Sydney Shen

I am often asked, why am I so preoccupied with melancholia? Carol J. Clover succinctly articulates the importance of confronting darkness in this excerpt from her feminist film theory text Men, Women, and Chainsaws:

What makes horror films “crucial enough to pass along” is, what has made ghost stories crucial enough to pass along: its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings.

I am obsessed with repressed fears and desires—the traumatic macabre is embedded in all my work. My most recent solo show, Four Thieves Vinegar, is named for a prophylactic against Bubonic plague—which is said to have been developed by thieves in 17th-century France to protect from infection by the very corpses they plundered.

The sculptures in the exhibition are interpretations of folk plague remedies. The act of “sitting in the sewers” is one of these confounding remedies. Four sewage cover hooks coated with a solid perfume, and four chairs hung upside down and studded with redolent cloves, flank a manhole cover on the ground, beckoning plague fleers to evacuate to subterranean depths. The phrase “Timor Mortis Conturbat Me” is engraved on the manhole cover—a common refrain in Medieval English song, meaning “Fear of Death Disturbs Me.” Star anise pods and planet-shaped citrus pomanders—aromatics used in both traditional Chinese and western medicine—litter the floor around the manhole cover, as though the sky has fallen. Despite the absurdity of sitting in sewers during a pestilential outbreak, I see a contemporary parallel in the matrix of desperate, pseudoscientific approaches to wellness that have become familiar strategies in response to healing a broken humanity. From anti-vaxxers to Goop acolytes, taking fate into your own hands in apocalyptic times transcends ideology.

Four 3D-printed plastic flyswatters hang in another part of the installation, to be used by flagellants, and on the flies that anticipate their corpses. I designed the swatting portion of each flyswatter with hand-drawn images and text borrowed from Catholic prayer, Renaissance madrigals, and an online Halloween prop store. The madrigals were composed by Carlo Gesualdo, an Italian prince infamous for his melancholic music as well as his sadomasochistic brutality. He hired servants to regularly beat him—some say it was to quell inner demons, though the Medicinalium juxta propria principia states that he “was unable to go to the stool without having been previously flogged by a valet kept expressly for this purpose.” This constipated prince’s wellness ritual took the form of flagellation, which is echoed in the form of the flyswatter.

Miasma theory was the pre-germ theory belief that disease is spread through “bad” air, so utilizing air as a medium in Four Thieves Vinegar was paramount. The space bears a strong odor from “scent diffusers” made with antique urine vessels and lit candles. The fragrance emitted, which I interpreted from the historical Four Thieves Vinegar recipe, is simultaneously astringent, medicinal, and gourmand.

Master’s Chambers is another sensory-overloaded show, which consists of a single installation spanning both the upper and lower levels of Interstate Gallery. The upper level includes a baby grand piano, music stands, organic matter, and medical equipment frankensteined into decaying forms and installed as though it were a derelict chamber music performance.The stands prop up sheet music made from a pulp of ground human and vermin bones. These manuscripts are inked with a solution of my blood and pig’s blood. Fungus decompose every reverberation within the mechanical viscera of the piano, “prepared” in the Fluxus tradition. Roses made from toilet paper—a craft practiced in prisons—litter the floor and hint toward what will be encountered in the lower level. In the basement, a lavatory complete with sinks, a broken plunger, and a decrepit set of bathroom stalls conceal a monitor displaying a horror video game recursively based on the exhibition itself.

The eponymous video game takes place in a nightmare version of the Interstate Projects exhibition. Like many horror video games, the goal is simply to explore and escape. The player’s interactions with objects—rendered after artworks and even include the gallery directors and myself as cameo corpses—activate text captions that contextualize the dense iconography of the show, sometimes by obliquely referencing my other work. For example, some graffiti stickers in the “bathroom level” of the game advertise Fragrance Zone, a bizarro version of my real perfume review project Perfume Area. The “storage closet level” of the game contains renderings of failed or tentative artworks that may never be realized beyond their virtual representation. Instead of documentation, the videogame is augmentation. It isn’t merely a replica; it is an evil twin, a proxy from a parallel Hell. The player gets a glimpse into the artist’s/maestro’s/master’s inner life by exploring the haunted architecture of the chambers.

