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Artist Shen Xin and Curator Susan Gibb In Conversation

Wednesday 13 October 2021, 1pm

Hannah Mathews:

Hello. My name is Hannah Mathews, Senior Curator at Monash University Museum of Art, MUMA, in Naarm, Melbourne. Welcome to our final Form x Content for 2021.

As we begin, I'd like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners and Elders - past, present, and emerging - of the lands on which Monash University operates. We acknowledge Aboriginal connection to material and creative practice on these lands for more than 60,000 years. I'd also like to acknowledge all First Nations people with us today. Form x Content is a series of conversations featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators, and academics that engage with critical questions of our time. Delivered during Monash University's teaching semester, Form x Content in semester two has explored ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.

I'm very pleased today to welcome artist, Shen Xin, and curator, Susan Gibb in conversation. Shen is presenting a work in MUMA's final exhibition for 2021, 'Language is a River'. We had very much hoped that Shen would be able to travel to Melbourne and join us for the exhibition and to give this talk in person, but that is the year that 2021 has been - disrupted. We're very pleased, however, that through this Form x Content conversation, audiences will have the opportunity to learn much more about Shen's practice. Susan Gibb is an Australian-born curator now based in Vancouver, where she is Director of the artist space Western Front and has recently worked with Shen on a new commission. Susan's curatorial practice has always been rigorous and one to follow. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to bring her voice into conversation with Shen for audiences here at Monash and online.

Monash's Form x Content is programmed by MUMA and presented by Monash Art, Design, and Architecture. On the occasion of our last talk for this year, I'd like to extend a big thank you to the MUMA team, who have worked enthusiastically and with great care on this program, and to the Faculty's Marketing Team who have been great partners. A big thank you also to those who have contributed their time and voices to the program. These conversations have addressed sustainability, collaboration, and the ways in which First Nations' artists centre Country in their practice. They have explored practice in its ranging forms and the importance of care and community. All these talks are available on MUMA's website and are an incredible resource for students, staff, and our valued audiences further afield.

So please, welcome artist Shen Xin and curator Susan Gibb as they share our final Form x Content for 2021. Their discussion will range from Shen's recent practice, the new commission, 'Solar Wheels of the Steppes', and the space of language and otherness. Thank you.

Susan Gibb:

Hi, my name is Susan Gibb and I'm calling in from the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations in otherwise known, Vancouver. I'm here today to talk to Shen Xin who has her work, 'Commerce des Esprits', in the current exhibition at MUMA, 'Language is a River'. So Shen, I don't know if you'd like to quickly introduce yourself before we begin.

Shen Xin:

Sure. Hi, my name is Shen Xin and I am speaking from Miní Sóta Makhóčhe, the Land of Dakhóta People and other Indigenous People. So I have an artistic practice that engages with moving image and performative events and a collaborative working relationship with Susan, as well as a work, currently planning to be shown in the group show at MUMA. I'm happy to be here to share this conversation with Susan and share some of our practices. Yes.

Susan Gibb:

Great, thanks. So I just want to start the conversation by talking about the work that you'll be showing at MUMA. I was wondering if you could begin by giving a visual description of the work, so both in its sort of content and installation.

Shen Xin:

Sure. So the work itself is a four-channel video installation. The way that the four channels are installed are sort of mimicking four walls of a small room and slightly collapsing or leaning onto each other, which creates this exterior and an inaccessible interior. And for the exterior, it's for the audience to walk around. From any viewpoint, you could choose to see just one channel or two at the same time. What happens on the four channels separately are two animation channels, which have this sort of purplish, bluish, and sometimes reddish glow. These two animations of lines that are motion captures of people speaking and their faces. So each line is assigned a feature of the face - an eye, a nose, a mouth. So one animation is based on my mother reading this monologue that I wrote, which is essentially the Chinese script of the work. The other animation is me mimicking the breathing rhythm of my father, who was in coma and who I observed every day for 24 days.

