Sydney Shen: Strange But True
On ViewQueens Museum
Strange But True
April 28 – August 22, 2021
“You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught half way through: the middle of things; discontinuities.”
In Strange But True, Sydney Shen animates the space of the archive, inviting viewers to enter the exhibition through a keyhole-shaped portal into an uncanny environment of ephemera and historical information. This takes the form of several low platforms, which are painted on the sides in a deep brown tone. On the top side of each, a collage of images, facsimiles of documents and photographs altered and superimposed over one another by Shen, is printed onto the wooden form, creating a false illusion of depth. At certain moments in each composition, a wooden “pin,” akin to those seen on road maps, marks a spot; each platform is decorated with four or five pins. With each pin, on the side of a platform, is the notation associated with a figure, such as “Fig. 142,” which Shen refers to as footnotes (mysteriously these begin at the number 134). Shen references aesthetics of historical knowledge and academic writing, from assigning “figures,” to referring to collected material on each platform as a “dossier,” to invoking the visual language of maps.
Each figure corresponds to an audio clip, some narrated by Shen herself, which grounds the pieces with either historical research read by Shen or primary quotations. Shen’s voice comes through the audio clip slightly distorted, as if through an older telephone. In the first footnote, Shen’s narrator explains their hasty exit and offers, “I wish you luck in forming your own conclusions from these fragments and that they aid you in your search for that profane object of your desire.”
Using the clips to orient us, Shen pays attention to the place, documenting the Queens Museum’s history as the former New York City Building at the 1939–40 World’s Fair, the grounds of which are today known as Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Certain audio clips/images document submissions of “human oddities” to be exhibited at the fair—as in a photo “a woman by the name of R**** P*** admiring a transparent model of a flayed man at the 1939 World’s Fair Medicine and Public Health exhibit” (Fig. 136). In the clips, as with the images, Shen employs a similar strategy by redacting most of the proper names; these are replaced with a beeping noise similar to the sound used to censor curse words on network television. If one listens to the audio throughout their visit to the exhibition and follows the numerical progression of the figures, the experience takes on a more immersive quality. Shen’s voice guides you around the different platforms, while your senses are on high alert from the jarring staccato beeps.
The materials in this archive blur boundaries between violence, entertainment, and knowledge, with particular attention to the history of photography especially as it relates to the development of medical knowledge. Two characters that emerge in Shen’s archive, in part because their proper names are revealed, are Chang and Eng Bunker, described as ethnic Chinese conjoined twins. The Bunkers were brought to the United States to be exhibited as medical oddities but later went on to marry white sisters from a Southern tobacco family and became naturalized United States citizens in a time when it was not legally possible to do so. To quote Shen’s citation of Cynthia Wu, the Bunkers “both transformed and replicated oppressive orders.” These fragments do not cohere to tell any single narrative of the Bunkers’ lives but instead offer glimpses of both their humanity and how their bodies were othered.
On another platform, Shen adds a sculpture of a super-sized, old-fashioned key and ring with a tag indicating an unknown hotel room. Across the room, a similarly hyperbolic magnifying glass juts off the wall, casting a ring-shaped shadow on the ground below. Nearby, an oversized pencil with a teddy bear eraser hangs at a diagonal, whimsically unusable. The only digital screens which appear in the exhibition are also mounted on the wall and display close-up footage of the hairs rising on an arm or leg, a technological intrusion to Shen’s largely material archive. Accompanied by the final audio clip (Fig. 153), the footage is revealed to be extreme close-ups of goosebumps. Shen ties this into Bataille’s erroneous interpretation of the practice of lingchi (in another clip, Shen cites how Bataille likens looking at its image to the feeling of ecstasy). However, her invocation of the somatic reaction to emotions also returns to her provocation at the beginning of the audio tour. Shen’s archival practice is tied up in the complex relationships between beliefs, emotions, desire, and the ways in which these interactions at times are transformed into “facts.”
Shen creates a cartography of historical knowledge, seemingly mapping out the documents and images utilized to construct historical or scientific narratives. Her research, put on display for the contemporary viewer, highlights the discrepancies of how knowledge has evolved: what once were facts now register as outdated superstitions while other events, previously understudied or not well known, emerge as stranger than fiction. While the mining of the space between narrative and fact has become near-ubiquitous in our “post-truth” era, Shen’s investigation and excavation of the material substance of how “facts” come to be still resonates as a worthy reminder of the power dynamics and violence inherent to knowledge creation.
- Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, Newark: Rutgers University Press, 2002, pp. 45