The relationship between inhabitancy and interiority is further unpacked in my exhibition What’s Worse Than The Void is Matter. The sculptures in the show reference motifs of horror cinema and “Creepypastas,” or spooky hypertext fiction circulated on the internet. Midnight Game is a chair bound with rope and leaned against a door knob attached to the wall. It is titled after a game played to summon the malevolent spirit Slenderman, meant to tempt fate by inviting the unwelcomed. Chairs wedged under door knobs to blockade against intruders is common in movies, but in reality it is a useless gesture. Like the other sculptures in the show—which include an inverse peephole and a closet lit from within—this piece uses incomplete aspects of doors to suggest immaterial portals to another realm. Additionally, the rope used to bind the chair is coated with wax and honey. This mixture was sustenance for the living waxworm larvae, which filled two birdhouse sculptures on display. Over the course of the show, the larvae metamorphosed into adult moths that ate the coating on the sculpture. In nature, wax moths live a parasitic existence. They lay their eggs in beehives, the larvae emerge, and cause colony collapse disorder. I think of the infected beehive as a haunted house, its physical destruction from within parallels psychological interiority and hidden terror manifesting as the space that one inhabits.

Opera is a Bad Influence is a pastoral nightmare. For this installation I made a scented candle based on the odor of my pet tarantula’s cage, lit by a matchbook embossed with lyrics from the classical Chinese opera Lady White Snake. “Because I longed for the profane world, I came down from the mountain” expresses the titular demigod’s desire to experience firsthand the pain of mere mortals. The candle burns precariously close to bales of hay topped with limp scarecrow-like “dolls” made from straitjackets embroidered with elemental phenomena, vector drawings of mosquitoes and dung beetles, and tags cut from plush toys. These “dolls” dementedly point toward my interest in the abjectly cute. As elaborated by critic/theorist Sianne Ngai the ambivalent affect of cuteness is a paradoxical state of wanting to both protect and harm something perceived as weaker than the beholder. That experiencing something as cute is a manifestation of violence relates to the “final girl” archetype in slasher horror film. First coined by Clover in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the “final girl” is androgynous. When she looks into a broken mirror, she sees the monster who wants to kill her. Like the monster she presents an othered threat to dominant modes of masculinity. What might an identity which is at its core ambivalent, alienated, be comprised of? It also relates to my interest in the complex relationship between discipline and desire, and the ways in which punitive responses to nonconforming behavior are eroticized.

My interest in the eroticization of the punitive stems in part from the paradox that extreme or restrictive states will reveal the unknowable and lead to freedom from time, space, and self. Made from a fetish boot meant to immobilize the wearer’s foot, Thirst is the Mother of Corvid Ingenuity is a sculpture I showed at Roberta Pelan. The boot is filled with water and stones engraved with the names of rocks on Mars. Aesop’s fable about a crow—slaked with thirst—that fills a vessel with rocks to reach the water inside, is about the virtue of ingenuity. Space exploration is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and the embodiment of the futile search for the unknowable. Bone Apple Tea, my intervention on a commercial window display in Hong Kong, also engages the erotically punitive. At select intervals, guests are allowed into the tiny space and locked into the pillory, making them an object of display. At the threshold of the pillory is a welcome mat. The text on the welcome mat is derived from the internet meme “Bone Apple Tea,” a misspelling of “bon appetit.” I am interested in extremity of language as sculptural material; internet memes stretch meaning to absurd limits, so I pushed it even further by literally translating the phrase into my second language.

b.1989 – lives/works in New York City


2011 BFA, The Cooper Union, New York, full tuition merit-based scholarship
2010 Summer, Universität der Künste, Berlin, class of Josephine Pryde

Solo Exhibitions

2018 Solo Presentation, Material Art Fair with Motel, Mexico City
Spring, For Seasons, Zürich

2017 Solo Presentation, NADA with Roberta Pelan, New York
What’s Worse ThanThe Void Is Matter, Motel, Brooklyn
Four Thieves Vinegar, Springsteen, Baltimore

