by José Sarmiento Hinojosa
It might be far-reaching to call Su Hui-Yu a new “filmmaker”. His work, originally conceived for video installation, was recently presented in cinemas for the first time in the last Rotterdam Film Festival, in a program called “Su Hui-yu: The Midnight Hours”.
The work of Hui-Yu can be seen as an exploration of the primary erotic impulses of humanity, not only as a personal occurrence, but as a phenomena that transports itself into mass media. Super Taboo (2016), his latest work, is a dual screen diptych that explores the erotic fantasies of his lead character, which manifests themselves as a giant tableau vivant where several “scandalous” sex acts take place.
We interviewed Su before the Latin American premiere of “Super Taboo”, which will compete in the “Vanguardia y Género” section of BAFICI (Buenos Aires Film Festival).
Desistfilm: Su, when did these fixations with mass media and the erotic begin to take part of your mindset as an artist? In that sense, how was your country, Taiwan, a part of those ideas?
Su Huiyu: Well, if you review my works from 2004 to 2012 you can see most of my works were related to mass media, such as TV shows, TV news or series, Hollywood genre films, etc. But after 2014, I realized that books or publications were also part of this universe of “mass media”, and that reminded me of the old school books which I read in the old days, including some old school porn fiction or magazines, or books on sex science. Then I decided to reproduce the memory of my readings, thinking it would be very interesting to reproduce the experience, to recall the memories, to reconstruct the ideology of the publication or the ideology behind it.
Desistfilm: So, I’m guessing TV was a big part of your life while growing up?
Su Huiyu: Yes. After the 1980’s, we have the so-called generation of TV kids. I pretty much consider myself as part of that generation. I was born in 1976, so the eighties were my whole childhood, a time when the country was still under martial law and TV was still under government control.
Desistfilm: It’s funny because I’ve always envisioned Taiwan as a pretty liberal country, in contrast to China, for example.
Su Huiyu: I would say that Taiwan became a pretty liberal country after the late 1990’s. Before 1996, when the country had their first presidential elections, the country was still very conservative.
After World War II and before 1987, the country instituted the martial law, which lasted 40 years. At that time the government controlled all the media, the education system, the market. We share a similar history with South Korea in that sense. And the moral issue was very sensitive at that moment as well; we didn’t have real sex education in school, so illegal porn publications were the only way we had to reach sex experience and knowledge. But of course the country is so much different now; it’s very liberal and free.
Desistfilm: There’s a common theme among the works that I’ve seen, and it’s like they are all suspended in a dream-like state. People are still, and the panning shots are very slow… what does this “oneiric” quality in your work stand for?
Su Huiyu: I think there is no way to rebuild history properly, or to rebuild a real memory. So I decided to make it work (my artwork) like a dream, to confuse people, to challenge their perception, to waver their feelings or beliefs. Then, in this state of confusion, they will ask themselves: is this really happening? Is this true? Since we’re dealing with something that is primarily unstable, our memory or history or belief, we can start to shade doubt on our current beliefs, a system which is also very unstable. For example, this concept referred to as “Taboo” is unstable, it’s a construction devised by something or somebody. Maybe it is built or constructed by the government, or a system, or an ideology, but it’s definitely not THE truth, not a perennial truth.
Desistfilm: Watching your works such as Stilnox Home Video, or Neu Quen, even Men Carrying Shame, films that somehow translates some “events” you’ve seen or heard about, into your work, it seems to me that Taiwanese society can show itself as kind of alienating or isolationist. Is that so? I don’t know if I should use the world “lonely” but people seem to be pretty isolated.
Su Huiyu: I don’t have an exact answer for that, but I would say Taiwanese in some way are very naive and they obey mass media very much. Even nowadays when we are quite free and open minded to everything, people are still very obedient to the education system and mass media. Now we almost have the chance to legalize gay marriage, but still many naive people in the country obey a conservative ideology.
The video work of Neu Quen was based on a true story in 2000 (a case of a man who died by asphyxiation after meeting someone over the internet) but even now, you can still sense the conservative atmosphere.
Desistfilm: I’m guessing this is also translating into people’s sexuality, like you said before.
Su Huiyu: Yes, I think so. I would say the “Taboo” from “Super Taboo”(it’s a real title of an old school porn book) maybe still exists in society.
Desistfilm: Do you think the rhythm and form in which you place your images allows for some kind of introspection in the spectator on this issues?
Su Huiyu: Yes I think so, and I think it’s not just our Taiwanese society. I believe that every society around the world might have the same kind of memory on their past, a past of a restrictive or conservative ideology.
Desistfilm: Super Taboo is great in its construction of a giant tableau vivant where all of sex most “kinky” acts are taking place. Of course, this comes from the reader’s imagination of this old porn book with the same title. How did you come around the shape of these images contrasted with nature?
Su Huiyu: In my personal “study” of this kind of porn book, I saw that many porn pictures were produced in nature, either in a forest or a small garden. After that, I started to believe the photographers knew there was some underlying mystery around sex and nature. Or maybe they did it because it was safer to do it there, who knows.
I decided then, to shoot the video in the same environment. When shooting, and then editing, I realized that nature itself holds a great sense of eroticism, it was “pornographic” in itself. That was a discovery I made while producing this work. Everything, even the audio, was recorded from nature. I just slowed it ten times its real speed. The voices you hear in the video are from nature, the water and the trees, only slowed down.
Desistfilm: I was watching the installation from “Thou Shalt not Pollute”. What is the story behind it? How did the original installation work?
Su Huiyu: The story goes like this: This “tale” is about the famous 20th century American doctor, Dr. Kinsey. There was a book which was published by a Hong Kong author, without the copyright of the original Kinsey. Then this book was imported to Taiwan, probably in the 1970’s, and I saw the book when I was a child in the late 1980’s, when I was still in elementary school. The book had the name of Kinsey in it, but it wasn’t an authorized copy, it just was a fake book of him. It was not translated correctly; it became a different version of Kinsey.
So when I was 39 years old, I bought the book from an internet shop to reproduce my memory of the book and turn it into an installation, to recall the experience -my Dr. Kinsey, not the real Dr. Kinsey- I’m talking about the unstableness of knowledge, or how knowledge travels and loses stability.
Desistfilm: So what is this furniture we see in the photo?
Su Huiyu: It was based on two ideas. One, the movie machine (the Kinetoscope) of Edison, then, the interior design style of old school clinics from the 70’s and 80’s in Taiwan. I tried to combine the elements of these two impressions. The Kinetoscope, this first experience of the moving image for mankind was very private; very similar to what I felt when I saw the fake Kinsey’s book. It’s like a fantasy for me.
I shot the film in a real hospital, an abandoned hospital, just like Dr. Kinsey. In the machine, people have to view the video via the hole on the box, in a very uncomfortable pose.
Desistfilm: That leads me to my last question. Your work has been shown on installations, art galleries, I guess, and now it’s been taken to the big screen. How do you think the role of the spectator will change now that you will be shown in a giant screen in opposition to a smaller scale or dual screen?
Su Huiyu: Well, it’s a different experience than what you have in a gallery or in a film theater. It’s different, but I would say people have different ways to think and feel. For example, in Super Taboo I actually like the installation version more, because if you are in a museum space or a gallery, you’ll see two huge wooden screen/squares in front of you, so you can perceive the physical gap between the two monitors. You can’t feel that in cinema, but you get better a far better quality/resolution there. Also, the art world is more like a game for the elite, but film is friendlier to the public. After IFFR and BAFICI, I think I will produce my new works in two different versions, one for video installation, and one in film version. Then I’ll have more opportunities to express my ideas.