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Interview with Sin Wai Kin

During a performance of A View From Elsewhere (2019), Toronto-born artist Sin Wai Kin wore a floor length gown with matching evening gloves. As the fantasy in three acts unfolded, one side of their mouth transformed into a smirk. The performance was characterised by an unapologetic exhaustion as Sin Wai Kin lip-synced over a provocative track about the demands of the audiences’ gaze: ‘She’s here…. So, go on, look at her.’

 

Sin Wai Kin, formerly known as Victoria Sin, identifies as non-binary. Their performances ply apart femininity in order to expose gender as an elaborate social construct – a comedic opera of many composite parts, reliant on myth, performance and spectatorship. 

 

In their latest work, a film titled A Dream of Wholeness in Parts (2021), influenced by Cantonese opera, Sin Wai Kin toys with – and queers – tradition. They appear as several characters at once, presenting interpretations of Cantonese operatic archetypes. One such character is The Universe, a reinterpretation of the Zing (warrior) role, appearing in a diamanté belt with the letters ‘R’, ‘E’, ‘A’, ‘L’ brandished across the waist – a nod to the ways in which Sin Wai Kin’s practice both mocks and heralds language as a technology for truth production. Actuality is regarded as just another lacklustre accessory. 

 

In the past year, Sin Wai Kin’s performances have taken the form of virtual commissions, such as Total Fabrication (2020), a short film published on the Guggenheim’s Works and Process YouTube channel. In this three-minute clip, Sin Wai Kin dons a rainbow-shaped moustache, their face bearing a striking resemblance to iconic filmmaker John Waters. They then lip-sync to a track that troubles the distinction between news and performance, fact and invention. 

 

When I meet Sin Wai Kin over Zoom, they sit in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror at home in London. The reflection revealed a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in a small gold frame, on a wall behind the screen. A print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus was affixed nearby. As Sin Wai Kin spoke of their interests in performance, fiction and disguise, I began to think of these images as confrontations with the Western canon. In their literalised ‘body’ of work, paint is applied to the skin and faces are made up. When I expressed my desire for a virtual studio tour, Sin Wai Kin said there was no need: ‘I carry it with me all of the time’.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Alongside performance and filmmaking, you also write. What comes first?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— All of my films and performances start with writing. Storytelling is central to my work. Some of the biggest shifts in my thinking have come from reading science fiction. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) helped me imagine life outside capitalism, while The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Octavia E. Butler’s incredible Xenogenesis Series (1987-9) helped me to imagine different systems and models of gender. Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (1966) showed me how language not only gives shape to thought but also shapes thought. My own writing always starts from a very personal space – I wouldn’t know any other way. A few years ago, in 2018, I went on a research trip funded by the British Council to visit Octavia Butler’s papers at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. In the archive, I found a note that she’d written a small, punchy notecard to herself that said: ‘The more personal, the more universal’, which has stayed with me ever since.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your drag persona first appeared in the film series, Narrative Reflections on Looking (2016-17). The films are a set of moving images that appear static – as if in disguise as stills. Do the films reflect on a certain species of aggressive, consumptive – even greedy – looking?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— Those narratives, in Narrative Reflections on Looking, came out of the intensely personal, but also universal, experience of being looked at and consumed as an image. Each film presents a single figure in a static frame using camera movements to direct the viewer’s gaze in familiar ways over feminine subjects. For years, I was obsessed by the idea of embodying a perfect image of Western femininity through drag, and so that’s what Narrative Reflections on Looking evokes. This ideal is influenced by classic Hollywood figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Veronica Lake, as well as more contemporary figures, who are in themselves iterations of that iconography, like Jessica Rabbit and Amanda Lepore. In Narrative Reflections on Looking, I’m participating in an iterative genealogy of images that are performed, naturalised, and then performed again in new and even more extreme ways. The images, narratives and gestures I am using don’t hide the fact that they are constructed. Wig lines are visible, makeup is cartoonish, eyelashes are falling off, rhinestones are glued on, and postures are strained.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You embody an exaggerated hyper-femme image, the kind associated with classical Hollywood cinema, appearing in sumptuous floor-length gowns, topped by candyfloss-textured white wigs. The viewer is hypnotised, but the gaze also feels violent. Do these idealised, aggressive images make their way into your new film, A Dream of Wholeness in Parts (2021)?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— I started writing A Dream of Wholeness in Parts in 2019. It was my first time making something on this scale. Up until that point, I’d only made short films, between one and seven minutes long, so it was an exciting step. I spent all of December 2020 in Taipei shooting it – I was in quarantine for the first two weeks either on Zoom for production meetings or alone with my thoughts, looking out of a window that didn’t open… But it was a useful time. I spent it finalising the characters in A Dream of Wholeness in Parts, recording and memorising the voiceovers for lip-syncs, refining the script. This film brings together new characters and faces that I’ve been developing over the past year, inspired by Taoist philosophy, Peking and Cantonese opera, as well as personal transformations – which are finally brought together in this universe. 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What is that universe? Do you want to capture the viewer in your world, just as you’ve been immersed in science fiction?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— The narrative of A Dream of Wholeness in Parts is non-linear. As with some of my previous works, I wanted to create a ‘carrier bag’ narrative, after Ursula Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986) an immersive space where many things are held together for consideration, without the need to be questioned and resolved. A Dream of Wholeness in Parts is influenced by the Taoist allegory, Chuang Tzu’s Dream of the Butterfly (c. 300 BC). In the allegory, a philosopher wakes up from a vivid dream, in which he’s been a butterfly, only to find that he is no longer sure which state of consciousness is true. My film contains seven dreams that I wanted to function in the same way as Tzu’s allegory. The characters move through a dreamscape, waking up from each consecutive dream, feeling unsure about where reality lies. The film, which will be premiered as part of the British Art Show 9 this year, will be installed on an infinite loop, so there is no determined beginning or ending, but rather a self-contained universe.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Who are the characters in the dreamscape? Do their bodies shift and alter, too, according to the landscapes they move through?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— There are two – arguably three – main characters who exist in relationship to one another: The Universe and The Construct. Both characters expand on gender and racial binaries that I’ve been deconstructing in the past few years. The Universe is a masculine character, inspired in part by Tony Leung Ka-fai – a hero in classic Hong Kong cinema – and the Zing (warrior) role, which is an archetype from Peking and Cantonese opera. Traditionally the warrior is very pictorial in terms of makeup, and in my film the face of The Universe is also elaborate. His hair is blue and his eyelids are painted to evoke the leaves of a flower, which blossoms over a third eye that’s painted on his forehead. The flower takes root around The Universe’s mouth and beyond the flower is a planetary system. During The Universe’s dreams, he finds himself strangely reflected in his surroundings: a tree and a bowl of wonton noodles are animated to speak back to him, and sometimes to speak as him. Through blurring and reflections, I wanted to break down the binary of subject and object, individual and context.

