Access Gallery, Vancouver
March 21 - May 10, 2013
Review by Marina Roy
Entering the gallery space, one is immediately struck by the forest green colour of the walls and a strange multi-limbed piece of wooden furniture in the distance. The forest green colour dominates, lending a narrative cast to the entire space – fairytalish rather than institutional (1) – although the playful allure of the decorative colour is not without its institutional side. The worlds discovered in fairytales(2) prepare children for future administrative settings in many ways, and Fan-Ling Suen’s exhibition The Brood certainly hints at such a genealogy. The idea of a perverse intergenerational entanglement looms large.
Immediately to the right, alone on its own wall is an elaborately embroidered multi-coloured floral wreath encircling the words: “Eggs, most common form of children to eat.” On the opposing wall, the series “Bluebeard’s Children” consists of three ‘coloured-in’ drawings on linen, scenes from one of Perrault’s fairytales: three blue-bearded women’s heads driven onto stakes which form part of a rocking sledge apparatus, a blue-bearded man’s head nestled on a snake-like pile (which itself rests on top of an iceberg like structure which sinks into a strange upside-down landscape); three dozen naked children in multi-coloured dunce-caps tightly encircled by a snake-like nest (rolling hills can be seen in the distance).(3) These drawings are modest in scale, speaking to domestic-handiwork-style dimensions, made in the lap of someone sitting still in her chair. Although appearances are deceiving, for these are not entirely made by hand; digital printing and embroidery were involved in their production. Here we have a domesticity gone awry.
At the far end of this narrow space stands the ornate piece of furniture. From a distance its function is indeterminate. The warm colour of the wood has heavy grain markings, perhaps oak. The turned limbs and ornamental detailing speak to an historical era, probably Victorian. As one advances a little closer, one begins to make out what appears to be a creature. But what? A sense of unease sets in. With each step the thing takes on an increasingly uncanny aspect, a creaturiness. It isn’t until one is peering over the edge of what one discovers to be a crib, that the full thrust of fascination mixed with disgust takes over the imagination.
Five small hairy creatures lie alongside a larger hairy creature. Each member of the brood looks like an elongated faceless balding man’s head, or an egg covered in flesh and hair. At one end of each creature is an opening (a cross between an anus and a navel). The larger ‘motherly’ one, which the brood huddles around, calls to mind a hairy pear-shaped pig without head or limbs. The mother sprouts a tail or umbilical cord which plugs into a wall socket. This is what generates her heat, completing the meaning of brood (from German Brut, that which is hatched by heat). The wall socket is also ornate, almost steampunk in style. Victorian electrical invention meets 21st-century experimental bio-lab. These blob-like creatures are made of real hair and silicone rubber, and their life-like quality brings them not only into the arena of the uncanny, but also into the simulacral special-effects industry. The Brood references David Cronenberg’s 1979 film of the same title.(4) Its significance seems to lie in the idea of an intergenerational trauma unconsciously channeled from parent to child, resulting in the perverse cycle of power relations that subtends the human condition.(5) It is significant that brood means not only a litter of animals, but also the idea of nursing ideas/feeling in the mind (late-16th century). The mother figure in Cronenberg’s film literally hatches new creatures through tapping into repressed trauma.
A funereal urn has been carved at the height of each of the crib’s turned limbs. The combination of death ornament(6) with nativity scene, adds to the uncanniness of the viewer’s experience. The six-poster crib exudes excess and luxury, and the juxtaposition of primal and civilized elements could be understood as directed to the absurd celebration of procreation through sublimated capitalist habits.(7) The crib hearkens back to the Victorian origins of the concept of maternal sanctity, which further rationalized women’s confinement to the domestic sphere. In turn, the mother cultivates a desire to protect the child within an opulent ceremonial precinct. The hexagonal enclosure of the furniture-sculpture, with its six sides exposed for invasive viewing of the brood, speaks to a panoptical space. Formally then, the furniture’s function is decidedly disciplinary. Six sides for six creatures, such that the mother’s nurturing is fully exposed for all to see.
In Fan-Ling Suen’s exhibition, procreation takes on a disturbing aspect rather than sacred, laced with animal instincts. In our biopolitical age each and every individual is biologically and psychologically controlled from birth. Increasingly, the only political agency that one might feel capable of is from the perspective of bodily maintenance (bare life). One could go so far as to say that Suen’s work conveys a rather sobering message – the cycle of oppression revealed in the collective unconscious passed on through storytelling, but also through culture in general. This is confirmed by pictures on the wall: a brood of unhappy entrapped children, women’s decapitated heads, a sovereign’s head floating on its autonomous island, and an embroidery speaking to cannibalistically consuming one’s young.
At times I found myself puzzling over the prominence of a number of narrative strands within the exhibition and wondered whether this might be competing somewhat with the material and conceptual rigour of the exhibition itself. Suen’s strategic installation draws us into a gendered and engendered world permeated by multiple fairytales and other narrative references that evoke a combination of horror, disgust and fascination—a world that points to the past, the reiterated origins of our present. The combination of uncomfortable emotions also makes for black humour. Any viewer who dares to pick up one of the brood, is more likely than not to be the object of uncomfortable laughter from anyone witness to such a spectacle. The artist draws the viewer inadvertently into the nurturing cycle, no matter how grotesque the being.
1. Institutional (chrome) green might come to mind; it was used in hospitals and asylums because it provided a resistant coat (due to type of pigments used), was supposedly soothing to look at, and contrasted the colour of blood. Thanks to Bob Brown for pointing this possible association out.
3. These are based on a few different versions of Bluebeard, originally a French folktale La Barbe bleue. The fairytale itself leaks into the other aspects of the exhibition, especially with Margaret Atwood’s version in her short story, “Bluebeard’s Egg.”
4. In Cronenberg’s film, psychotherapist Hal Raglan performs “psychoplasmics” on his patients in order to release their repressed emotions, resulting in physiological changes, such as protruding growths on the skin, and in the case of the character Nola, the birth of a murderous colony of dwarf-like creatures. We come to learn that the birth of these creatures stems from the cycle of parental abuse; Nola abuses her daughter Candice, and we find out Nola also suffered at the hands of her own mother.
6. It is interesting to note that ornamental features in architecture and furniture originate largely from sacrificial settings (e.g. columns were trees on which victims were tied, the entablature was the alter on which the victim was slain).