Vincent Cy Chen’s sculptures are a sanctuary. Radiating energy, his creations are “alien yet arousing” as they “dismantle taboos and illuminate the nuanced spectrum of human desire”. Not unlike Frankenstein, he brings his work to life through electrical pulses that yield a mesmerising neon glow. His work will be showing at Madrid’s Veta gallery until the 21st February.
Hi Vincent, how are you today? Where are you answering us from?
Thank you for asking, I’m doing well! It’s evening in my Brooklyn studio, softly illuminated by neon tubes along the walls. This combination of darkness and neon light creates a calming yet stimulating atmosphere, ideal for writing and research. This atmosphere mirrors my current exhibition at Veta Galeria, an intimate and surreal environment where glowing sculptures emerge from the shadows.
Your new exhibition, Nocturnal Moonrise, is currently showcasing at Madrid’s Veta gallery, and it marks your European debut. Congratulations! Without giving too much away, what can we expect to find at the show?
Thank you! I’m excited to present Nocturnal Moonrise for my European debut. I envision the show as an otherworldly sanctuary—a mystical and alien realm of desire—where sensuous forms and seductive light create an arousing sensory experience. The sculptures, evocative of ancient shrines, radiate energy from a distant future. They emerge from the darkness like beacons, casting an eerie glow that straddles the line between the known and the unknown.
Sexual iconography, Sci-Fi, speculative biology, and queer culture are all themes that constitute your unique artistic style. How would you describe your both illuminated and illuminating artwork?
My work exists in polarities, oscillating between the primordial and the futuristic, the seductive and the repulsive, the familiar and the alien, the sacred and the profane. It intertwines themes of sexuality, otherness, and spirituality, finding beauty in the grotesque. The pieces, influenced by archaeological references and interpreted through speculative fiction and biology, resemble relics from the future. They take the form of cyborg-like entities, comprising hybrid organisms and industrial neon. Their fluid, organic shapes imply motion, as if frozen in a moment of transformation. At the same time, the architectural and geometric composition suggests order and symmetry. These contrasts embody a sense of otherness, reminiscent of extraterrestrial landscapes or unexplored organisms. However, these forms also evoke a sense of familiarity, inviting viewers to discover beauty in the unfamiliar, monstrous, and unknown.
Tell us about your experience of moving to New York aged 18? What impact did this have on your Taiwanese identity?
Moving to New York at 18 initiated a journey of self-discovery. The city’s dynamic and diverse environment contrasted with my upbringing in Taiwan, encouraging me to explore and embrace different aspects of myself. The most impactful part of this experience was discovering the New York underground queer nightlife scene, which remains a source of community, joy, and inspiration for me. While the move didn’t directly impact my Taiwanese identity, it undoubtedly broadened it.
I understand that you drew inspiration from Buddhist iconography and temples in your art, are there particular aspects of the religion that you identify with? How do you believe your adaptation of religious imagery, to forge a connection between the old and the new and the normative and the queer, would be received in Taiwan?
The Buddhist artefacts and architecture that surrounded me during my childhood have undeniably influenced me. The shrine room in my parents’ home, adorned with statues and portraits of deities and bathed in a mysterious red glow, left a profound impression on me. I recall being simultaneously captivated and frightened when passing by this room alone at night, due to the eerie red glow and the intense gaze of the divine figures. This early encounter with the sacred and the unknown has deeply influenced my work.
Beyond the shrine room, the symmetrical design, stylised aesthetic, and awe-inspiring tranquility found in Buddhist temples and ornaments fascinated me. The depictions of otherworldly deities and mythological creatures, such as the guardian statues standing in front of temples and palaces, influenced my own sculptures. I envision them as mythical guardians, emanating power and protecting their surroundings from external threats.
In terms of my work’s reception in Taiwan, I find the prospect intriguing. Taiwan preserves many cultural and religious traditions from China that were lost during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, while simultaneously leading in technological innovation and production. This duality of ancient tradition and futuristic vision is mirrored in my practice. I am hopeful that the Taiwanese audience, devoted to both cultural heritage and technological progression, will find my work resonant.
Your sculptures consist of a captivating amalgamation of extraterrestrial life and biological elements such as insects, plants, mushrooms, and human anatomy. What inspired you to merge these two seemingly disparate concepts in your sculptures?
I’m intrigued by the dichotomy often portrayed in Sci-Fi and monster movies. Monsters and aliens are frequently depicted as grotesque and threatening, yet they possess an otherworldly beauty. These beings, simultaneously fascinating and intimidating, exist outside the norms of conventional aesthetics and society, reflecting societal fear and the demonisation of the other.
In Sci-Fi, these creatures often carry a subtext of otherness and queerness. They exist beyond conventional boundaries, not just in their appearance but in their very essence. This mirrors the queer experience – the feeling of being different, misunderstood, yet possessing a unique beauty and resilience. I want to capture this essence by creating sculptures that embody the allure and complexity of the alien and the unfamiliar, while also encapsulating the fear, wonder, and majesty of boldly existing outside the mainstream.