So these two animations sort of performs as vehicles in these four channels. And the other two-channel one is a direct translation. Well, direct is not precise. Perhaps, more of a translation of Zhuangzi, who is a Taoist from ancient China and speaking about... It's a translation of my mother's texts, but incorporate how the English speaking world has been translating Zhuangzi. In the other text channel is a French channel where the specific vocabularies that are used to translate Zhuangzi in Taoism are being singled out as a way of returning to a comparative ways of understanding how Taoism is functioning in these different languages. So there are three languages: you hear Chinese, and you read English and French.

And so, that's in general how you experience the installation and you also hear my mother's voice. Yes.

Susan Gibb:

I was actually curious to ask a little bit more about Taoism and actually how that is important in your practice and in this work.

Shen Xin:

Sure. For me, Taoism is... I don't see it as an intellectual property of a nation state. I see it as something that came from a way of seeing the world in relation. We could not have determined where the author had lived or where exactly he identified with. So in a sense, it embodies a lot of potential for me of a different way of thinking about anarchism, because it comes from a period of time that there is no such thing as a unified nation state. For me, it is a very restorative way of thinking and that's why it has been important for me to use that to understand, say Western anarchism, anarchist thoughts and practices, in comparison to the form of resistance in Taoism. However, I tend to find that it is more apparent that I will find similarities in Indigenous practice rather than in Western anarchist thoughts with Taoism these days.

But for me, at that point, it was interesting to think about language and consciousness. I was already thinking about it. These things in relation to anarchism, especially anarchism in French-speaking world, that world that derived from deconstruction thoughts and how they are using Taoism as a subtext to argue for anarchism in their context. I found that really interesting. I find the religious context that was given to Taoism through English world also very interesting. So I was trying to think through these things. And then, my dad went into a coma where suddenly these things were activated for me to be in dialogue with what it means to lose language, what it means to translate something that is not being spoken. It becomes much more intimate than just a theoretical interest or an interest in ideology. Yes.

Susan Gibb:

Thanks. I was also curious that I think in this work with this unconscious state, that's given presence through the subject of your father in a coma, but that's narrated. I was interested in across the work that there's often this play between something that's kind of absent being present in a different way, but maybe not visually. Or even thinking about how you constructed the install that at different points, you get a different view and there's a sense of the perimeter of the work and this inside that can't be accessed.

I know that you worked off on with these ideas of inclusiveness and exclusiveness and I see a sort of presence-absence. I was wondering if you could extend upon the reasons that you use this as a strategy in terms of how you construct your works.

Shen Xin:

Yes. I often find that really difficult to explain in this work. Well, a bit more than say 'Warm Spell', which is a short film and 'Brine Lake', which is a five-channel work. Because in this work, absolutely the absence is a device, but it is sort of subscribing to the history of animation in that sense. I mean, in terms of how an animated character is usually being used as a vehicle, historically, in terms of the development of animation for desires, violence in the very beginning. For me to use animation, usually... It already embraces absence in terms of projection. So I think motion capture was the very appropriate way that I thought about to render visible this absence. The translation from face to an animation, but injecting genetic behaviour pattern that makes the animation move. So the translation therefore becomes transduction in a sense because you basically inject something new and that ghost is being made in that way.

For me, it comes from many things. One thing that I do more and more come to terms with is that in the specific sociopolitical context that I have lived in and experienced and identify with, I live or my people or people I hold dear in terms of relationship, we live with ghosts. Ghosts of the past that cannot be articulated and ghosts that is still sort of directing our lives to places where it feels inhabitable. So it comes from making that ghost visible, that motivation. It's very consistent in three, four other works that were made during the same two – three years. Yes. Similar periods where I really invest in how to use the suspension of an absence as a device to activate some sort of space for the audience to have balance and to project as well, I think.

Susan Gibb:

I'm wondering as well about the importance of translation in your work, because that feels like another device that you really regularly used to have — a script that you write be translated across and interpreted across many languages. I was wondering if you could talk about the process that you use for that translation.

