Arise in Protest: Angela Su Represents Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale

Artist Angela Su is most famous for working with human hair, which she sews into sheets of pale fabric to create intricate images that mimic anatomical drawings. These haunting works are highly sought after by collectors around the world, but Su has rejected suggestions that she hire a team of assistants to do the painstaking needlework for her. Su insists on doing it all herself, spending hours at a time hunched over her embroidery in her family home in North Point, where she has lived almost all her life. 

“In the exact same apartment. Is that very depressing?” says Su, laughing. “When I was growing up, I never liked Hong Kong. The people were very money-minded, very conservative. But I’ve slowly become more attached to the city. Now I feel more rooted in Hong Kong.”

Su has been reflecting on her relationship with the city recently because she has been chosen to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale of Art, the world’s most important contemporary art event, at which dozens of countries and cities host exhibitions showcasing their best local artists. The Hong Kong pavilion in Venice is overseen by M+ museum and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. “I’m very excited and happy to represent Hong Kong,” says Su, whose exhibition, Arise, runs from April 23 to November 27. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

Arise is a complex, multi-layered show that unfolds over a series of rooms. On display are a mixture of Su’s hair embroidery works, drawings, installations and, most importantly, a new video work, “The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O,” which Su shot at Hong Kong’s famous Shaw Studios. These seemingly disparate pieces are all linked by Su’s interest in levitation – a concept that has preoccupied her for the past few years. “It’s the state of suspension that I’m interested in, or levitation as a metaphor,” she explains. “It can mean many things, like freedom, transcendence, the rejection of geographical boundaries, the rejection of gravity, or the human aspiration to achieve the impossible, to take risks knowing that the chances of success are very slim.” 

“The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O” is a pseudo-documentary that tells the story of the fictional Lauren O, a circus performer and activist who believes she can levitate. The film is set in the US in the 1960s and is focused on the huge protests that erupted against the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. These anti-war demonstrations began by targeting specific issues, such as the murder of civilians in Vietnam, but over the course of the decade became part of a larger counterculture movement that also encompassed the civil rights campaign, the sexual revolution and an embrace of New Age thinking. Su’s new work was partly inspired by a real-life event in 1967 when tens of thousands of anti-war protesters marched on the Pentagon and tried to levitate the building using psychic energy.

Time magazine reports that the activists hoped that “by chanting ancient Aramaic exorcism rites while standing in a circle around the building, they could get it to rise into the air, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled.” It didn’t work, of course. But to Su, that’s not the point. What is most important to her is that the protest allowed people to laugh at a symbol of power. “It was very absurd, but it managed to demystify the power of the military and the power of the US government, so for me that’s amazing,” she says. 

“The Magnificent Levitation Act of Lauren O” combines historic footage of anti-war protests in the US in the 1960s with video clips of a new performance by Su. For part of the performance, Su is bound and suspended five metres above the ground, acting out the plight of Lauren O’s fellow protesters who have been arrested. Su’s use of footage from past protests, as well as her performance of an activist tied up, invites comparisons with imagery that emerged from Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, when millions of residents took to the streets in pro-democracy protests. Thousands were arrested—some of them violently—and video clips of clashes between demonstrators and police were broadcast around the world. 

On a conceptual level, Su’s interest in levitation as a “state of suspension” can also be read as a reflection on the geopolitical position of Hong Kong. The city was historically a colony suspended between Britain and China, and since the handover in 1997, it has faced a tricky balancing act as a special administrative region that links China to the world. But Su makes it clear that the exhibition can be interpreted in a multitude of ways – not all of them related to Hong Kong. “The audience’s interpretation really depends on their own experiences and cultural background. I think everybody can take away something,” she says, adding that there are several universal ideas woven into her show. 

One of these broader ideas is the spread of disinformation. The combination of Su’s new performance as a fictional character and historic footage from real life is unsettling for the viewer and raises questions about what is real and what is fake. “I’ve always been interested in the mix between fact and fiction,” she says. “Even looking at my drawings – they look like medical drawings of the human body, but when you look closer, there’s something wrong, nothing makes sense in the drawings. We’re living in a world of disinformation, and we constantly have to judge what is real and what is a lie.”  

