In Strange But True, a new exhibit opening at the Queens Museum, artist Sydney Shen takes a look at the construction of truth and methodologies used to establish facts, focusing on photographic documentation practices and their power to shape culture norms.
In her work, the New York-based artist often creates sculptures and environments that commingle historical and contemporary symbols.
For her new solo exhibition, she explores various photographic techniques, juxtaposing early medical photographs with contemporary forms, like closed-circuit television, to cull a visual vocabulary focused on our voyeuristic sensibilities of “othered bodies.”
Literally a sideways world, Strange But True is an immersive installation that blurs the line between amusing and sinister, using the distance of metafiction in conjunction with optical manipulations to demonstrate that the study of evidence can never offer a complete and unbiased picture.
Strange But True was in part inspired by Shen’s interest in the philosopher Georges Bataille, whose writings on macabre and taboo subjects have long been a touchstone for her. With this exhibition, Shen contends with a friction that arises between her alignment with Bataille’s sensibilities, and the factual inaccuracies that his assertions can leverage and sustain, from his Western White male gaze.
Bataille was transfixed by photos of “lingchi,” an obsolete Chinese method of execution, also known as “death by a thousand cuts.” He heralded it as a rare depiction of a person in a spiritual state of rapturous suffering.
“Bataille’s flawed interpretation shaped assumptions still held today about Chinese culture, religion, and society,” said Shen. “This leads me to wonder how I can reconcile my relation to these photographs and Bataille, when my own racial selfhood is subject to — perhaps even influenced by — the gaze that the discourse around these photos has perpetuated?”
The role of photography in pathologizing bodies is also connected to the culture of world expositions, which dating back to the 19th century notoriously presented both official and unofficial exhibitions of marginalized bodies, such as foreign peoples, women, and the disabled, as curiosities to be consumed.
The two New York World’s Fairs of 1939-40 and 1964-65 were no exception: the fairgrounds were surrounded by plentiful adult amusements, including sideshows and peep shows, voyeuristic invitations that are inextricably linked to the mechanics and aesthetics of photographic technology.
Both fairs liberally deployed spectacle to promote an unrelenting optimism toward technological innovation.
The 1939-40 Fair celebrated the 100th anniversary of photography and featured an entire pavilion dedicated to the Eastman Kodak Co., where, among elaborate installations, fairgoers were first introduced to Kodachrome color film, billed as a surefire way to “capture life, just as you see it.”
Strange But True is organized by assistant curator Sophia Marisa Lucas and is on view April 28 through August 22.