Interview with Suki Chan

Curated in the light of a series of vintage NASA photographs from the lunar landings, the group show PLURAL, looked at divergent examples of human aspiration within the work of 5 contemporary artists. Amongst the dystopic visions, coded psychology and human curiosity, was artist, Suki Chan’s, video installation, Sleep Talk, Sleep Walk. Suki Chan’s London is a city of interims and increments. It is the movement between places: captured in the soft glow of bus windows catching traffic in the dark, or though tube tunnels in dim evening light, and funnelling up escalators to the exit or the platform, an indeterminate location. It is a world transmitted by the inconspicuous eye of security cameras, remaining constantly under surveillance. Yet there are no events recorded, just the seemingly uneventful moments in-between. Even locations, inanimate concrete and steel; are in a similar state of flux – abandoned buildings and construction sites suggest that the vision we are presented with is still incomplete.


If it is aspirational, it is because it captures the moment in which we are moving on our way to something else, beyond. The installation begins with movement: transportation in wormings of light, the horizon seeping into new colours with the passing of time. In this city, someone suggests, “it is quite easy to spark off each other and pass ideas around”. But as this vision progresses it seems to repeat a pattern of loneliness rather than one of community and collaboration. Empty office spaces and unpeopled views across the city confirm that this comment was little more than a still-distant utopia.

Your installations create fully immersive environments, what is the intention with these?

The installations are immersive because one significant intention of my work is to transport the viewer to an elsewhere, one step removed from reality. However, the work is not about escape, the work and its concerns are from and related to reality. Although I might have changed the pacing of the images by using time-lapse techniques to accentuate movements that you would not be able to see in reality, what we see in the films is ‘real’ – in that it actually happened – physical light really did pass through the optical lens and the recording is consistent with what you see in the work.

The camera lens ‘sees’ the world in a very different way to our eyes and then there is the editing, which of course, is not the way we see the world at all: more like our memory of the world, where the final cut has forgotten all that was removed. I often find the experience of seeing a film in a cinema so absorbing, as though particular parts have imprinted themselves into my memory as strongly as an actual lived experience. The imagery and ideas stay with me well beyond the cinema experience. It’s like oscillating away from reality momentarily, only to return to it and see it in a new light.

These environments seem to present viewers with microcosms, why is this?

The sense of microcosm and macrocosm is because I want to find a rational explanation for everything, in this case a city. There is a sense of zooming into the micro and zooming out to see the macro to understand how it functions: who plays a role, who designs it, who controls what, what are the forces at play, the tensions, the rules and regulations, how this affects the users of the space physically and psychologically, what and where the boundaries are, how one part relates to another part and what weaves in-between. In this way, the work is both socially and environmentally engaged.


You have talked a little bit already about the technology you are using to capture and create your environments, how does progress in technology expand the possibilities of your work?

Indirectly, perhaps. As the equipment becomes more compact, lighter and cheaper, it has allowed me to work in ways that might have been difficult for female artists say 30 years ago, working on their own or with a small team. Some shoots would not have been possible with very large, heavy and intrusive equipment, for example the shots on the night buses in Sleep Walk Sleep Talk were only achievable because the equipment was discreet.

In the installation Sleep Walk Sleep Talk, you present a kind of portrait of the city but it seems to be strangely empty of people. The architecture of London, developments (including the Shard being built), transport and surveillance; all seem to be a focal point. What vision of the city were you interested in portraying? 

When I was making SWST, I was really interested in the ideas of the Metabolists from Tokyo in the 1960’s, who pictured the modern city not in terms of its architectural forms, functions or inhabitants but as a complex environment where different rhythms can be observed. The rate at which things moved: the transport system and the even faster still, communication system; yet the buildings remain static whilst their shadows revolve. I was interested in this critique of modernism and it’s favouring of acceleration, and our place within it: how we inhabit the urban environment and how it inhabits us, as well as the forces at play in the physical environment which have a profound effect on our behaviour and our emotions.

During that period, as I walked around the city at night, I often had the feeling that my every footstep had already been anticipated. Of course, this is partly true as urban spaces are often conceived in great detail by urban designers: discreet details in the fabric of the space welcome or discourage certain groups or activities. But I never feel this when I am in the countryside and this has made me very interested in notions of freedom in a city.

In what ways are you interested in how technology and developments have changed this city, and our relationship to it? 

I think it’s very difficult to live in this city and not feel that everything changes very fast. The urban environment is always changing and our relationship with it is transient. I think technology has helped shaped the city and accelerated the speed in which the changes take place. I remember feeling surprised at the rate in which New London Bridge House (where some of the scenes in Sleep Walk Sleep Talk were filmed) was demolished and the process in which it disappeared – one level at a time, seemingly without creating any debris. When a huge building disappears in a matter of weeks, this changes your relationship with the city in quite fundamental ways. The city also exerts a kind of boldness, through technology we can build very tall buildings and it has become a global competition to see who can build the tallest. It seems so much about how much we can overcome nature.


There is a dichotomy in your work, between the urban and the rural, what’s your particular interest in this opposition?

There are many dichotomies explored in my work and this is a strategy I use to explore how we come to see and understand the world, to see how many things have no inherent or unchanging value by themselves, and to recognize that meaning is often derived from its juxtapositions. For example: light and dark, movement and stasis, permanence and impermanence; it’s difficult to understand one without the other. Both states are important and do not always present themselves in the manner in which we expect.  In my most recent film, Still point, we feel a sense of stillness when the camera is moving and when the camera is static, we feel so much movement. We tend to think of things in a dualistic manner but what are the nuances in between? Where does one start and the other end?

My interest in the urban and the rural perhaps started with movement. Firstly, my own migration when I was a child to Oxford, UK. And also later on in life, becoming aware of other people’s migrations and that as we become more ‘connected’ what happens in the urban environment affects the rural and vice versa.

The city and the countryside initiate very different fantasies. I am simultaneously attracted to and repelled by both the urban and the rural, and I find myself often being in one place and longing for another. These feelings have influenced the way I explore belonging and the nature of our habitation of the world in my work.

The group exhibition you are in, PLURAL, is focused on human aspiration. How do you feel yourself and your work relating to this? 

I think aspiration, as well as imagination, are very important to the development of our personal and group identity – to aspire to, and imagine what is currently not the case. It is a very powerful driving force. We aspire to something more or something else, so we leave the place we may be familiar with in search for something better in an unfamiliar and possibly alienating place. Many of the security guards who I interviewed for Sleep Walk Sleep Talk, who happen to be Ghanaian, have very high aspirations and that is why they have moved here. Even if it looks like they are doing a job with few prospects, inside their heads there are so many plans and aspirations. All aspirations are important, whether it is to travel to the moon as a nation or to obtain a college certificate in English. We sometimes forget that, particularly with the recent backlash against immigrants. We may fall short of our aspirations, but without it, human beings would be in a static place. Michelangelo is quoted as having said, “the greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” Throughout my practice, I think I’ve always aspired to do things that challenge me and as soon as I feel comfortable, whether with a medium or particular modes of production, I usually move on.



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