2016  Master’s Chambers, Interstate Projects, Brooklyn
骨蘋果 茶 (Bone Apple Tea), Holy Motors, Hong Kong
2011 MOON ROOF, The Cooper Union, New York
Selected Partner & Group Exhibitions

2018 TBA, curated by IFIAAR (Aidan Koch), Entrance, New York TBA, w/ Kyung Me, Hotel Art Pavilion, Brooklyn
Note G, Chicago Manual of Style, Chicago
TBA, American Medium, New York
Ever, w/ Laurel Schwulst as Perfume Area and Damon Zucconi, Shimmer, Rotterdam
PAIN IS THE MINIMUM, Condo Complex with Springsteen Gallery hosted at Breve, Mexico City

2017Protocols Found In a Bathtub, Minibar, Stockholm
Rega rding Some Me Into Timeworn Bits, FastNet, Brooklyn
A Most Filial Imprint, curated by Robin Peckham, Aike Dellarco, Shanghai Gabinete a Moda, A Maior, Lisbon

2016 Redleaf, Sydney, Sydney
Hard to be a God, w/ Joel Dean, Weekends, London
Welcome to Earth: The Story So Far, High Tide, Philadelphia
Safety Deposit Box, curated by Lock Up International, Frankfurt
For Granted, Hole of the Fox, Antwerp
Left gallery Summer Selection, w/ Laurel Schwulst as Perfume Area and Damon Zucconi, Neumeister Bar-Am, Berlin
Shriek Wildly And Throw Yourse lf Into Whatever Bottomless Gulf May Yawn, w/ Aleksander Hardashnakov, Roberta Pelan, Toronto Closing Time–or–“You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay in the 20th century”, curated by Weekends, New Galerie, Paris

2015 hTERT, Hester, New York
Watching Things Burn, Springsteen Gallery, Baltimore
…Looking down at myself from the window of an Italian restaurant in the Catskills…, American Medium, Brooklyn
Against Automatism, Fused Space, San Francisco[Aubergine], Et al., San Francisco
A Rare Earth Magnet, Derek Eller Gallery, New York
Unsafe At Any Speed, Eli Kerr Projects, Montreal
BLIND MIME IN REVERIE, curated by Keith J. Varadi, KnowMoreGames, Brooklyn
Mouth as is a haunted house, w/ Laurel Schwulst as Perfume Area, Beautiful Gallery, Chicago

2014 Ever Y Thing Zen, Jancar Jones, Los Angeles, curated by Important Projects

Prizes and Awards

2016 Short-listed (did not receive) for Queens Museum Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists
2015 Starwave ☆ミ Grant for Female Artists


2016 Holy Motors Project Residency, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
2014 Summerforum for Inquiry and Exchange, Joshua Tree, California


2017 Four Handkerchiefs, a Perfume Area publication co-authored w/ Laurel Schwulst, self-published, New York 2016 Consumer Report: Sydney Shen, ARTNews, Online
2015 Perfume Area, co-author w/ Laurel Schwulst, Ambient Works, New York
2014 All My Friends At Once, The Most Central Part of New Jersey, edited by Gene McHugh, Online
2013 Beauty Today Magazine No. 2, co-founded and edited w/ Clara Carter and Katrina Myers, New York 2012 Beauty Today Magazine No. 1, co-founded and edited w/ Clara Carter and Katrina Myers, New York


2018 Flash Art, “An Existence as Insignificant as a Common Housefly”: A Brief Conversation between Keith J. Varadi and Sydney Shen

2017 Totokaelo Artist Interview
ARTNews, NADA Fair Highlights
Artspace, 10 Artists to Watch at NADA

2016 C Magazine, review of Perfume Area
ARTNews, Consumer Report

Consumer Reports: Sydney Shen

New York Times, Roberta Smith review of A Rare Earth Magnet at Derek Eller Art Practical, review of Against Automatism
Art Forum, Critic’s Pick review of Against Automatism
Dazed Magazine, United Nations of Erotics on Beauty Today Magazine