 

The second character, The Construct, takes influence from a feminine archetype in Cantonese opera (the Daan role). In my film The Construct wears a suit with matching chopines – which are these insane platform shoes, popular in the 15th century… (I imagine these shoes on a character from an inter-planetary version of The Real Housewives). The Construct also wears a long wig made from my own hair, which I cut off last year as part of a personal transformation. The wig is a work in its own right, called Costume for Dreaming (2021), which will be shown in relationship to the film. There are arguably three characters, because The Construct has a second self who is almost-identical – the two selves have the same hair and clothes, but a different face. One face is painted blue and pink with eyebrows angled up towards the centre of the face, in a demure expression. Another is green and pink, with eyebrows angled down towards the centre of the face, in what could be seen as a menacing expression. Both are interpretations of the Daan role, and in Peking opera the colour combinations are symbolic. Blue and pink mean loyalty and honour. Green and pink signify cruelty, vanity or selfishness.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Have you watched a lot of Cantonese opera? Have you seen any live shows?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— I have seen some Peking opera as an adult, but I encountered a lot of Cantonese opera growing up. My grandmother was a huge Cantonese opera fan; any free time she had was spent in front of her TV with a microphone, singing along with her favourite actors. This would happen karaoke-style at home or sometimes she would bring me to the local community centre with her friends where they met and sang for each other, usually as an informal activity. Her favourite actors were Yam Kim-fai and Bak Sheut-sin, two women who often played romantic lead roles opposite each other. This has definitely been in my consciousness for a long time as an example of queerness in Chinese culture. My grandmother didn’t see it that way, of course, but for me it was absolutely that.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Are there any other proto-queer elements to Cantonese opera? Is there a sense of gender as performance?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— There are four different roles in Cantonese opera. The Sang character is the male lead and the Daan character is the female lead; the Sang and Daan are often romantically related. Then you have the Zing (warrior) role, where the face becomes pictorial through makeup. Next you have the Cau role, which is the clown role, often presented as a foil, offering comic relief to the production. Each category is distinct and there is so much skill and craft in terms of the clothing, the makeup, the gestures and vocalisations. For me, these traditional opera archetypes have become a perfect way to talk about pre-determined societal scripts. By reimagining these characters and presenting them in new ways, I’m trying to unpick and reassemble these scripts.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Lip-syncing features across your work, in performances like A View from Elsewhere (2019) as well as films, undermining the connection between what’s seen and heard. Do you see it as another way of unpicking the script?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— I use lip-syncing in my drag performances, always to pre-recorded tracks. I think lip-syncing is an amazing queer technology of embodiment. When you are taking on a voice and energy, the result is often uncanny. I think this is why we’re so obsessed with it in queer culture. You become a fantasy. For me, lip-syncing is so interesting because embodying a voice is something so different to embodying a person in image, with wigs, make up and so on. I use lip-syncing to create a disconnect between the speaker and what’s being said, even though the voice is always my own. I do this to shift the relationship between subject and language, to question where a voice or idea comes from and create ambiguity in the directions and perspectives of the speaker and the listener.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In your recent film, Total Fabrication, which was published online in the midst of a global pandemic, you perform a character who is ostensibly more masc than previous characters. They wear a white collared shirt and have short, curtained hair. There is lip-syncing, but this time to a significantly lower pitched voice. Why did you decide to embody a masc character in this performance? 

