VINCENT CY CHEN:
THE ALIENATION OF THE QUEER ASIAN BODY
Vincent CY Chen is a New York based artist who works in sculpture and installation. His work explores the tension between shame and desire, especially in the exotic. He explores these ideas in atmospheric, multimedia displays that borrow iconography from queer culture, children’s media, and Abrahamic religions. He is a co-founder and the director of De:Fomal, an online-first platform dedicated to promoting artists who work with expanded media under-recognized in the conventional gallery system. Dedicated to promoting critical conversations in contemporary art, De:Formal conducts artist interviews, curates online and offline exhibitions, and host monthly virtual residencies. Chen received his BFA in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in 2015, and his MFA in Studio Art at New York University in 2019.
The following is a short interview between Hongzheng Han, the curator of Standing Out, the Outstandings, and the participating artist Vincent CY Chen.
H: Vincent (2021) is a piece of self-examination and self-reflection; what inspired you to create this fantastical sculpture?
C: This piece comes from my experience of being a queer immigrant from Taiwan. It explores competing layers of otherness centering on the body. On the one hand, my queer body is othered by heteronormative society, especially in Asian cultures. On the other hand, my Asian body is emasculated, exoticized, and fetishized by the queer community in America. By examining European colonial expeditions to the East, exotic flora and fauna studies, and relics that fetishize the exotic such as the Cabinet of Curiosities, I create artifacts representing alien lifeforms that investigate shame, desire, domination, and sexual taboo.
I was raised in Fengyuan, a provincial area in central Taiwan. Being raised in a conservative and myopic environment, the tension between my budding sexuality and individuality with my surroundings incubated my ideas around humiliation, guilt, and authenticity. Once I arrived in New York City, these concepts surfaced and developed into my artistic orientation.
I draw inspiration from organisms that combine the seductive, the dangerous, and the exotic: carnivorous plants, psychedelic fungi, venomous reptiles, and sexually transmitted viruses. These entities lure, bait, and prey by tapping into a primal desire that draws us into them. First encounters with the sculpture begin with vibrant light, saturated colors, and curvaceous forms. These elements inspire childlike wonder that entices the viewer. However, upon close inspection, what started as innocent and approachable transforms into something foul, primal, and taboo. An otherworldly collection of biological oddities, sexual fetishes, and artifacts of power presents itself. What looks like flowers are, in reality, flesh-eating organisms; the blooming lilies are viruses suspended in ejaculation. Ornate jewelry is affixed and hooked to the organism, like a hunted trophy, while the glowing arc of neon functions like insect zappers, seductive yet lethal.
Vincent (2021) represents my journey of coming to terms with my gender and sexual identity, of overcoming queer shame and racial trauma. It is an alchemation of my struggle to an object that is beautiful yet menacing.
H: Your body of work suggests a central focus on alienation and othering; is this thesis related to your past trauma and identity crisis?
C: Yes, very much so. Growing up queer and feeling like an outsider has some major impacts on me. I was not doing well at school, nor did I excel in sports, which were traits deemed important for boys when I grew up in Taiwan. I have always been made fun of by my peers for being the weird and feminine art kid who only makes friends with girls. Things didn’t really get better at home; I have memories of my dad screaming at my mom blaming her for raising a “pale skinny sissy.”
Thankfully, the fear of being ostracized for being queer disappeared after moving to New York when I was 18. I was very lucky to be in a city that celebrates the arts and embraces queerness. However, I quickly realized that even though being gay is no longer a big problem, being Asian is, especially in the cisgender gay community. More often than not, gay Asians are either seen as invisible, inferior, or being fetishized. It is a constant struggle to be seen as a human person and not a label or trophy.
Taiwan is where I’m from, but New York is where I call home. I don’t feel like I truly belong in either space; I’m always somewhat in between, the “other.”
H: Italian architect Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus: History’s Most Bizarre and Beautiful Encyclopedia is one of your sources of inspiration; how did you find this book? And how is it impactful to your artmaking?
C: I found the book many years ago when I was at the Strand BookStore! I’ve always been inspired by speculative fiction and the art of world-building. Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus is a hand-drawn encyclopedia that depicts an imagined world filled with otherworldly creatures, technologies, and societies. Even the language used in the book is an invention of the author. I love all the images in this book: from the line qualities of his drawings to the vibrant use of colors. They are sometimes humorous, sometimes grotesque, and often just simply beautiful.
H: COVID-19 has not only destroyed our usual way of living. It has also been weaponized by racist extremists to attack Asian people. Living as a queer Asian artist in New York, how are you dealing with this surge of Sinophobia? Does this situation inspire you creatively?
C: I try to take care of myself physically and mentally with a regular exercise schedule and quality therapy. Other than that, I now predominantly hang out at QTPOC spaces that are inclusive and supportive. I’ve become more selective with the people I surround myself with; in turn, I get to take care of them as well.
Yes, it definitely inspires me creatively. The bigotry and hatred through the heinous acts of violence towards the Asian community drive me to be louder, prouder, and more productive. I try to transform that anger and frustration into art that is inspiring and uplifting.
H: Standing Out, the Outstandings is an exhibition designed to amplify the long-oppressed Asian voice in America. As one of the ten artists in this show, are there any encouraging words you would like to say to our community?
C: Be loud, be proud, and most importantly, be unapologetically yourself!