Contemporary Art

Beauty, Death and Drag, an Interview With Contemporary Artist Victoria Sin

By Bianca Chu, Deputy Director, S|2 Gallery
Sotheby's S|2 Gallery in London is exhibiting the work of contemporary artist Victoria Sin until 25 January 2019. Bianca Chu spoke to the artist to get their perspective on art, performance and their own practice.

Sothebys: How did drag enter into your life and when did it become part of your artistic practice? Did that happen simultaneously?

Victoria Sin: My interest started when I would watch Rocky Horror Picture Show every year with my parents on Halloween when I was too young to go trick or treating. I always wanted to be Frankenfurter. Then when I was 17 I started sneaking into gay bars. We would always go to Woodys on Church St in Toronto which hosts drag shows every Wednesday and Sunday. I moved to London in 2009 and started doing drag in 2012/2013.

It didn’t come into my art practice until much later. I was protective about presenting it in contexts that weren’t queer. I wanted to wait until I found a way to bring it in so that wasn’t just being consumed by straight audiences as an exotic other. For me narrative film was that initial mediator.

Most people believe drag to be a transformation of men into caricatures (which is already problematic) of over-feminised, over-sexualised women. What is your definition of drag and what advice would you give to drag artists just starting out?

Drag is anything you want it to be. It’s an exciting tool to be used to question the construction and ascription of identity and how it exists in society and ourselves. Have fun with it.

How has drag opened up your own understanding of identity?

Drag, and the act of continuously putting on and taking off gender in a purposeful way made me aware of the fact that woman was not an identity category I felt comfortable in. It helped make the aware of the complexity of gender and the absurdity and violence of a society that tells you that you are one of two genders when you are born and you are treated accordingly for the rest of your life.

Could you explain what a ‘femme body’ is and what if refers to when you ‘take up space’?

A femme body is a queer body that identities with femininity. These are bodies that are often marginalised and made to feel invalid. Taking up space in this context means being loud and unapologetic about femininity that exists in ways we are taught it shouldn’t.

You once told me that the face wipes made after every performance are an essential part of your artistic practice when it comes to mapping and recording each performance you do. Could you explain how these impressions came about?

I did a performance for a performance evening at the RCA, so I changed and took off my makeup in my studio space. When I can back on Monday my makeup wipes were still there and I noticed one of them looked like it was scowling back at me. I started looking for faces in my wipes and then started experimenting using the wipes so that they took a direct imprint of my face. I settled on a technique that tried to capture my character and expression at the time exactly, preserving that moment.

For me, the face wipes carry both the beauty of a religious icon and the melancholy of a death mask. What is the relationship (if any) between death and beauty for you?

Hmm, I guess beauty is something most people strive for and death is something most people avoid at all costs. You could see the wipes as a kind of death mask marking the end of each performance, and a preservation of something very material of that particular embodiment or idealisation.

We are also showing Narrative Reflections on Looking in the exhibition which is a 4-part moving image work in which each work presents you in drag with spoken monologue. In creating this work, did the narrative, spoken element come first or the imagery?

In the series, the imagery for parts 1 and 2 came first. After weeks of watching footage I shot, I wrote Part One/She Was More Than the Sum of My Parts, and Part Two/The Reprise of Cthulhu. I realised I was writing not about the images but about extremely personal experiences I’d had with looking and wanting, and have been writing from those very formative experiences ever since. Following that I wrote Part 3 and the preface, and went back into the film studio to create the imagery for those.

You discuss the writings of Ursula Le Guin in one of your essays, how did you discover her writing and how has it influenced or inspired your work?

I discovered Ursula le Guin via Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Her writing has shown me the power of being immersed in speculative narratives.

Moving away from the patriarchal ‘hero’ narrative, you discuss that the ‘carrier bag’ theory of fiction opens one up to all forms of story telling. Why do you think story telling or fiction can be such a powerful tool to undermine normative cultural and social ideas of gender and sexuality?

Because storytelling can show what other worlds or ways of being would look like and even feel like. This view from elsewhere gives us a better lens to critique contexts we are currently immersed in.

Since graduating you have performed and exhibited pretty extensively including the DRAG exhibition at Hayward Gallery, the Park Nights programme at the Serpentine Gallery, and at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of Writer-in-Residence Sophia Al-Maria’s programme of gatherings. Do you feel that institutions today are more open to performance as a medium of expression?

I’m not sure of exactly how things were in previous generations for performance artists, but I do feel there should be more support and care from institutions for performance art in general.

Do you think performing in an institution versus in a nightclub or cabaret changes the meaning or connotations of your drag performance?

Definitely. One context is mostly focused on being critical, the other is mostly focused on entertainment. Not that it’s always either/or, but of course a different context completely changes what works and what is work.

What projects are you working on now including any upcoming performances?

Currently I am working on a performance for Chi Wen Gallery in Taipei, to be presented in the gallery’s garden during Taipei Dangdai week on January 16th. I will also have a new film collaboration between myself and Sophia Al Maria, BCE, on show at the Whitechapel from January 12. Following that I am working on an installation for The Hayward Gallery’s summer show, Kiss My Genders.

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