Cover A Still from Su’s The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O (2022) Photo: Courtesy of the Artist and Ka Lam, Video commissioned by M+

Artist Angela Su is representing Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale, which opens this month after a pandemic induced one-year delay. She speaks to Tatler about her fascination with anime, levitation and disco balls

If it wasn’t for her distinctive thick-rimmed black glasses, Angela Su would be unrecognisable: when she appears on video chat, her usual jet black, pin-straight, blunt-cut bob has been replaced by a blonde pixie cut. Forgoing her distinctive goth look, her new, still-edgy transformation is all in service of her latest film, The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O (2022), set to debut at the Venice Biennale this month.

In the film, Su assumes the role of fictional character Lauren O; she posits that concocting a diverse range of characters could be a way of coping with a politically ruptured world. “Having all these alter egos is like having multiple personalities,” she says. “Each personality [could help] us survive a different extreme situation—it’s a survival mechanism.”

She sees her place at Venice as a chance to address a world changed by the pandemic while staying true to her practice. The Hong Kong pavilion will feature Arise, an installation comprising multiple parts, including Su’s film. The pavilion is co-presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the M+ museum (for whom this is the first international project after its official opening in November 2021). Both selected Su to represent the city—a career-defining moment that Su finds surreal. “I’m both nervous and excited: I felt like it’s this huge responsibility after Venice was postponed for a year… [and] when so much has changed.”

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For the first time in its 127-year history, the biennale’s main exhibition, which is staged in addition to 80 national pavilions, will feature a majority of female, gender non-conforming and POC (persons of colour) artists, including several from or based in Asia, such as Jes Fan, Pinaree Sanpitak, Thao Nguyen Phan, Lu Yang and Candice Lin. This year’s main show, put together by Cecilia Alemani, chief curator of the High Line Art programme in New York, is entitled The Milk of Dreams, after artist and novelist Leonara Carrington’s book of the same name.

Carrington’s tale features an imaginative narrative and is filled vivid drawings of hybrid mythical creatures which inhabit a surrealist setting of the author’s creation—a world filled with possibilities. Alemani builds this reimagining of what the world could be into the show, an interpretation which resonates during a time when many people feel there is a need to rethink and rebuild existing systems.

Coincidentally, Su’s film corresponds with Carrington’s book in that she also creates an intricate fictional realm where the possibility of change is presented as a means of dealing with the consequences of a chaotic world. 

 

Of the debilitating effects of the pandemic and politics—the spectrum from the Trump presidency to the rise of woke and cancel cultures—Su asks: “How do we survive this when we feel so disempowered and helpless to change anything? I can’t provide a solution but I can come up with an absurd idea, like levitation; maybe that’s the answer. Maybe we need something absurd in order to face absurdity.”

Levitation takes centre stage in her presentation for the biennale. “It’s a metaphor for many things—freedom, spiritual transcendence, rejection of geographical boundaries, human aspiration to reject the physical law of gravity and to take risks to achieve the impossible,” she says. “To levitate means to be in a state of suspension, in between falling and rising. It’s a constant balancing act in between risk and safety. I’m really interested in that given the current state of the world.”

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Su shot The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O at Hong Kong’s Shaw Studios. She came up with the character after she came across American science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which followed protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina on a quest for freedom. Su’s character belongs to a fictional activist-anarchist group called Laden Raven which was founded in the 1930s. Composed of circus performers—often viewed as social outcasts—and other marginalised members of society, the group attempts to change the world as did the 60s counterculture movement. 

Su was inspired by the anti-war, hippie culture of 1960s and 1970s America, and in particular by the widespread popularity of meditation, transcendentalism and other methods of reaching alternate states of mind. “As a kid, I always wanted to be a teenager in the Sixties and Seventies because of the fashion, the music, The Beatles and flower power. Of course, I was romanticising that era,” she says.

Her art is rooted in a desire to tell stories: all her works are narrative-driven, from earlier creations such as the drawings of mythical beings for Paracelsus’ Garden (2008) shown at Hong Kong’s Grotto Fine Arts gallery to her first film, The Afterlife of Rosy Leavers (2017), for which Su created Rosy Leavers, a bespectacled, redheaded superheroine-esque persona. 

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“Maybe it’s because I was an only child, but I always had an active imagination,” says Su. “I would make up crazy stories all the time. Sometimes I would pretend I was a character in an anime.” A huge fan of Japanese comic books such as Gundam and Fullmetal Alchemist, Su sees a parallel between her practice and the range of references anime draws from: “Eastern and western historical references, Kabbalah, Christianity, alchemy—they mix everything together in a blender and come up with something totally new. In hindsight, this is what I’ve been doing in my work.”

Arise is spread through four rooms and a courtyard, and is intended to be an immersive set for the audience but also for Su’s character, unfolding like a story as you progress through it. “The idea is to create a utopian playscape for Lauren O and the audience. Here, the act of playing is a form of resistance against work and progress, disrupting the monotony of work,” says Su.

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The installation will conjure up a fantastical atmosphere: circus posters will be plastered around the courtyard, and cement-cast triangular pieces similar to the grey acoustic foam, seen in Su’s film, will hover a centimetre or so off the ground. Videos featuring found footage of trapeze artists and tightrope walkers from early circus documentaries will be interspersed with scenes from old, experimental silent films.

Su’s film will be screened in a dark room which functions almost like a sensory deprivation tank, seemingly heightening the dramatic effect of her performance. At the film’s climax, Su’s character is suspended upside down, five metres in the air—essentially levitating—shortly after which she turns into a disco ball; a real disco ball will also hang in the fourth and final room, serving as an important metaphor.

“It’s in the centre of the dance floor; people gravitate and dance towards it,” says Su of the disco ball—a classic entertainment symbol of the 70s. “It’s about collectivity; it’s a platform for people to gather together and amass energy to make something happen.”

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