Shen Xin:

It's very different when it involves actors and when it doesn't. When it involves actors, usually the translation, I use them as a reference. Say, the most recent work that I completed has three languages - Japanese, Korean, Russian - but the translation is just the first step. When I pass on the transcript to the actors, I tell them, "Please change it if need be. If it doesn't feel comfortable, in terms of how you want to say something." And then, I will retranslate it after. So the translation is just a medium to or an invitation, you can say. I guess in this case, in 'Commerce des Esprits' is very similar because the languages themselves or the translation work that has been done as a grounding work for Taoism, in French and English, are the actors. So I used them or gave them the autonomy to behave in ways that they usually do. So to kind of trust in their input, in how they can interact with each other. Yes. Maybe it's not so clear, I don't know.

Susan Gibb:

I think it's clear. I think it makes sense. I mean, I'm more so interested in this question of agency that I know that's also coming up in the work that we're developing together, about how you would like to work with different people to participate. So I was also thinking a lot about the... I know reading about your work often, this question of agency comes up and also this idea of complicity as well about, I think, the position that an audience ends up taking.

So I guess I have a question about how you also want to structure an audience's relationship to these works, often thinking that they're multichannel, which I think is something that very much defines your work, how they're installed, and also the durational qualities. So I don't know if you maybe want to extend on that thought of agency in relationship to that audience relationship.

Shen Xin:

Yes. I think it's a very interesting question for me to think about recently, especially because I more and more realise through interacting with practitioners here, on the Turtle Island, I feel that I really do not subscribe to any tradition of aesthetics and it is because of agency, in the sense where I really would like to, say in our collaborative process, think about how other people are involved as a way of... My relationship to their involvement is embracing their input and whatever it is and whichever form it comes in ways that it's meant to be. I never try to control the aesthetics of that and I prefer working with it.

So I guess for me, that is the relationship in terms of making because I believe deeply... In the very beginning of my practice, I used to say this and that I believe that a work is made through me. But then, later I read in Buddhist practice that in Buddhism, there is actually this deep belief that our work is made by collective consciousness, and why, and all that in terms of understanding how the body is made of non-self elements and all that. It really resonates with my practice, in terms of what I value in collaboration. In terms of the audience agency, I think is very similar. There is no formal expectation or control, but there is just about carving. There's just this action of carving out space to participate.

So the installation is a spatial rendering of how the body can choose to move or choose to resist in the installation. The time is sort of an exchange. Do you want to do this with me? Do you want to sit here from A to B? Do you trust that you will maybe feel a sense of focus in just one singular moment in this duration? It's kind of an invitation exchange, an offering of space. And so, I definitely believe in agency that is rooted in, say, relationships - both in the making and receiving of the work.

Susan Gibb:

I guess I was also curious, I know I've read a lot about you referring to your work more as systems than projects. So I was wondering if you have a way of extending on this idea of thinking through systems. I know that these belief systems emerge. I mean, I don't know, that might be more of a statement than a question. I thought it was a really particular way of framing your work.

Shen Xin:

I don't think I've thought about that in terms of systems. I give myself so much space to change from work to work and it's very hard to think about it as a system. I think, perhaps, what I gather in term of the relationship to system is when I really focus on one particular belief system. Say, I spend three to four years looking into Tibetan Buddhism and how it interacts with specifically European societies and how it's not immune to the sociopolitical implications, in terms of experiences with the religious institution - within and outside of it.

So in terms of these actors... For me, that is a real investment in the system in terms of investigating it. Other than that, I feel like I have more of a trust in spontaneity or, say, language is an alive organism that you can live with and learn from - although there are systems within. Say, I'm learning Tibetan right now. I do realise that systems have changed even... At a really beginning stage, the system had engaged with the language, but the language preserved things that is true to, say, its way of honouring its own value systems. Systems, again. I guess, maybe it's about how they interact and sort of honouring the way they interact, in terms of what they make of each other in different processes and different knots. Yes.

Susan Gibb:

I think that makes sense.

Shen Xin:

Yes.

Susan Gibb:

I mean, it's really nice to hear because I do think that defines your work about how much freedom you give yourself to change. Maybe reflecting a bit forward on the project that we're working on and then thinking about the show in MUMA, I was also curious to maybe talk about the figure of your father in your work, because I know that he appears in an early work and I know that's been part of some of the thinking for this new work too. So I was wondering if you'd be open to extending upon that relationship.

