Text by Bethany Rex
In her explorations of representation and social status, Sarah Baker often disseminates her artwork unconventionally to heigten the tension between fabrication and authenticity. Over the past decade Baker has assembled obscure subjects, characters and personalities that form an unlikely amalgamation which she has showcased, interviewed, appropriated, and obsessed over. Her subjects are often lionized and made to look as if they stepped out of a glossy fashion magazine, resulting in unstable positioning within a fantasy landscape of the extraordinary.Baker’s latest project Le Fan Fan at CARTER presents focuses on her obsession with a Chinese legendary ladies-fan who fights enemies with a folding hand fan. Inspired by a 1980s Chinese Soap Opera, Baker has assembled a cast and crew to reinterpret Wuxia legend, Chu Liuxiang. As in her previous endeavours, Baker makes it a point to actively involved collaborated into the making of Le Fan Fan. We spoke with Sarah about the exhibition and her plans for the future.
A: First of all, could you tell us about your project, Le Fan Fan?
SB: It’s a video inspired by a popular 1980s Chinese soap opera, Chu Liuxiang, about a beautiful man who fights evil with a fan, among other weapons including his good looks. The video is projected onto a big fan-shaped screen in a gallery that is double sided sculpture and also features a hand-made origami fan by fan maker Sylvain Le Guen who I met at The Fan Museum in Greenwich. The compositions in the video are inspired by Sylvain’s fans, but also by fans that I have seen on private research visits to The Fan Museum, where curator Jacob Moss showed me 17th and 18th Century oriental fans that were at one time were high art and status fashion items that are not even rivalled by the IT Bag of today, as they were all hand painted and often featured portraits of the fan patrons. Some other scenes in my video are reenactments of Chu Liuxiang, where I actually copied the soap opera shot by shot. On the surface the piece is about lust, jealousy and revenge but has more complex preoccupations with memory, language, choreography, status, sculpture, and exoticism. I am also thinking a lot about Hollywood casting habits and how those choices effect the cultural psyche; I mostly just wanted to feature a gorgeous Chinese man on a big fan, as a sex-symbol on a status symbol of the ultimate commodity.
A: Your installation represents the character of Chinese martial arts expert Chu Liuxiang. Could you tell us a bit more about his character?
SB: Chu Liuxiang is a character developed by Gu Long, who wrote many novels as a part of Wuxia series; period adventure mysteries where there is an awful lot of fighting and killing; these novels are the foundation of many martial arts period dramas adapted for TV and film. I have never read these novels, as they are not officially translated into English, but I have found some real gems online where amateur die-hard fans have translated entire novels, and I used some of this in my script. Chu, aside from being gorgeous, is kind and good to a fault, lives on a boat, and is usually surrounded by beautiful women who are desperately in love with him and also fight along side him.
I first discovered Chu Liuxiang when I was in Taiwan and I took some Tai Chi Fan classes with my mother-in-law. I fell in love with Tai Chi Fan, the look and sound of the big red fans all snapping open and closed in a synchronized dance routine, and set to music. The routine that we learned was set to the theme song of Chu Liuxiang, and that is why I became interested in the soap opera. I am fascinated with the idea of Chu’s character but I’m also really interested in how popular the TV show was in Taiwan and China in the 80s; it was as famous as Dynasty in America in the 1980s, and was similarly obsessed over, particularly by the women who were all in love with Chu Liuxiang, the ultimate stud.
A: This project has seen you collaborate with various people in the making of Le Fan Fan. Where do you find these people?
SB: Everywhere. Some collaborators are friends, some are referred, some are met at parties, on the street, and some are discovered through research. Collaborations are an important foundation in my practice and I choose my media so that I can collaborate. It’s important for me to delegate aspects of the work to those who are of specialized expertise, and that’s why my work generally has a polished look to it. For instance if I’m doing a magazine spread, I treat the process the way I think an actual professional magazine fashion shoot would be treated; I fantasize about how its done and use that fantasy to drive my process within my means. I try to make the work look as close as possible to the thing I am talking about weather it be criticizing or celebrating; it’s that fine line that I am carefully balanced on, often delivering a somewhat unstable outcome.
A: What experience are you trying to create for the viewer here?
SB: Mostly I wanted to create an immersive viewing experience where details, down to the red gel in the spot light on Sylvain’s fan, are not only visually pleasing but also have symbolic meaning. To me, the red spot light evokes the moodiness of film noir, and I wanted to question Western film tropes in relation to Oriental martial arts films. But I don’t want to give anything away too easily, and the soundtrack is a good example of my attempt to keep my audience considering the work beyond the gallery experience. I found a very authoritative yet gentile English voice-over actor to tell the story throughout the piece, like a narrator somewhat reminiscent of an David Attenborough programme. The dialogue is a mix of the Chu Liuxiang translation, Kabuki dance translations from Youtube, The Cure song lyrics, and bespoke lines written by Shumon Basar. The music is Depeche Mode, Einstürzende Neubauten, and royalty-free heavy metal. I want the work to have a different meaning depending on each viewers personal perspectives, and to bring up questions of authenticity, authority, and challenging expectations like, what we are used to looking at, and hoping to offer some element of delightful surprise. But, one can only hope!
A: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
SB: I’m on my way to Buffalo, where I grew up, to do a residency at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center. Hallwalls is a really interesting organisation that has existed since 1974 on Buffalo’s west side, where i’m from, and was founded by Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, among others. Hallwalls are supporting my production of a new work which is a mini soap opera series about characters and dramas that have had some impact on Buffalo and the surrounding area including Niagara Falls. I will be collaborating with local actors and musicians, including students from Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, where I graduated. The work will be exhibited in the gallery at Hallwalls, but will also be broadcast on the local TV station.
But before I shuffle off to Buffalo, I have been commissioned by the Bethnal Green Town Hall Hotel to do a series of works, mostly signage and ephemeral pieces that the hotel guests are sort of forced to handle. I am currently in the midst of my first piece, which is the Do Not Disturb sign. For the card, I am modeling as a maid, indicating Please Clean Room. Inspired by stripper pens but made from cardboard, I have designed it to be have a reveal/conceal mechanical black card that moves. When you flip the card over, the maid’s dress disappears (to reveal me in my knickers) indicating Do Not Disturb. A real collectors item, or at least I hope they will get nicked by the hotel guests.
Sarah Baker Le Fan Fan, 08/10/2011 – 10/12/2011, CARTER Presents, 59 Old Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6QA. www.carterpresents.org
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Video Still. Courtesy the artist.