A

Sin Wai Kin

Total Fabrication came before A Dream of Wholeness in Parts, and it was my first time experimenting with masculinity in drag, which is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The lockdown provided unexpected time to stop and think about the direction I want my work to go in. Compared to my usual drag looks, Total Fabrication was a small gesture, but it was the first time I’ve dealt with masculinity explicitly in my work. My feminine characters are always over the top, but my relationship to masculinity is a little different. Suddenly, it was not about taking something off, but rather trying something on. From a cultural perspective, so often masculinity is equated with an absence of performance, and thus seen as a site of authenticity and authority. Total Fabrication makes fun of that.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The audio track of Total Fabrication was taken from an American TV-show from the late 1990s, called Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. Why did you choose these clips as a starting place?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— I remember watching Beyond Belief growing up. It was hosted by Jonathan Frakes, of Star Trek fame. By this point in his career, Frakes was a little bit older but still very much trying to personify a suave TV host. Each episode featured a dramatised narrative with actors playing out supernatural happenstances. The audience were asked to spend the show guessing whether the events actually took place, or whether they’re totally made up. At the end of the show, Frakes came out and revealed to viewers whether the dramatised narrative was fact or fiction.

 

Total Fabrication plays into the importance of storytelling in the distinction between objective and subjective knowledge. Storytelling is a human technology of knowledge and truth production. Whether it’s history, religion or science, it matters who the author is – because every author will bring unconscious bias and perspectives to a narrative, even within something as supposedly infallible as scientific process.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The tension between fact, fiction and the news is also present in Today’s Top Stories. In this short film, you play a newsreader with blue skin: your face is the centre of a supernova, and a pulsating blue planet fills the backdrop behind. Did this piece come out of concerns around that Trumpian term, fake news?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— Like Total Fabrication, Today’s Top Stories is also concerned with the technology of storytelling. The male protagonist, who is a newsreader, is called The Storyteller. Across the film, he tells you one thing and then tells you the exact opposite, broadcasting from an unstable universe in outer space. The blue planet behind him is actually an imploding star that bursts with lightning, as if on the verge of change or collapse. There are other stars too, which linger nearby, glitching. In making the film, I was thinking though that totally pathetic, frustrated feeling I have when watching the news, knowing I’m being manipulated. I watched a lot of newsreaders to prepare, as I thought about how to embody The Storyteller gesturally. In the film, he rotates on his chair to face other camera angles as news readers do, but he always glitches back to the same perspective.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— After over a year of isolation, I think we’re all feeling a new investment in togetherness. Your long-term, ongoing project Dream Babes is a collective that hosts workshops, talks and events, offering a lifeline to artists working outside, or beyond, the institution. Dream Babes have screened sci-fi porn movies, hosted performances, and hold a regular science group. What’s it like to work with other people?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— Collaboration has always been really important in my work. Dream Babes was born out of a need to connect and foster community with other people with queer intersectional experience who were using science fiction to try to imagine something better. I really believe that the task of imaging another, or better world is better achieved by collaboration with other people. Every aspect of Dream Babes was collaborative. The beauty of collaboration is that you make something with someone else that you would not have been able to do on your own. 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your works include so many characters, from The Storyteller and The Universe to the drag personae in your live performances. Do you regard your work as a kind of collective in itself: each work a character with its own personality and lineage?