Shen Xin:

Yes. It's so potent and precious and it has evolved so much. When I was a student, I had such a critical perspective towards what he did as an artist in terms of using the colonial perspective. To see his practice as objectification, without grounds, and totally blind. I was totally blind to, say, other ways of sensing kinship and only until he passed away, the stories start to reveal themselves, that actually what I though he was doing, he was a Chinese ink painter who painted realistic Tibetan portraits and Indian South Asian portraits and figures and landscapes. I always thought that was inappropriate. "What were you doing?" We had many fights, but then the stories revealed itself in many ways in terms of how he was actually part of these people that I thought he was objectifying.

Hence, I felt that I missed the chance to connect with him in that realm. For me, that was sort of an alarm bell of the limitation of perspectives that I have been using and subscribing to or feel comfortable with. After that, I felt like I would like to make a commitment to understand Tibetan language. I've started to do that, but not in any way that I feel like it is language that has to have a relationship that concerns belonging with me. But it's more of a language that I would like to learn with and live with, to have a relationship with. My objective is to live with it. There's nothing more for me in that so far.

There are two new works. One is the work that we are planning to make. That work perhaps has less of a personal touch, I think, in relationship with my father. There's another work that I'm making that it's really about staging Tibetan language and examining it in terms of how he talks about performativity, light, and theatre. I think it will continue to influence me and I'm writing about him and his practice, and writing about my mum, my mum's parents, and my relation to landscapes and faults.

I do feel like there might have been a turn in the past three years - that I focus more and more on my family relationship, in terms of how actually expansive they are in relation to other things, like language and land. Yes.

Susan Gibb:

That's sort of another question that I had, is I think that one thing... Re-looking over your practice that, there's something quite interesting in some of the earlier works that are really sort of set within landscapes or really contexts that are visible. And then, there's a movement into these, which I think with the work in MUMA, has too, into these more kind of theatrical spaces where you really use that apparatus of the theatre. And then, I know with the work that we're working on it's kind of a return to landscape.

So I'm sort of interested in this kind of play between these highly theatrical spaces and these kind of very... situating the work within context. I think 'Warm Spell' is also very much situated in a context, too. So I wonder how that works for you in the imagining of projects?

Shen Xin:

That is very interesting to bring them together because I've always thought about them separately. Definitely, there is this divide, now that I think about it. The performativity, I think, concerns, narratives. How actors could perform a narrative is in itself performative and the narrative itself usually concerns in my work, concerns love and desire, or the agency of those things. They usually are, for me, performative by nature. At least, that is the part that I can not eliminate.

But in terms of land and relationship with land, I think I am seeing a connection between ethnic identification concerning China as land, not as a nation state, with sort of ecological concerns and the environment, that the ethnic identification to live within or are embracing. This relationship has become more and more apparent to me in terms of boundary making or border making a nation state, sort of control in how to identify ethnicity and the creation of a majority and in relation to geological, epistemology, or determination of resources, energy....

So all of that, for me, is extremely connected. I do not know how to articulate their relationship in terms of the performativity. I think the performativity perhaps is an honest way of being upfront about their... For example, with the Tibetan language that I will have relationship with it, but there is a performative aspect of learning it and that might not be containing a negative or positive connotation. It's just how it is. I would like to think a little bit more about that in terms of their relationship. Yes, thanks for that.

Susan Gibb:

That's okay. The other thing I know that's sort of coming up in thinking about this new work is this sort of thinking through technology and the sensory capacities of technology. As I know, it's a thing that you're really exploring at the moment. I wondered if there was things about what maybe shifted with how you've been approaching, say, the camera as a tool and where you see you'd like to extend that as well, as a sort of own kind of cinematic language?

