Featured Artist:
Sydney Shen

Tie Me Up! Lock Me Down! is a group exhibition of jewelry and adornments at Special Special, curated by Banyi Huang and Kristen Lee. Set in the bedroom of an imagined character, it recounts stories of love, heartbreak,and reconciliation, inviting the audience to be engulfed in unhinged emotionsand extreme fantasies, poised between indulgence and repression, explicit desires and hidden symbolism. The following is a conversation livestreamed on Special Special's instagram account, between Banyi Huang and Sydney Shen, one of the artists participating under the brand name of Gesualda.

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B (Banyi Huang)
S (Sydney Shen) 

B: I’m here with Sydney Shen, who is one of the artists in Tie Me Up! Lock Me Down!, participating under the name Gesualda. And we are here to talk about that project, and how it fits within Sydney’s larger artistic practice. 

S: Gesualda is my jewelry experiment, a place for me to try things that are adjacent to my practice, that I’m still working through. That as a creative exercise. I decided I wanted to make fine jewelry (sterling silver, and eventually gold). These are some pieces available at Special Special. They are various post and dangle earrings. I feel like I’m on QVC.

Some of the forms include a twisted cherry stem that’s cast from a real cherry stem; a thinner one; there’s a few variations on the cool S, also known as the "Stüssy S", optical S things that everyone drew on the margins of their middle school notebooks. In the future, the S will be even more extended, eventually into oblivion. There’s also a treble clef. As far as these motifs, and why they are placed on an elf ear.

I mentioned how Gesualda is a way for me to work through things that are not a part of my fine art practice. In that respect, it feels like I’m assuming the persona of Gesualda herself. The reason for the naming is that it’s the feminine form of the Italian surname Gesualdo. Carlo Gesualdo is an early Reneissance composer, whose music I really like. He’s known for being a visionary for making music that is dissonant. He also embodies the idea of the gendered myth of the male genius. He also brutally murdered his wife, and her lover. The whole story also fits within the scope of this show. It was said that he killed them while they were having sex, and there’s rumors that afterwards he was seen wearing the tattered, bloodied dress of his wife, running through the streets, howling in agony. He was a real character, an archetypal villain. In that respect, he’s a very interesting person, but at the same time a total douchebag. I’m trying to reconcile those ideas, which in the context of today is important, because we are also grappling with the concept of art and the individual who made them.

I thought one way to approach it is to rename it as Gesualda, thinking, why can’t women be evil geniuses too? That’s how these motifs came about. This larpy medieval ear is a little bit baroque, but also twisted.

B: The myth of Gesualda, along with its gendered dimensions, reminds me of Elizabeth Báthory.

S: Totally, they are in the same canon of crazy aristocrats, which I’m very fascinated by.

B: Within those legends, there’s so much room for the projection of torture and sexual fantasy. Elisabeth Báthory was a Hungarian noble woman who was rumored to have tortured hundreds of slave girls in her castle. Within that gendered space, there exists the idea of the monstrous feminine. There’s a lot of fear projected onto that figure, once you have gender reversal.

S: Fear of?

B: Fear of this unquenchable blood lust and desire, of sexual fulfillment. Or at least how these myths build through time. Some people say that the whole idea of her killing all those people was a conspiracy to blacken her name.

S: I mean, she was rumored to have been the most prolific serial killer in all human history, which is pretty sick. She was also reputed to have bathed in the blood of virgins.

B: I wanted to ask where your interests in the morbid and the macabre stem from, and how you initially started to explore that.

S: For me, it feels so innate that it’s almost hard to pinpoint. Making artwork is trying to understand those impulses. Horror is like contradictory states of fear and wonder, the sacred and the profane, pain and pleasure…etc. They are often themes that occur in genre fiction, horror in particular. That’s interesting, because those are attempts to imagine what lies beyond, trying to transcend our state of being human. IN the case of horror, the only way to experience that transcendence is through the obliteration of yourself. Characters in horror fiction are compelled by unknown forces toward these terrible discoveries.