Your work fuses together and consequently reevaluates concepts such as sexuality, identity, and religion. Could you elaborate on how these themes intersect with your artistic vision and the narratives you intend to convey through your pieces?
My work acts as a portal to alternate realities and possibilities, blending and subverting archaeological and anthropological references from our past with the futuristic imagination of Sci-Fi. This approach connects our ancestral past with speculative futures and delves into the complexity of our biological and ecological existence. Here, the concepts of sexuality, identity, and religion intersect, each feeding into and informing the other.
Sexuality serves as a primal force in my work, a visceral expression of our most innate desires and fears, and a vehicle for exploring deeper questions of power, freedom, and vulnerability. It’s an exploration of how we experience and express ourselves sexually, embodying the physicality of desire, the intensity of eroticism, and the transcendence of spiritual connections. I create works that are alien yet arousing, to dismantle taboos and illuminate the nuanced spectrum of human desire.
Simultaneously, the exploration of identity in my sculptures is both a personal journey and a broader cultural commentary. On one hand, it’s a deeply personal venture, a means to understand myself and the cultural forces that shape me. On the other, it’s an opportunity to present alternative perspectives and challenge the status quo. Drawing inspiration from Sci-Fi’s alternate reality, the subversiveness of queer culture, and the ethos of sexual liberation, I question and redefine norms and expectations about identity.
Religion, spirituality, and mythology are integral to this narrative, providing frameworks to understand the unknown and connect with the greater cosmos. In an era where science has magnified our understanding of our insignificance in the vast universe, the spiritual exploration in my work is a way for me to fill the existential void. It emphasises spirituality as a connection to something beyond ourselves. Another aspect is in queering religions. It is not about diminishing religious beliefs but expanding and reinterpreting them. By integrating religious iconography with queer narratives, my sculptures become a crucible where spirituality and queer identity converge, challenging traditional doctrines and presenting a harmonious coexistence of the divine and the queer.
I am curious about the multi-dimensional aspect of your art and your incorporation of materials like fibreglass, resin, and metal. How would you say these materials contribute to the storytelling aspect of your sculptures, in particular when combined with neon illumination and such intricate detail?
As primarily a sculptor, the transformation of material plays a pivotal role in my practice. I take industrial materials synthesised from natural resources and transform them back into organic forms, echoing nature, giving birth to cyborg-like entities in their fusion of the organic, synthetic, and industrial. This process is akin to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster — a hybrid being brought back to life by modern science and technology, symbolising societal anxieties and the fearsome other.
The materials are used in a way that resembles human anatomy. Steel forms the armature, akin to bones, providing structural support. Wood and foam are used to sculpt the general shape, much like flesh. I use resin, epoxy, and fibreglass for forming surfaces, creating textures, and sculpting finer details, mimicking skin and external organs such as eyeballs and genitals. Paint is then applied and sealed, like the pigmentation of the skin. The final adornments with feathers and hardware represent hair, garments, and piercings, adding another layer of character and visual signifiers to each sculpture.
The use of neon and vivid colours plays a multifaceted role. They function like insect zappers, luring and seducing their target to come closer. Like the vibrant colours of a peacock or the warning hues of poisonous animals, the euphoric neon glow both seduces and warns, echoing the sensation of overwhelming pleasure that blurs into pain. Beyond their seductive role, the glowing neon breathes life into the sculptures. The hidden electrical wiring, encased within the sculpture like internal organs, sends a steady current through the neon tube. This excites the sealed gas, creating the unique neon glow. The neon systems not only activate the sculptures but also allude to the spiritual, similar to how lighting is used in sacred spaces and religious architecture to evoke a sense of the sublime, divinity, and transcendence. Furthermore, the combination of neon with organic forms relates to the concept of cyborgs and Frankenstein’s monster, reflecting our rapidly growing symbiotic relationship with technology.
In showcasing the unfamiliar and the bizarre, do you intend your sculptures to provide a sanctuary to those who may feel like they don’t conform to conventional perceptions of beauty?
Indeed, my sculptures aim to offer a sanctuary, not just from traditional perceptions of beauty, but also for anyone who has ever felt marginalised or shamed for being different. We all experience feelings of not fitting the conventional ideal at some point in our lives or fear of being judged or excommunicated for being different. My work celebrates these differences. It visually affirms that being outside of normality is not only acceptable but also beautiful and powerful.
The concept of sanctuary parallels my experiences in the queer underground scene, which has been a haven of liberation and communal transcendence throughout my time in New York. It’s a space where diversity and subversion of normality are not just tolerated but celebrated, where the act of being oneself is a form of resistance and joy. In that spirit, I see my shows as spaces of liberation and celebration.
How do you envision your art contributing to discussions or movements that advocate for a greater inclusivity and acceptance of the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations?
In my work, I strive to shed light on the often overlooked beauty of the unfamiliar, with the hope that it might lead to greater understanding and reduce fear-based oppression. My sculptures, which explore and challenge conventional views on gender and sexuality, are an attempt to initiate dialogue and foster empathy. They are my humble contribution to celebrating gender and sexual diversity.