Angela Su: Melencolia

February 2, 2024 – March 10, 2024
Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University

615 W 129th St
New York, NY

Angela Su, Cosmic Call, 2019, video still

Angela Su, Cosmic Call, 2019, video still

Angela Su: Melencolia is the artist’s first solo exhibition in the Western Hemisphere. The works assembled for the exhibition include installations, speculative docufiction videos, and drawings and hair embroideries of composite cyborgian bodies. Activating historical filmic language or the power of intricate monochromatic line, Su envisions out-of-body experiences and the interiors of bodies in pursuit of the dialogic relationship between extreme practices of constraint and physical and psychic resistance to social controls. Accessing the liberating power of metamorphosis, hybridity, and transformation, her worlds—from micro (human cells) to macro (outer space)—turn the follies of the past and the incomplete imaginaries of the present into a magical space for self-reflection. Su interrogates the lengths human beings will take to control their own and others’ bodies even to the extent of summoning fantastical, irreverent, violent, and aspirational states to reach the seemingly impossible unknown. The trope of the Doppelgänger becomes the mirror of the past that reflects on the conditions of the present. Su pointedly implicates herself, becoming an alias “other” as a form of survival. The liminal states of becoming “other,” and their instability, unseat methodologies of discovery and disrupts encounters with questionable histories. The exhibition features works executed between 2014 and 2023, a decade of immense changes for Hong Kong, Su’s home city. Key events during this period precipitated a layering in of collective and public topics with her long-time investment with the body.

Su’s videos often employ montage featuring obscure clips. They map fictions of cyber realities, cosmological fantasies, cellular structures of disease, psychoanalysis and behavior therapies, and misplaced political beliefs shaped by authoritative states, in order to navigate the violence that interferes with bodily autonomy and the quest for collective freedoms. These docufiction videos are meditations on the problematics of belief systems that compel us to ponder the curious behaviors and actions prompted by fear of the unknown. Existing film footage such as Busby Berkeley dance compositions in Lacrima (2021), found footage of so-called psychiatric hysteria in Mesures et Démesures (2015) or cell structures in Cosmic Call (2019) are the archives’ memory tools. Peppered and inter-spliced with narrative contextualization, images of scientists with extreme visions abusing victims in the name of science appear across tightly edited sequences. They are contrasted with a counter-narrative of dissidents’ utopic strivings, activating forces of liberation free from social norms, modeling futurist social justice scenarios, and leaning into stunning imagery of natural landscapes. Su relies on the sublime and speculative as well as the grotesque to raise questions about the capacity of individual agency.

Su’s drawings and hair embroideries render the internal anatomical mechanisms of invented bodies as if specimens inhabited by mysteries only the artist can uncover. Much of her work hinges on a strange recurring dream state as if Surrealism had been diverted by a system of digital reordering. Core obsessions yield to malleability and the unfixedness of realities in search of desiring new forms. Centered on the page, the hybrid body in works such as Laden Raven (2022), Rorschach Test No. 2 (2016), and Juno (2019) are at their core symmetrical. Each features a singular body. They may be filled with internal organs; animal body parts; filigree; plant forms; or roots. Some float in their own atmosphere enveloped by empty space. Each suggests organic growth. A few are intertwined with images of hard metals. Meticulously hand-drawn, they seduce the viewer with the most delicate ink line or intricate embroidery of hair sewn into fabric with a fine needle. If a viewer is truly looking, they cannot step away into a belief that these images are purely illusory. Informed by years of probing into the medical visualization of the body, the artwork writes its own visionary script of the internal. Su works are grounded in familiar imagery honed into a personal style. An artist in control who allows the unconscious to lead, she turns bones into snowflakes, wisps into spears, veins into vines. With their mixture of sentiment and the sensate, these delicate drawings and embroideries–open-ended, majestic– are intimate, fragile, and yet determined. Investigative, they leave space for questioning the indeterminacy of wholeness in the presence of technologies of the curative past. By leaning into the fictional possibilities of world-building she thrusts human endeavors into spirals that reimagine conceptions of ‘universe.’

The title of this exhibition is a tribute to Albrecht Dürer’s masterwork copper engraving Melencolia I (1514). In medieval philosophy, melancholy is associated with insanity, and late in the Renaissance it was also linked to creative genius. Although presented as the personification of an angel the figure has also been identified as a psychological self-portrait. Geometry represented by a sphere and polyhedron is associated with artistic creation and the imagination. The comet with blazing rays–associated with rupture, turmoil and new life–illuminates a seascape surmounted by a rainbow. In the image, the figure appears depressed and unable to proceed while surrounded by a chaotic encroachment of the many tools of making and knowledge. This print is a divining rod for understanding Su’s varied practice. Weaving a spiritual dimension in works that veer into strange and uncomfortable spheres, she reenvisions interlocking symbolisms and expands into the mediums and realms drawn from the modern and contemporary archive.

Su holds degrees in biochemistry from the University of Toronto and visual arts from the Ontario College of Art and Design. She presented Arise, Hong Kong in Venice in the Hong Kong pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale and Lauren O—The Greatest Levitator in the Polyhedric Cosmos of Time at M+ in 2023. Su’s commissioned work, Contagious Cities: Far Away, Too Close, was exhibited at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong (2019). Group exhibitions include Levyhalli (Suomenlinna, Helsinki, 2021); Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (Mexico City, 2020); The Drawing Center (New York City, 2020); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (Beijing, 2020); Frieze London (London, 2019); Whitechapel Gallery (London, 2019); Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (Vienna, 2017); The 2nd CAFAM Biennale (Beijing, 2014); and the 17th Biennale of Sydney (Sydney, 2010). She published an artist novel Berty (2013), and science fiction anthology Dark Fluid (2017), where she uses science fiction as a tool for social justice.