B: It is a vacillation between attraction and repulsion. I think it’s also interesting how in your work, when you explore themes in Western contexts, like the bubonic plague in Medieval times, you always pair those with scientific terms. The fascination with the occult and witchcraft, when situated in a Western context, it doesn’t really have a parallel in East Asian traditions. Because of foundations of science, the Enlightenment, and classification practices, in contrast, aspects of the occult and the morbid become so pronounced, and in turn hold so much appeal. I wonder if you notice those differences, and how that impacts your work, as you do research in both realms.

S: That’s a good question. For me, maybe I am trying to process it. I was really interested in reading Liao Zhai, the tales by this 16th century Chinese scholar Pu Songling, whose stories are ubiquitous and popular in China. They are short stories told in a casual vernacular, of weird and freaky stuff that happens to people. For example, it would illustrate the following: a friend of a cousin told me that a friend sneezed, and a little person came out of its nose. These goofy narratives are contrasted with supernatural tales, demons, fox spirits, people convening with the dead or falling in love with them. I’m interested in that it’s not only horror, but also the idea of the weird. Currently, there’s a lot of interest in a movement called the New Weird, but I feel like a lot of it has already been a subject of study in 16th century China. When I read Liao Zhai, it makes me think of the Twilight Zone, or Tales from the Crypt.

B: That’s awesome! I’ve been reading it too. It was first translated as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. For me, it was so astounding that the author was writing in such a matter of fact way, it’s like detailing a grocery list, when he’s chronicling people coming back from the dead, or a woman engaging in bestiality with her dog when her husband’s away. What’s interesting is that it was first translated by Herbert Giles, the British sinologist who helped establish the Wade-Giles Chinese romanization system. In that version, he basically omitted everything. As someone with Victorian sensibilities and moral high ground, he just couldn’t bring himself to include narratives involving so-called sexual deviancy. So definitely no woman having sex with a dog. You couldn’t reframe it or censor it so that it makes sense to a Western audience. It kind of goes back to this point in history, the East and the West had such different attitudes the body, sex, and horror.

S: Right now, I’m working toward an exhibition for next year. It is based on a lot of research. I’m thinking for it to be taking the form of a slightly falsified archive, which is something I’ve never done before. It has certain overlaps with what you were talking about. Georges Bataille had all these photographs of people being executed in China, known as death by a thousand cuts. He was instrumental in circulating them around the West, and also for their misinterpretation. Actually, the people who were being executed had already been dead, so their corpses were mutilated postmortem. So it refutes the perceptions about a certain of cruelty that’s associated with these photos, and certain ideas about Chinese society at the time. For Bataille, the reason he liked them so much is that the people appeared to be in a state of rapture occurring simultaneously as a state of suffering. Something martyr-like or Christ like. It’s interesting to see how these photos repudiate the idea of photography as an accurate documentation of the truth, but rather that it is clearly a mediated form of authorship, both in its producer and the consumer who embellishes it. I’m trying to figure out how to talk about that, in conjunction with lurid, sordid imagery that circulates on the internet now.

B: That’s really cool. What form do you think this constructed archive will take?

S: I really want to make some photos. I also do a lot of secret writing that I’ve never figured out how to incorporate into my practice and actual artworks that I show. This might be an opportunity to create a narrative around it.

B: In a previous interview, you mentioned having a writing project, Puritan Salvage.

S: For me, doing something not under your own name often alleviates the burden, it makes it less precious. Just the mental state of thinking that Gesualda is doing this, or Puritan Salvage is, makes it easier. Puritan Salvage is a project under which I write short fiction and poems. It’s supposed to be a waste removal company. Thinking about it as crap makes it easy to not treat it preciously, because sometimes you get too caught up in something being precious it becomes paralyzing.

B: It’s like having a secret tumblr. I also wanted ask about your interest in BDSM, for example punitive boots, binding chains, and various forms of torture devices. Can you talk about what that means for you, and if it’s not explicit.

S: I feel like it comes back to this desire of wanting to exceed the limits of the body, simultaneously being very limited by it. How can you push the body to the extent where it transcends? I feel like BDSM practice is a part of it. There’s a built-in existential question to that. Why do we want to know what it’s like to be something else? I’m so fascinated by the idea of transcendence.

B: Transcending our physical shell?