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— Somebody once said to me: ‘Every work that you make reveals a new part of a universe’. That’s really what it feels like. Even if one work might just recount the first time I saw queer porn, another the story of how deep-sea anglerfish mate or another how neuroplasticity isn’t considered enough in brain research. These are all examples from different parts in A View from Elsewhere, a work in which I’m holding all of these things together, in a sort of Le Guin carrier bag, and asking the viewer to consider the relationship between each thing. It’s through my work that I’ve made huge personal discoveries. Through the act of drag – which is a really purposeful putting on and taking off – I came to the realisation that I wasn’t a woman. Over time, the line between life and performance has also blurred. The ‘taking off’ has become part of the performance – such as in my facial wipe works, where I capture the expressions I’ve painted onto my face with wet wipes. Here, I wanted to draw attention to the ephemeral aspects of performance, and also to call into question the imagined line between authenticity and performance. My life leaks onto the stage, too – I’m thinking of the wig that The Construct wears in A Dream of Wholeness in Parts, the one made out of my own hair, in the style I wore it as a femme-identified person. I see my name change in this vein too. It’s not that one thing is a performance and the other thing isn’t a performance. I’m trying to live and make work in a way that draws attention to how, like the gender binary, performance versus authenticity is another false dichotomy.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The imprints on your wet wipe works reveal a deeply personal relationship between a person’s face, their identity, and how they care for it. The technique you’ve developed – carefully pressing your face against a wet wipe, in lieu of the blank canvas – breathes new life into characters familiar from your performances, but with new expressions. By displaying these works, separate but in connection to your performances, are you suggesting identity as a kind of craft?

A

Sin Wai Kin

— Every time I paint a face, I convey an emotion or mood relevant to a piece. I can paint a face that appears to be scowling when my muscles are relaxed. When I take it off, the wet wipe holds that permanent scowl. The wipe works are so intimate, not just because they have been pressed to my face, but also because they contain bits of myself: my skin and sweat – parts of the body that are often considered abject once they come off you. I think of the wipes as death masks, and they function as an archive of all the different roles I’ve taken on, all the embodiments. Creating an archive is especially important to performance, which is such an ephemeral medium. The archive holds the classic ‘Victoria Sin’ character face, which was my first character and the one I describe in Narrative Reflections on Looking, as well as versions of that face where it morphs into ‘half faces’ – à la Phantom of the Opera – from later performance works. Then there are The Construct’s two faces: one in blue and pink, the other in green and yellow. I’ve also archived the faces of The Universe, The Storyteller, and most recently faces of The Clown, which, like The Construct, has two versions. There are faces I am working on that don’t even have names yet. Each wipe is unique, whether I make them after a performances, or as part of the process of character development. Even wipes carrying the same face are never the same, because I paint the faces differently each time, to suit specific performances. What’s more, the wipes capture the make up, but also the expression made by my face beneath, which mixes with the painted character to form the final imprint.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Each wipe shows a character with their eyes shut – since your eyes need to be in order to remove eye makeup – which gives them kind of finality. Has the process of making the wipes changed your own relationship with your face? 
A

Sin Wai Kin

— Every time I put on a face, look at myself and embody that character, it changes my relationship with my body. And when I take that embodiment off, I don’t just change back. The relationships between myself and my audience, or my body and I, has changed me in some way – given me a new perspective and license to be something else. To see existing parts of myself in a new way.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. She has worked collaboratively with artists and gallerists in London and the US. In 2017, she was Writer-in-Residence at Rule Gallery, Marfa, Texas, where she worked on a text exploring an archival exhibition of artists involved in Drop City, 1965–71, an artist’s commune based in Trinidad, Colorado.

SIN WAI KIN (fka Victoria Sin) is an artist using speculative fiction within performance, moving image, writing and print to interrupt normative processes of desire, identification, and objectification. In 2020, Wai Kin opened the solo exhibition Narrative Reflections on Looking at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Croatia. In 2021, the artist will be included in the touring exhibition British Art Show 9.

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