Slipping into the dark, watery microclimate of FACT’s current exhibition on a hot and grimy Saturday in Liverpool city centre makes its title, My Garden, My Sanctuary, seem particularly apt. The exhibition pairs new installations that blend technology and sculpture by two contemporary artists, Sian Fan and Yaloo. Both use immersion and submersion in their work to plumb the multi-layered depths of identity and their respective East Asian heritages.
The green glow from a black-painted corner of the building’s foyer signals Deity (2022), an interactive artwork by Sian Fan. A neon strip light snakes across the floor, encircling tentacles that sprout from the tiles. Like the luminescence of glow worms, the green light picks out wrinkled and glossy limbs, revealing a surface like varnished papier-mâché. This homemade-looking trail leads to a contrastingly sleek trio of large flatscreen monitors, positioned to emulate the arrangement of dressing table mirrors. They display a CGI surface of constantly rippling liquid, out of which emerges the figure of the artist herself with the sharpened, ultra-smoothed features of a video game character – perhaps inhabiting the same fantasy world as the sculpted, half-hidden tentacled creature, but devoid of flaws. This avatar mimics the movements of visitor-participants tentatively and imperfectly, body parts glitching and fading back into liquid when the motion sensor goes awry. Enticing viewers to regard themselves in fantasy form, this work expresses the intense focus on self-image, and the filtering and mediating of that image, precipitated by social media.
The gallery spaces are grandly announced by a highly decorative archway, like the threshold of a temple. On the surrounding walls, brightly painted wavy lines frame the doorway, adorned with the round, serene, expressionless face of the sheet mask – a mainstay of South Korean beauty rituals. This is the entrance to Birthday Garden (2022) by Yaloo, a South Korean artist who has created an imaginary archaeological site to unearth symbols of her heritage, and to draw connections between their meanings. Through the archway, the gallery space is dark and echoes with an indistinct, ambient soundscape. At the centre of the installation is a large projection onto the ground, surrounded by a low, coppery-red fence. It displays a moving image of a lush subaquatic environment. Deep-sea fish slowly weave paths through dense tangles of seaweed which glow with spots of light, while a subtitled narrative tells of the ‘lustrous ancient knowledge’ of seaweed. As I lean over to look in, the image shifts and blurs slightly – less perceptibly than the digital glitches of Sian Fan’s screens – before a definite ripple passes across it, revealing the projected underwater greenery is shining out from a real, water-filled pond.
Seaweed is significant in Korean culture, traditionally eaten in soup on birthdays, in what the artwork’s accompanying text describes as a ‘comforting ritual’ for the artist. This verdant, luminous pond is watched over benevolently by another manifestation of the sheet mask, this time as a large wall projection, white and moon-like. Further sheet masks populate the gallery in the form of two-dimensional sculptures, incorporated into bulbous seaweed shapes and painted an earthy green. The centuries-old traditions associated with seaweed contrast the contemporary popularity of disposable sheet masks, but both are treated with equal weight by Yaloo, as she uses her fictional environment to explore a cultural identity in which chronology is collapsed and the ancient and the new co-exist without friction.. Sheet masks now pepper the shelves of UK high street shops, indicative of a growing Western appetite for aspects of Korean culture that is most commonly identified by the recent popular explosion of K-pop, which is also represented here. Digital sprites, suspended in flat, amorphous blobs, dance around the peripheries of the space with choreographed K-pop moves, blending magic and mysticism with the contemporary. A sense of fun pervades Yaloo’s work – the flat, cut-out shapes, bright colours, face masks and fairies sit alongside a deeper curiosity about representations of Korean cultural heritage.
Sharing this space is Lotus Root (2022) by Sian Fan. A series of low, dark pillars rise out of a gloss-black floor, capped by flat, abstracted, almost low-resolution representations of lotus flowers. These are made three-dimensional by the rather lovely, transparent curved sculptures made from perspex which has been melted, that sit over them. They remind me of jellyfish in their palpable fragility, with glassy tendrils that dangle over the edges or pool against the lotuses. The lotus holds spiritual significance in traditional Chinese culture; Sian has both British and Chinese heritage, and similarly to Yaloo’s adjacent work, she probes the use of physical symbols as representations of a culture. Sian also blends the historic with the contemporary: a central lotus incorporates a rollerball control, which visitors are invited to use to explore a virtual environment projected onto three enormous screens. It’s a disorientating, rootless digital setting. Apparently it is populated, like her work in the foyer, by avatars of the artist herself, as anime characters this time, although I struggled to actually find them. . This digital world is hard to acclimatise to; unusually claustrophobic for a virtual environment, its electric blue shapes are so close-up as to be abstract, making it tricky to navigate. It feels distinctly disconnected from the calm and tangible world of the lotus lake, indicating a loss of order in this digital realm.
Sian’s Lotus Root suggests a more fractious relationship between modern and ancient history than the holistic environment of Yaloo’s installation. In My Garden, My Sanctuary, both artists create fictional, anachronistic aquatic worlds that provide a captivating route into interrogating the complexities of personal identity and cultural heritage.
Denise Courcoux is a writer based in New Brighton.
My Garden, My Sanctuary is at FACT, Liverpool, 21 July – 9 October 2022.
This review is supported by FACT.