Born and raised in Hong Kong, Angela Su is adept at a variety of art forms, including ink drawing, human hair embroidery, video art, animation and performance. Graduating from the University of Toronto with her undergraduate training in biochemistry, and then from the Ontario College of Art and Design University with another degree in visual arts, Su’s works have been shaped by the place where she grew up. She transplants a lush, Gothic style of pessimism into a city where people have struggled for survival alongside its hard-earned prosperity. In 2018, Su was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to create art exploring the complexity of infectious diseases in the transregional project “Contagious Cities.” Her performance-based video was inspired by the outbreak narratives permeating Hong Kong’s two-century-long encounter between two great civilizations. Here, we select one of Angela’s early works, Chimeric Antibodies (2011), which prophetically interrogates arrays of agendas in the time of COVID-19 (Fig. 1). While scientists and the public are still puzzled by the transmission mechanisms of this mysterious virus and in desperate search of effective responses, the artist’s vision is no longer just an expression of scientific knowledge. It is instead a powerful lens through which we collectively reflect on our hope, impotence, and apprehension. The interview is conducted by Harry Yi-Jui Wu of the University of Hong Kong. A veteran historian of medicine, Wu joins EASTS as a member of the cover team in 2020.—EASTS Editorial Office
Harry Yi-Jui Wu: A significant amount of your artwork is related to health and illness. Can you tell me what inspired you to create these pieces?
Angela Su: I am drawn to creating pseudo-scientific drawings because I was attracted to the fine line between the real and the fictional. Historical and contemporary anatomical drawings seem to provide us with the truth, but in fact they were artistic interpretations of what scientists or medical doctors wanted to highlight.
Later on, I got interested in topics related to mental illness. I am particularly intrigued by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations, disorganized speech patterns, and their distorted sense of reality. The seemingly unintelligible word salads are coded to a point that they sound almost poetic. John Nash’s ability to crack codes and to see connections between different facts are also fascinating. These are curiously the things that artists like myself would want to achieve—to construct different world views, different modes of communication and existence.
I began to look into the history of hysteria, Charcot’s photo documentation of his female patients at Salpêtrière, SPK (Socialist Patients’ Collective), and the validity of psychiatry. It is indeed very sad and infuriating to see how science and politics are often partners in crime. Science is somehow used to help establish social norms and maintain the status quo, and social misfits and political dissidents today are still sent to mental institutions. I guess I am more interested in the social constructionist concept of illness rather than the medical notion of disease.
Wu: More specifically, the Chimeric Antibodies series was produced almost a decade ago. Can you tell us about the context in which you undertook the project? While facing an unknown disease like COVID-19, we tend to imagine the ways in which we enhance ourselves to fight it. For example, we develop drugs that kill the germs; we grow immunity by developing vaccines. These antibodies in your paintings look complicated and monstrous. Can you elaborate on how you imagine these antibodies?
Su: These are a series of large-scale drawings around 170 × 75 cm each in size. I was thinking about J. D. Radcliffe’s book, titled I Am Joe’s Body (1986), in which some cells are described as cities with rigid dictatorship, while white blood cells are described as police who keep out undesirables. This book was in fact mentioned in the movie Fight Club, that tells the story of how a schizophrenic became an enlightened revolutionary.
And that’s how I came up with the idea of producing a series of antibodies with organic tentacles that weave around rigid structures, and thus creating constant tensions within the antibody itself. It’s likened to the perpetual fight between an organic structure (with a decentralized approach) and a mechanistic structure (with a hierarchical approach similar to that of governmental organizations).
Wu: It’s interesting to see how you relate these “antibodies” as enhanced fighters of infectious disease. Are the images of Chimeric Antibodies monstrous or sublime?
Su: I do agree that we try to enhance the human body in all sorts of ways, from vaccination to gene editing, as if medical technologies are in an arms race with germs, or even with the inevitably of death. I understand that this is only human nature as our instinct of survival is hardwired in our genes. But then the intervention of medical technology that prolongs our lives is not without consequences, yet, in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t help but wonder if this is the right timing to debate the ethics of medical technology such as vaccination? What is the line between the monstrous and the sublime? Technology is always a double-edged sword.
Wu: As an artist, how do you position yourself in the pandemic? In what ways do you think you need to voice things on behalf of certain people? Why do these voices need to be expressed in art instead of textual forms? Since science is hard, and art is soft (if you agree), what message do you think you can convey to your audience regarding the meaning of pandemics?
Su: An artist is like everybody else who tries to survive the pandemic and perhaps to anticipate a new norm. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was lots of speculation about a better world where the distribution of resources will be fair, with improved health care and social structures. However, in the end, all the issues—the cracks in the system made visible by the coronavirus; the inherent racial tensions; domestic violence and the vulnerability of the underprivileged (not only referring to individuals within a nation but also underprivileged countries where lockdown is not a feasible way to suppress an outbreak) still remain unresolved. We will in no time get back to the feeling of normalcy and the routine of life in an even more divided world.
As artist I want to create works that trigger one’s curiosity about these issues through myth-making, but art doesn’t provide answers. The actual learning and digging are still the responsibility of the audience and it will take lots of effort. What I could offer as an artist is a different perspective to look at things, as we are trained to question the status quo, to reveal hidden histories and to preserve memories.
Wu: How do Hong Kong’s social reality and cultural characteristics affect your artistic practice? A year ago, you were commissioned to produce several art pieces for the project Contagious Cities. Facing this new wave of epidemic, what new thoughts have you developed?
Su: Actually for the longest time, I didn’t think Hong Kong’s social reality and cultural characteristics had any effect on my practice. My interest in science is considered quite niche in the tiny art scene in this place branded as “Asia’s world city.” I found inspiration from films, pop science books and science fiction. Having said that, Hong Kong’s unique situation did have a huge impact on my personal growth as many of my friends are involved in community organization. My artistic practice is often informed by my non-art-related side projects which are more socially aware or goal oriented. I find it effective to use my network as an artist to initiate these projects.
I haven’t any new thoughts at the moment. It feels like we are in a crossroad right now where things can take an unexpected turn, there could be a new epidemic that overlaps with COVID-19, plus there is still so much mystery around the virus itself, the availability of a vaccine is also questionable. At the same time, we also need to deal with political unrests both locally and around the globe. It is indeed a difficult time for the people of Hong Kong. New ideas that I might have now need to sink in before they can be transcended into a work of art. To create something critical, I would need some distance, meaning that I wouldn’t be able to create anything in the midst of a catastrophe when I am overwhelmed by emotions.