S: Yeah. To me, it feels like a paradox where that which restricts the body, or doing one of those salt water pool things (sensory deprivation), or meditation. In those states, you start to feel like you no longer have a body. There’s a fine line between having control and not having any control. To me that’s super interesting. Even up until now, I think the way I was approaching my art practice felt very punitive. But I’m slow realizing it doesn’t have to be that way.

B: Maybe returning back to Gesualda, is there a particular direction you are hoping to take? What are you hoping to incorporate that you couldn’t do with your fine art practice?

S: I’ve always wanted to be better at metal work, so I thought that jewelry-making would be manageable on a micro level. Through that, I’m starting to understand the hobby of miniature-making, because you are literally creating your own world, and just thinking about the shift in scale. It allows you to be hyper-detailed about something. I feel like my art practice is not like that, so jewelry-making is a good place to continue that.

I also want to make other types of wearable objects. I work with chainmail, so I’m trying to figure out a way to work with it that’s not too tedious to weave. I just want to make more time for Gesualda in general. I’m craving doing this again.

B: Do you feel like part of this is about constructing a myth? Today, there are currents towards doing that. You could be going back and making up myths where they should have existed, perhaps due to gaps in history. I was wondering if that also ties into your project.

S: That’s definitely a part of it, of filling in the blanks. So much of history is fiction, and there’s a lot of room for elaboration and even embellishment. Jewelry is the perfect format for that, because it’s all about ornament and surface in that way. That’s something that I’ve always felt unable to reconcile with in my art practice. As an artist or a visual person, there’s a certain idea about taste, rigor, content and form, that makes something like steampunk considered to be such a vulgar aesthetic. But for me, because I am drawn to the attraction/repulsion duality, I am attracted to things that are hyper-ornamented, things that are pointless embellishment. But at the same time, I like the idea of these things, even though if I can’t embody them, maybe this other person (Gesualda) could embody them, and point out how ornament is quite important to visual discourse.

B: Do you feel like you are trying to undo some of the externally or internally imposed hierarchies in the visual art realm?

S: Absolutely. Definitely a lot for myself. It’s also an experiment in allowing myself to not follow what things are supposed to be. I realize that a lot of those are self-imposed, arbitrary rules. Maybe being an artist is about developing an internal logic and questioning it.

B: Normally, you do a lot of research to jumpstart your projects. What does your research process look like?

S: It’s like a black hole. I just get into something and hours go by. It’s absurd. I just lose track of everything around me as I get hyper-interested in something. I try to contrast that with times when I’m sorting through all the information, and trying to come up with some sort of index for figuring what makes something interesting. The nice thing about doing research for art versus writing a paper (didactic processes), is that it’s a lot more open-ended. You come up against a lot of unexpected things. In that way, fiction and fact become more intertwined. I allow that to happen more.

Four Thieves and Vinegar, it was at Springsteen Gallery in Baltimore.

B: I haven’t been to that show myself, but just looking at images of it, I find an element of cruelty that’s pervasive in your work. For example, upside down chairs, the claw machine that doesn’t work at the New Museum. Is that something you think about?

S: Maybe cute but sad is another way of putting it. That’s a feeling I’m into that maybe relates to cruelty. But sometimes people are surprised when they meet me, because I’m actually quite nice.

B: I’m really looking forward to your next project, and whatever that comes out of Gesualda. Is there a platform that you are hoping to release new content or products on?

S: I really need to relaunch the website. Goal is to get it up by Valentine’s Day, the most romantic day of the year, or prior to that, so you can get stuff before that. There will be new jewelry items, and also other types of wearables. Another thing I’m working on under Gesualda is my collaboration with Gregory Kalliche, who runs the project 57 Cell. It is an art space that you can’t visit, and only exists in the form of a catalogue. It’s basically a rendered space that he expertly makes. I see my project with him as the opportunity to make a lookbook for Gesualda. It will be cool.

B: It’s digital? Or physical?

S: It will be a physical book. But the space allows for an impossible exhibition, because it's all digitally rendered in a hyperreal style. I anticipate a lot of giant women, who are anthropomorphic, alien characters modeling the pieces, maybe centaurs and stuff.