For centuries, we have looked to the horizon to navigate, using instruments like the astrolabe, sextant, and even our fingers. But we don’t see a skyline in the Google Earth footage Su Yu Hsin includes in her video water sleep II Akaike river under Xizang Road (2019). Instead, we see Taipei from above. Su treats the absent horizon as emblematic of how technology radically reshapes our understanding of space and place. We also see wide-angle shots from a GoPro strapped to a motorcyclist zipping along Xizang Road; a gliding drone’s view of the area’s otherwise inaccessible terrain; and vertiginous, macro-scale vantage points captured by satellites. Satellite imagery—what some term “views from nowhere”—are matched with Su’s voice from nowhere: “The skin of your hand senses the humidity in the air,” she utters offscreen, pairing the cold eye of the machine with the warm intimacy of narrative. In 1931, the Polish scientist Alfred Korzybski famously observed that “the map is not the territory,” correcting a widespread tendency to conflate precise representations with reality itself. Water sleep II updates this dictum, positing that despite producing facsimiles with granular detail, immersive models may never capture the feel of a physical place. Instead, they prefigure a different type of spatial imaginary altogether.
Su is based in Berlin and grew up in Taipei. In the year she made water sleep II, Taiwan’s capital banned Google’s 3D imaging, after it had inadvertently exposed the locations of classified national security facilities. Trained in animation at Taipei’s Shih Chien University, visual communication at London’s Royal College of Art, and media art at Leipzig’s Academy of Fine Arts, Su produces films and video installations that are prodigious in subject and scope: hibernatemode (2019) interprets the legend of the Hellenistic deity Aiôn, who represents time, while a work from the following year ruminates on a mountainside burning ritual that welcomes spring in Akiyoshidai, Japan. Though resembling the reflexive, forensic, and research-laden video practices that have proliferated over the past decades, Su’s work, she told me, is not meant to state arguments or present direct information, but rather to “convey a certain poesis that has both an aesthetic and a productive dimension.”
In one of Su’s latest videos, poesis emerges as an existential query. Currently on view in the survey “Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics” at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, frame of reference (2020) traces a different network of seeing than water sleep II. Working with the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Su extracted depth data from aerial photography of the Liwu River in Taiwan, then presented it as a 3D “point cloud” model. In a voiceover, she ponders the gradual degradation of such landforms, and considers how some scientists’ desire to maintain the natural process of erosion is often at odds with the static precision of their digital replication tools.
Ambivalence runs throughout Su’s practice. On one hand, as the artist states in her essay accompanying water sleep II, mechanized gazes, “continuously updating and adjusting multiple frames from various viewpoints within the world,” hold the potential to displace those of biased and limited human observers. Yet Su punctures this utopian notion by arguing that visual technologies have traditionally reinforced the power of those in control, and that observational tools such as Google Earth “merely hint at the insane apparatus of surveillance and control that the world of maps and map-making has mutated into.” Su’s work encompasses this sense of irresolution, expressing how, like the vast expansiveness of nature, the omnipresence of global technical systems can feel at once exhilarating and terrifying.
On the calendar: Works by Su Yu Hsin in the group show “Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics,” at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, and in the 2020 Taipei Biennial, both through Feb. 28.
This article appears in the November/December 2020 issue, p. 14.