Shen Xin:

Yes. During the pandemic, I've been looking at film festivals a lot and I noticed that I have a tendency of skipping through all those films that direct my gaze, in terms of narrative. It's just periods of time where you have different preferences. But right now, for me, I feel like it's important that whatever's happening is happening and honouring what's happening rather than sort of trying to direct the gaze. I think about that in relation to sort of painting with camera. I guess that is related to agency because in the new work, the working title that we are sort of planning is 'Solar Wheels of the Steppes'. There is an element of working with other people's skills or not really skills, but just their relationship with something that perhaps can be considered specialised. But it's in the very beginning of its creation, very intuitive - Super 8 analog filmmaking.

For me, that relationship between how people perceive the piece of equipment that they're using is being however they use it and how they interact with it, is important for me to preserve. The other part where say, we plan to go and film the habitat, the preservation of wild horses... That part perhaps is a bit more of where I can realise or actualise the painting with the camera part, which is sort of making things happen in front of the camera. It's a little bit like using other people's monologue to write a novel, which is one of my favourite writers, Rachel Cusk, her ways of writing. I think about that as a way of creating absence as well, because then you do get to return inside as an audience because you're not being told what to see. But actually you are because the maker is making these things for you to see, but still you can return or think proactively about whatever is happening.

I think it's quite abstract, but I think the Rachel Cusk sort of metaphor or analogy is enough in terms of hinting on how that can be done. I think that has been done historically in cinema, but perhaps not in context that is so much connected to whatever's happening, where the film is being made. More like in the abstract sense in the '70s.

Susan Gibb:

Yes. Maybe it'd be great to offer a bit of a description of what the work in progress is as well, if that's okay.

Shen Xin:

Yes, sure. The new work, 'Solar Wheels of the Steppes' concerns the relationship with wild horses from two regions, and one is the Uyghur region in China and the other is the wild horses relationship with the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation in Nemaiah Valley. So these relationships for me, are not dissimilar. I'm trying to sort of, I guess, hint at more of the affirmation of those relationships through language and through collaborations. For me, it's essential to look at what's happening in Uyghur region through this lens - in affirmative lens. There are elements that are involved that we're planning and hopefully will be realised in such as a Super 8 film workshop with children and to film in the preservation and a science fiction written mainly through verbs in my imagination using a Uyghur, Chilcotin, and perhaps Chinese and English languages. Yes.

Susan Gibb:

I'm curious to know that this is a work that... It was imagined, but it was begun before the pandemic unfolded. So it'd be interesting to hear how this shift, I guess, in temporal experience that the pandemic has brought on, or this kind of rupture, how has that been sort of shifting and influencing the work and its evolution because it's become quite an extended timeframe, as well.

Shen Xin:

Yes. Yes, because we had many conversations throughout this time as well. In the beginning, I recall the idea was very much about going there and filming the wild horses and finding it and finding a guide to sort of navigate how to be able to capture the wild horses. Because the idea of accessibility, I guess, prior to pandemic is very different. I think the inaccessibility makes it very reflective in terms of what we took for granted or what I took for granted in terms of what I can film, as in where I can direct the gaze and much later on, through our conversations as well, I feel like we were challenged by the circumstances very much. In terms of deepening this reflection and be like, at least for me, "What am I doing, thinking that I really need to film these 200 something wild horses in this huge piece of remote preservation?" That perhaps, I'm not honouring the relationship with the so-called subject. The film's approach is perhaps in imagination and in planning, was left unchecked and was challenged.

So to actually understand, I think, how to change that and how to speak from a perspective of care in terms of contribution and in terms of how can image be produced and why should they be produced and what are they giving back when they are being produced? All those questions become much more obvious in our conversations and in my thought process. I think that's why the workshop, being the place where the images of wild horses should be present, because they are actually the people who the children and who will use these cameras are actually in daily relationship with these horses. So that makes it extremely different in terms of us going into the remote area and to try and find the wild horses. Yes.

Susan Gibb:

Well, I wonder if we should leave it there.

Shen Xin:

Yes.

Susan Gibb:

But thank you so much, Shen. I should also say thank you to Hannah Mathews for the invitation for both of us, to be able to have a conversation together.

Shen Xin:

Yes. Thank you, Susan. Yes and thank you, Hannah.