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What is your [X]? A solo exhibition by Sung Tieu at Emalin

Something new to see before and after lockdown

by Sophie McAlpine | 10 November 2020

After a long, dry summer without art, there is a tendency to return to the familiar galleries and museums, to experience the spaces and works that have given us peace or inspiration in the past. London currently has plenty to offer by way of well-reviewed blockbusters and familiar names from Titian to Bruce Nauman. In these last few days before the chance passes you by, I urge you to look for something new. For me, this was Emalin. By no means newcomers to the London art scene, the Courtauld and UCL alumni’s Shoreditch gallery has been open since 2016. Their current show What is your [X]? is by Vietnamese artist Sung Tieu, now based in Berlin. It is a refreshingly challenging work reflecting on the individual voice within the collective machine- prescient themes. In the main atrium of the gallery, Tieu has installed a cellular unit, within which the exhibition is contained. In the past Tieu has worked with ready-mades; her recent show at the Kusnthalle in Munich used prefabricated furniture from prisons and detention centres. This exhibition was not a total departure from the themes of institutional structures and incarceration that Tieu has focused on before. Eight steel doors lining the internal walls of the installation intentionally replicate doors leading into prison cells. Viewers are asked to remove or cover their shoes, presumably to protect the pristine white underfoot, but the stipulation also gives the impression that one is entering an authoritarian space. Bright white strip lights feel institutional. But viewers who have removed their shoes might be surprised to feel carpet on the ground rather than the anticipated linoleum; it softens the effect of an otherwise crisp white space. Moreover, the centrepiece of the exhibition is a birth chart, Tieu’s own, screen-printed onto a mirror which is contained within the machinery of a safe, a cute allusion to the previous life of the gallery space as a locksmith. Where a window should be on each door, Tieu has instead placed black plaques inscribed with the traits of an imagined Jungian Personality Type, each addressed to the reader. The plates, in their unsettling setting, invite reflection on our individual manipulation by external powers, be those of State, of dogma or of our own internal superstitions.

Installation view, Sung Tieu, What is your |x|?, Emalin, London, 19 September – 07 November 2020

Emalin participated in Frieze as it went online this year, and Tieu’s work translates nicely into a digital format- the clean look of the brushed steal and bright white, and the incredibly high quality of the finish means that the work lends itself well to a screen. Nonetheless Emalin remained open to visitors wishing to experience Sung Tieu’s work in person. There is a tendency to associate the idea of the materiality of the artwork with comfort and assurance; we see this in the way in which the art market tends to turn away from more conceptual (dematerialized) works in favour of traditional mediums at times of crisis. But comfort couldn’t be further from the experience offered by Sung Tieu’s work. In fact, viewing it from the comfort of your own home would likely diminish the introspection invited by the uncomfortable experience of being present in the space that she has created. The gallery has on two smaller concurrent exhibitions. The first is a series of three sculptural compositions by Latvian artist Daiga Grantina. I found the form of the works unmemorable- they are abstract organic compositions based on algae and fungi. The fleshy colour palette and grotesque biomorphic quality of the compositions felt overly familiar. Perhaps displayed in greater number or viewed from a little further away they might have had a greater impact. But the materiality of them is fascinating. Grantina combines found materials such as denier tights with materials more often associated with industry, like shellac, latex and silicone. She has shaped the forms freely by hand and with scissors, the still-visible jagged lines adding an aggressive edge to the works. This combination of the industrial and the natural is pleasingly unpleasant. Emalin is also currently exhibiting a small number of sculptures by Evgeny Antufiev which play on themes of folk art and the autochthonous history of his native Siberia in materials like brass, amber and enamel. Antufiev had a solo show with the gallery when it relocated to New York last year and the few works of his currently on display at Emalin merit far more than an appendage at the end of an already laudatory review. I hope that Antufiev will be the subject of a solo show in the not-too-distant future. His work, like Tieu’s, particularly benefits from being seen in person, such is the impact of its materiality and if a solo show is in the works I will be the first one in the door.


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