Another important idea is the power of fiction. Unlike some artists, who are content to hang their works on the wall and leave the viewer to wander at will, Su has created a clear narrative for her Venice exhibition, guiding visitors from the beginning of a story to its end. Su does this for many of her shows because she believes stories have the power to help people imagine different futures for humanity – and the dangers they may bring. She is particularly drawn to science fiction, which often provides models of totally different societies. “We need to think about our future,” she says. “We need to have the motivation to make changes because without changes we have no chance to make the world a better place.” 

In a nod to one of her literary heroes, Su named Lauren O, the character at the centre of her Venice show, after Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of American author Octavia E. Butler’s classic sci-fi novel The Parable of the Sower. “Lauren Olamina learns how to fly in a dream, and she survives in an apocalyptic world. She’s a brave, intelligent, incredible woman, so I named my character after her,” she says.

But in yet another blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, Lauren O was also inspired by a real-life activist. Su shortened the character’s surname to “O” in honour of pioneering feminist Bertha Pappenheim, who was given the pseudonym of Anna O by her doctor, Josef Breuer, and his protégé, Sigmund Freud, after she suffered a nervous breakdown. Anna O’s case is recorded in Breuer and Freud’s 1895 book Studies on Hysteria, which remains in print today. “Hysteria, as we know now, is a socially constructed disorder, so we don’t know if she was really sick or not,” says Su. “But we know she’s an incredible woman in history who survived very difficult situations.” 

This twisting and turning through fantasy and fact, as well as through topics as varied as psychology, literature and politics, is characteristic of Su’s work – and of Su herself, who graduated with a degree in biochemistry before pursuing a career in art. “I think her science background distinguishes her work from a lot of other art we see,” says Freya Chou, the curator of Arise. “Angela is not just talented as an artist, but in the wide range of research she does. For this Venice presentation, I’m most impressed by how she challenged herself. There are not just drawings and embroideries, but also larger installations, sculpture works, and the video work.” 

Among the sculptures are a giant swing and a circus ring, equipment from the circus where Lauren O supposedly works, and triangular sculptures that will appear to hover above the ground. One hair embroidery piece, “Laden Raven,” an eerie image that depicts a bird that appears to be pregnant with a human baby, is Su’s largest embroidery work yet, measuring three metres long. “It took me four months to make,” says Su. “It should’ve taken longer, but I worked day and night nonstop.” 

Su first started working with human hair to try to enliven her clinical anatomical drawings. “My drawings are so controlled and clean, but when I use hair, they come alive,” says Su. “The loose ends hang out of the fabric, so it gives it this crazy quality that I really like.” 

There are several challenges to working with hair, including the physical strain that needlework puts on Su’s neck, back and eyes. Another obstacle is sourcing it. “I’ve used both real human hair and synthetic hair,” she says. “I source the real hair from a wig shop in Mongkok.” China used to be the largest exporter of human hair but, as the country has become more affluent, fewer people are willing to sell their locks to wigmakers. “It’s expensive and getting longer hair is really difficult,” says Su. 

After Arise opens in Venice, Su is travelling to Basel in Switzerland, where she is taking part in a residency and exhibition hosted by PF25 Cultural Projects, a non-profit led by fellow Hongkonger Angelika Li. After that, Su will travel to Sweden for a three-month-long residency sponsored by IASPIS, an artist exchange programme funded by the Swedish government. “I have no idea what I’m going to work on there,” she admits. “Maybe animation.”

Whatever Su makes next, it is certain that Hong Kong will inspire it in one way or another. “Growing up in Hong Kong and having experienced so many things in the city, of course it affects what I create, not only for this exhibition in Venice, but for all of my work,” she says. “There are good things about Hong Kong, and there are bad things about it, but you have to embrace everything.” 

Arise runs from April 23 to November 27, 2022. Click here for more information.

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