On Henry Street, Tianyi Sun Works with Simulacra and Cuteness

Tianyi Sun and Fiel Guhit. “Bakery Story,” installed as part of FROM_LISTENERS, 2023. 30 x 18 x 32 inches, Laser cut and engraved acrylic, aluminium, LCD screen, webcam.

“I love it. I am all for kitschy stuff,” Tianyi Sun says, laughing, as she notices the iridescent glitter liquid phone case. In her practice, Sun engages with the cute and zany using these categories as an entry point to embody how we approach technology in our everyday lives—her work takes the form of installations and responsive environments activated by a reading or performance. With much of her work being modular, the audience moving through the space is as important as the work itself—“bridging the digital and the analog,” she explains. “I want to expose the aesthetics, the beauty, the politics without lessening the visceral response.” A central question of her work is: What happens with the human experience as we navigate technology?

Tianyi Sun. “Mid-Autumn_Adaptor,” 2023. 33 x 26 x 15 inches. Heat treated laser cut Plexiglas, cast acrylic, silicone, 4-outlet power strip, extension cords, acrylic polymer, deconstructed stainless steel medical cart. Courtesy of the artist.

We are in Sun’s studio in a lower-level space on Henry Street. Arguably, Henry is the heart of Chinatown’s vibrant art scene. It is a stone’s throw away from Accent Temple, the off-shot of Accent Sisters, and many galleries including LatchKey Gallery and 56 Henry, whose owner Ellie Rines, was early to move to the street. Sun’s space is large and lit with bright white fluorescent lights. “We are also exploring the possibilities of hosting in the space,” she explains. We sit at a table toward the back of the space where Sun shows me “Mid-Autumn_Adaptor” on her laptop. It consists of a deconstructed medical cart that that disassembled and reassembled with plexiglass and cast acrylic additions. “It functions like a powerstrip that can host lighting in the space, for example, and it can be pushed around,” utilitarian but aesthetically pleasing—decidedly, cute. I like her energy and look forward to seeing what she will bring to the space.

Tianyi Sun activating “Disposable Utensils,” 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Early in our conversation, Sun mentions Sianne Ngai the Stanford University professor who explores our colloquial lexicon in describing responses to art. In “Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting” the verbiage she deems as most commonly used “zany,” “cute,” and “interesting” serve as pathways to understand how we produce, consume, and engage with art, and perhaps, most importantly how we feel about it. Similarly, Sun’s interactive environments embody our use of, relationship to, and the power dynamics of technology. She explains this un-static quality in a simple comparison “The human body, like technology, is an ongoing process.” Shying away from dystopian ideas her poetic works suggest intimacy, and ambivalence while remaining bodily.

Programming is an important facet of Sun’s installations. Many of her more intricate and durational works are created with her collaborator Fiel Guhit. They met while they were both MFA students at Parsons and have been creating work under dual authorship for nearly three years. Guhit, who hails from Honolulu, holds a B.S. in Informatics specializing in Human-Computer Interaction from UC Irvine. Overall, they bring different skills to the table while being interested in the same things—Jean Baudrillard, Hito Steyrl, and Yuk Hui are amongst the artists and theoreticians they discuss concerning their work. What Sun likes best about their partnership is “someone to articulate and share incoherence with ” But, they both have their separate practices as well.

Tianyi Sun and Fiel Guhit “FROM_LISTENERS, 2023.” Collaborative performance. Courtesy of the artist.

A recent work that Guhit and Sun staged centered on the various temporalities of Artificial Intelligence. “FROM_LISTENERS,” which took place at Artists Space in New York as a part of the Segue Reading Series in April last year. It included sculpture, performance, sound, and the artifacts of machine learning. “AI is the past disguised as something being in the future. It is a recursive loop,” she explains. ChatGPT’s database is from 2018 users are engaging with the past while mining from their database. The installation, comprising multiple sculptures, includes “The Shark is Curious,” (2023) which used AI to generate object descriptions and narratives. It engaged with Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra and was about “how AI flattens,” she explains. Although technology might constrain and corrupt, Sun points out that it also consoles the body, A prime example is the comfort many find in having their cell phones close by. Bringing transparency to our relationships with our quotidien technology, “FROM_LISTENERS” begged the audiences to consider interfaces, physical architecture, and archival systems that “use ongoing concurrent networks of power and how to navigate them as a subject.”

Before I leave Sun shows me some of her recent wall works. Three material and color studies that she created while at the Vermont Studio Center Residency. She has experimented with stretching and painting on silk. After working closely in the archiving and research of Chinese Antiques and artifacts she also started to collect, mostly Chinese porcelain. A marvel over material, technique, preservation of memory, and the connoisseurship of these objects propelled her to start collecting. The “back and forth time travel” of conservation has parallels with the act of refashioning both hard and software elements in her installation work. “I would like to make a folding screen with silk,” she says. It is unlike her work with Guhit, but processes around transparency, recursivity, and taking things apart to put them back together are still present. Perhaps she will work on them at NARS Foundation where she will be a studio resident during their winter cycle.

Technology is a tool or medium, like painting, for Sun. However it is a medium that she has an emotional response to and relationship with: “Of course. I say please to ChatGPT. It feels natural,” she says with a sparkle in her eye. The strength of her work lies in their ability to uncover these delicate emotional facets in her audiences.

Tianyi Sun will be included in a group show opening at NARS Foundation on March 1st, 2024. Follow @tianyisun_ for updates.

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