Portrait : SHU LEA CHEANG's interactive mythologies

From early days, Shu Lea Cheang, the Taiwanese multimedia art pioneer, has been building interactive fictions borrowing from the major themes of our time, gender, sexuality, science fiction and media. Her mythological fictions draw on intimate as much as public matters, questioning her own story whilst inviting the spectator/visitor to participate.

What is mostly remembered from the multimedia artist Shu Lea Cheang is her famous and ultra-commented film, I.K.U. (picture above, see its wikipedia page) revealed in 2000. A work that did as much good as harm to the Taiwanese woman since what the most transgressive art lovers and the majority of critics have retained from this futuristic and erotic-pornographic -"cyberporn", even- feature film is the sole scandalous aspect, ultimately overlooking a whole side of her work and its themes. If Shu Lea Cheang is a pioneer in the field of media art, she is above all a true multidisciplinary and activist artist whose work spans from film to net art and performance (online, in galleries) and video installation, alone or through collaborations.

Shu Lea Cheang, from one media to the other

Currently based in Paris, Shu Lea Cheang considers herself a nomadic artist (she has lived throughout Europe, Asia and the United States) whose themes become obvious as she travels and wanders on. Cheang has truly emerged as a major artist during the last decade and she has quickly risen as one of the most important voices in the field of "media arts". Through the full array of contemporary tools and technologies made available to artists, her work has been exploring many social and political ("i.e. ruling humans") issues, through singular aesthetics and extremely intimate concerns inherited from her personal path. Her participatory vision of art, her commitment to the interaction of the viewer and her collaborative production modes have set an example in the now encumbered field of multimedia artists. She started to work in this area very early on and was quickly recognised as a pioneer of the genre. As a member of the Paper Tiger Television collective, as early as 1981, she produced work for the national satellite television network channel. She created many video installations for art galleries and started directing 35 mm films.

Cyberporn, virus and futuristic mythology

Her most noticed work undoubtedly remains the essential I.K.U. (orgasm in Japanese, see the trailer), the history of the seductive Reiko, a (cyber) mechanical doll in charge of collecting the greatest possible amount of data on human sexuality. A deliberately pornographic film inspired by key scenes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (the final scene in the elevator is I.K.U.’s initial scene) 


This parodic cyberpunk set was followed by UKI viral performance, an apocalyptic cyber and biopunk prequel started in 2009 (on which noise artists were invited to perform in March 2012 at the ElectroPixel Festival in Nantes). If I.K.U. is purely cyberpunk, UKI was inspired by science fiction biopunk, forecasting the collapse of the internet in the future and the creation of a biological network (bionet) that would infect blood cells and DNA by creating the Organismo, a virtual and chemical orgasm triggered without any physical contact. The project itself was a commission of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, presented under the title Brandon and produced online between 1998 and 1999. Fascinated by the prominent gender war on the internet, home of unclear identities, Cheang became interested in cyber-feminism and connected with the Australian women group VNS Matrix.

Brandon used to be presented as a website (inaccessible today even though screens copies are available) and was inspired by the story of Brandon Teena, a transsexual murdered in 1993 in Nebraska, after her identity was revealed. This was the first internet work commissioned by the famous Museum. Shu Lea Cheang said she wanted to present the tragic story of Brandon Teena in an experimental way that would express all of the fluidity and ambiguity of gender and identity in contemporary societies and on the net.

At the "roots" of eco-conscious art

Her latest project, La Graine et le Compost (The Seed and the Compost) unveils yet another facet of the artist and her concerns. Folowing UKI which already was dealing with our "biological future" and the impact of the environment on the human body, Cheang is reversing the equation in an atypical way and launching a cyber-organic project. Organized by la Gaîté Lyrique (+Petit Bain) in May 2012, La Graine et le Compost proposes to change the current economic paradigm by imposing composting and recycling as a new currency. Waste is therefore meant to replace the Euro as a currency. Cheang proposes to turn the city into a compost farm by dispersing containers throughout the city, inviting citizens to get involved in pirate gardening ("hacktif" gardening) in urban areas and to set up groups to remotely monitor and look after the new shoots through various networks. This eco-citizen, technical and artistic performance carried out under the aegis of the Greenrush and Re:Farm The City collectives illustrates the "Aboriginal hi-tech" (as she likes to name herself) side of Shu Lea Cheang, an artist who has apparently not ceased to amaze us.

Maxence Grugier

Shue Lea Cheang's website: www.mauvaiscontact.info
Her Vimeo profile: http://vimeo.com/user5349216

This article comes from Digitalarti Mag #10. 
Read it online, for free, right here, or thanks to the embedded player.