It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
"Simple and elegant." That's how Berkeley's Kala Art Institute described Su-Chen Hung's installation art in 2007, and six years later, it's still true -- even as Hung has embraced video projects that play out across multiple screens. Hung's newest project, "Ants in the City," at Intersection for the Arts (925 Mission Street, through May 25), is an immersive exhibit that encourages art-goers to step on a long, magnified projection of ants that are as big as spiders. Hung, who grew up in Taiwan, earned her BFA in Photography and her MFA in Film at the San Francisco Art Institute. She spoke to SF Weekly about her artistic use of insects and animals, how her strict academic upbringing in Taiwan set her on an artist's path, and why humor will always have a home in her art and her life.
Q: Damien Hirst famously put a shark in formaldehyde, called it art, and changed the way people thought of sharks -- and his career. You also use animals in your art, but the animals are alive.
A: I used live goldfish for an installation at the Headlands Center for the Arts, and I used live chickens at the Headlands. I also used flies for a video piece. I do all sorts of things. The live chicken was set at the end of a special room, and the whole floor was covered with fresh eggs. The chicken couldn't come out, and the viewers couldn't go in. The chicken was very mad, and it couldn't jump around. The chicken and people visiting the exhibit started at each other. (Laughs.) When I was installing the piece, I was thinking, "How do I title this piece?" And then one day, a person walked by and asked me, "What does the chicken think about?" And that became the title of the piece.
Q: When that project ended, the art-goers went home, while the chicken came home with you. At least for a day.
A: When the installation ended, I contacted a local bakery to pick up all the fresh eggs, because I didn't want to waste the eggs. And then I took the chicken home. I didn't want to put the chicken in my yard, so I put it in my bathroom. The next day, you can imagine how smelly it was -- there was poop all in the bathtub. And I called up a friend -- he was the handyman for my installation -- to take the chicken, and when he came, I gave him the chicken and food for the chicken. And he said, "What do I need the food for? I'm going to make a soup tonight, and put the chicken in it." Every single project of mine has an interesting story behind it.
Q: Including ants. You had some issues with them as a kid.
A: Like a lot of kids, I played with ants when I was little. And I used a magnifying glass to focus the sunlight and burn the ants. It was a very bad thing, I know. And then as an artist, in the early 1990s, I used sugar to draw a human figure in my backyard, and I was hoping the ants would join me to make a black outline. But it didn't happen. And I put that project aside. For some reason, the ant idea kept on coming back. In 2006, I spent a month in Hungary, and during the month, I spent most of the time outdoors videotaping and photographing ants. The idea was that I would draw a mouth on a glass window, with the traffic as a background, and have the ants crawl on and eat the mouth. But I found the ants didn't like to crawl on the glass because it was too slippery. So I modified the idea, and that was the beginning idea of Kiss you, Honey.
Q: That's your artwork that uses honey in the shape of red lips. In the garage of your Richmond District house of San Francisco, you filmed the ants devouring the lips.
A: Yes. The first time I began the project, I was so nice to them, I put out all this honey, and they went crazy. They finished the whole lip. I said, "This will be an easy piece." I was planning to show it in Japan in 2009. But the ants got tired of the honey. I kept on doing the experiment for three days and I had to stop. At one point, I realized that they love fish. I was sun-drying some fish that my family sent me from Taiwan -- it's the best, most delicious food in the whole world -- and the ants went crazy. I said, "You guys are real gourmets -- you know what's good." So I started feeding them that. To film Kiss you, Honey, I had to set up something they liked, like fish or meat, and then on their way back from that dish, I set up this honey thing as their dessert. It wasn't their main interest. It guaranteed they came to the sweet thing.
Q: The exhibit's long walkway portion, which is also called Ants in the City, asks people to step on a video projection of ants eating red-stained sugar. Art-goers can put on white, doctor-like jackets to wear as they walk on the video, which magnifies the projection. This is the sort of project that could easily fit in a science museum. What makes this project "art"?
A: The sound that accompanies Ants In the City is street sound. You hear ambulances. You hear traffic. The sound was recorded in Taiwan, so you hear a lot of motorcycles and police whistling. At Intersection for the Arts, Mission Street is so busy. I wanted people to walk along Mission Street and come into the gallery and to hold those sounds in their heads as they see the ants scurry around. I'm also comparing the ants' lives to human lives. We're as busy as the ants are -- we're always running, running, running, non-stop. Their life is a mirror of our life.
Q: You weren't planning to be an artist at all. In fact, you had originally intended to be an academic. But the rigors of your education in Taiwan -- and San Francisco's weather -- changed the course of your life.
A: I came here in 1977. I was planning to study sociology -- that's what I majored in in Taiwan. I wanted to become a scholar. But I was interested in photography. And in my family, I have two sisters who are artists. I thought I'd take a break from studying -- the Taiwan school system is just so intense; from the first day until you finish college, it's studying, studying, studying. So I took a beginning photography class. My parents were hoping I'd join my sisters in New York City. I went to New York for the summer, but I stopped in San Francisco for a week, and I was so impressed by the cool weather here, because Taiwan is always so hot. So I moved here and started going to the Art Institute, and I forgot about sociology.
Q: In the video work East/West, from 1984, we see a split-screen version of one half of your mouth speaking Chinese and other half speaking English. The different halves of your mouth are at odds most of the time, but they also match up occasionally.
A: That project is based on my citizenship interview. They asked me if I wanted to change my name. My name is Su-Chen. It should be pronounced as "Su-Jen" but people here can only pronounce it as "Su-Chen." Then they asked if I would bear arms to fight for America. And I said, "If a war happened between America and Taiwan, who would I fight for?" I love both countries. And I'm really, really grateful that I can be here.
Q: Red is a motif in your work. At Intersection for the Arts, the honey lips that the ants eat are red, of course, but the sugar in the walkway portion is also red. Any reason for that?
A: A lot of people ask me, "Why red?" Here in this country, people interpret it in opposite ways. In 2004, at an installation in Los Angeles, I covered the floor with red thread. That year, my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away. But red in my culture is lucky, and a blessed color. And I thought if I cover the whole floor red, maybe I can bring him back. In Chinese New Year, we always celebrate with the color red. Weddings. Any festival. We always have red. The longer I live away from Taiwan, the more I use red. I feel so comfortable being in red (laughs).
Q: You have a good sense of humor. Is there humor in your ant/art project?
A: Yes. Kiss You, Honey is very light. And people say that I'm very funny. It's how I unwind myself.