies beyond mere mortal existence: The unfathomable, unknowable, unnameable.

N: So you’ve expressed your admiration for legendary Japanese fetish magazine S&M Sniper, which is something I’ve obsessed over to the extent I actually

got the logo tattooed on my arm. How big an influence did that magazine’s imagery and artists have on the bondage referencing hTERT body of work you did for Hester St. Gallery?

S: With S&M Sniper specifically, and most fetish magazines actually, I love the quality of design. Maybe it sounds ridiculous saying, “I read the porno magazines for the fonts” But i really do! There's something about it that's not fully finessed. It reminds me of DIY cassette tapes. It's super cluttered, and at the intersection of beautiful and abject. It’s tawdry, it’s sincere, it’s romantic, it’s human. I suppose the density of the text in S&M Sniper had an influence on the printed nylon straps that bound the piece “Alain’s Document II.” I wanted the words printed on the straps, Lucifer Pastel Super Soul Sucker, to be barely legible, because they were so squashed. I wanted a viewer to look closer, and wonder what those words meant (it’s the name of a designer ball python breed). A few years ago, I used to co-run an erotic magazine called Beauty Today. It was a short lived project with two issues. It was a collaboration with two other artists, Clara Carter and Katrina Meyers. We wanted it to look like S&M Sniper, or Love Bondage, or have that kind of fetish fanzine aesthetic. Also, as far as it being an erotic publication, I guess we were dissatisfied with the landscape, even with independent magazines. We wanted to make something that would simultaneously confuse and delight with its range of content. As far as we knew, there wasn’t a porno mag that didn’t cater to a specific preference.    

N: Like men? It definitely gets tiresome seeing all the women enduring more of the serious pain in fetish magazines, the most grotesque pain anyway. It would definitely be nice to have a counter to that, because by the end of flipping through some issues it makes you want to kill men. At least me.   

S: Yeah, definitely. We wanted to approach the subject matter of that fantasy without being overtly political. One thing we were thinking about that was never realized was a video game called Mud Flap Girl, you would play as a female trucker, and the goal of the game was to run over and kill as many men as possible.

N: Was the plan to actually personify one of those silver female outlines from the back of truck’s mudflats? It would probably look like a murderous Sorayama character come to life.   

S: Yeah that’s the idea.

N: One of the contributors to S&M Sniper was Masami Akita, aka noise artist Merzbow, and I know we’re both fans of the industrial group Controlled Bleeding as well. Both those artists, and many others within those musical genres have a visual world that has iconographic overlap with yours. How influential were those types of record sleeves to your artistic direction?  

S: The music I listened to as a teenager was my introduction to a kind of the extremity that I desired but didn’t yet have the language to articulate. Initially, subgenres of punk/hardcore like powerviolence and thrash were of particular influence to me. Stuff like the Japanese bands Fuck on the Beach and Bathtub Shitter; bands with depraved names and lyrics that were really theatrically disgusting, sounds of guttural growling and maniacal screaming. I have one 7” of some goregrind band that

I don’t remember the name of, probably like Macerated Corpuscle or some ad-libbed pseudo-surgical jargon like that, with a hyper-detailed multi-panel rendering of a disemboweled, eyeless anime character as the album art. But this was almost… too gross and obviously sensational to me. Then in freshman year of high school, I was introduced to harsh noise, which blew me wide open. I went to Hospital Records, I saw Otomo Yoshihide play... I listened to music that was extreme but it didn’t necessarily have to scream about dismembering fetuses to be so. This extremity could mean indeterminacy, atonality, chaos that extended into sculptural form: records that were damaged each time it was removed from the sleeve, records that were not even playable objects. My visual art did not reflect these interests until after I got out of college, I think they lay latent while I was in school and making work that I thought was what artwork should look like, instead of making art about what I actually like. As a student I felt paralyzed because “genre-based” visual art was dismissed as naive (DeviantArt) or vulgar (like Juxtapoz Magazine-type stuff), but now I am confident to fully embrace subject matter that I am intuitively drawn to. As for Controlled Bleeding specifically, I find it fascinating how eclectic they are for a classic Industrial group, yet how they still maintain a very sinister sensibility. One album makes use of Gregorian chant-like vocals, another features saxophone and mandolin. Ive been meaning to make a t-shirt version of their older album Knees and Bones, showing a guy getting his face mauled by two rats clutched in his hands.

N: Do you have any interesting projects coming up?   

S: I am in a group show in late June [this week] at Aike Dellarco in Shanghai, a show in the fall at Springsteen Gallery in Baltimore, and am working on the second Perfume Area publication.