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.