Throughout her discography and performances, experimental pop and performance artist Sui Zhen has zoomed in on the intersections between human life and technology — how to exist in the digital age, as well as the ways in which we risk losing true sight of ourselves in the process. Sui Zhen’s third album, Losing, Linda, pairs her signature inquisitiveness with a surreal electronic pop that possesses a dreamlike quality: vivid, uncanny, and upon close examination, revealing of deep emotional and personal truths. It’s an album that examines loss on multiple levels — from the death of our loved ones, to our widespread societal tendency to disappear within the ones and zeroes of modern life’s tech-driven rush.
Fast Five with Sui Zhen
What feels alive about your practice right now?
‘Deep listening’ and ‘Practice’ are the key words in my artistic practice right now. With the events of 2020 commencing with out of control bushfires, loss of forests and wildlife, the uprising of the BLM movement and all that it stirred within us, to the pandemic and lockdown, and the tragic loss of a family member – I’ve felt unsure how and when I should use my voice. Sometimes it’s because, I’m not sure what of real value I have to contribute except to add to the collective sigh of resignation to all that 2020 has become. And other times because, much like a wild animal facing a threat I’ve wanted to hide away as much as I want to reach out and connect with people. So I’ve tried to read more and educate myself about issues that I care about, listen to what is happening, listen to the experience of others and take it all in.
The times I have put thoughts out there, through my regular radio show on NTS live, or an occasional new song release, an even more occasional live stream – it’s been met with warmth and understanding. And I am grateful to have an audience to share these ups and downs with, through that I feel connected.
Several weeks ago, I had a hurried move from my apartment Brunswick East to to a 100 year old house in the Dandenong Ranges due to the sudden illness and passing of my partner’s father. With that came a new appreciation for bird watching, field recording and long walks in the bush as I’ve found myself living in Phil’s footsteps. There’s this concept of ‘deep listening’ that’s related to the practice of ‘forest bathing’. Giving these activities names seems somewhat unnecessary however it’s the best way to describe the stimulus I’ve been filling my mind with lately. With the solitary bush walks comes thinking. And I’ve found that, particularly for this HiViz Commission, as a way to charter my thoughts on I’ve been recording the sounds of my walks. Then listening back to them whilst I write for an hour afterwards. As if re-hearing the sounds will help to trigger my memory for the thoughts worth exploring further.
The Practice aspect of my practice is the most alive aspect. It’s there staring right in front of us all the time when we call ourselves artists’ or creative practitioners. Art making be it music, sound, performance, visual or otherwise is a practice but I so often forget to practice! In non-lockdown life I’d be busy with shows and public performances, touring and moving around from place to place. I would give so little time to the practice of my craft to simply be better at it because I’d be so focused on presenting it and packaging my output up into releases or what not.
So in lockdown I’ve taken to teaching myself classical piano pieces and to read notation again. I’m a beginner in this way because I stopped taking music lessons when I put down the trumpet around age fifteen. I’m also trying to fit some guitar practice in as well. And it is amazing how much I am improving my musical skills by playing other peoples’ music on a daily basis. It seems silly that I wasn’t making enough time for this before. Practicing a musical piece over and over again can become like a game. It’s such a good activity to default to when you are experiencing a creative blockage. And then when you hear yourself getting better it’s the most rewarding thing. This is all such obvious stuff, but it requires an emptier schedule which 2020 has certainly provided.
Are there any particular sounds you’ve been noticing in lockdown?
Here are my two favourite sounds right now: stream
I experienced the first lockdown from within the confines of my apartment in Brunswick East. It faced Nicholson Street so I would hear the trams and then the eerie quiet of the roads at night in curfew. When I went for runs on the nearest park I’d hear a Masked Lapwing that had laid eggs in the grassy edges of the disused sporting field. And then, perhaps due to the brightness of the urban streets at night I recall hearing a magpie at like, 2am a few nights. It was pretty to hear but a bit concerning that it the lights might have been confusing the magpie about what time it was.
Then in the last few weeks since we’ve been out in the Dandenong Ranges I’ve been hearing a few sounds regularly; crickets & a tawny frogmouth at night, a rooster in the neighbouring property, a weird animal I think might be an Alpaca or else I have no idea but it has a weird guttural squawk. When I go for my daily walk I’ve been absolutely spoiled with birdsong and calls from the Eastern Whip birds, Rosellas, King Parrots, Kookaburras, Magpies, Currawongs, Butcherbirds, Fairy Wrens, Cockatoos and Magpie Larks. I made an excellent recording of a Superb Lyrebird that was only a few metres away from me at the time. I am soaking it all up as not long ago, I was living a very different life.
I grew up in the north western suburbs of Sydney near bushland and a creek so there were similar birds out there. We sold my family home mid-2019 after my Mum passed away so it’s comforting to be back in the bush as it gives me the feeling of home I didn’t realise how much I missed living in inner Melbourne for a decade.
How have you been experiencing time in recent months?
Without the usual activities or events happening I’ve been experiencing very few markers for time outside of the sun rising and the sun setting, the weather changing and some projects I’ve been working on being due. I’ve not been watching the news at all in the past month and I’ve also stopped listening to the radio. Perhaps the most significant marker of time I’ve experienced is my monthly radio show… every time that creeps up I’m like, oh, another month has passed. It’s strange because I started doing the show in March right when everything kicked off with the lockdowns. Another thing that has been thrown off is my menstrual cycle. Generally, I can’t believe how much I used to fit into a day. I feel sad that time is passing and the younger people in my life are growing up and I’m missing out on seeing their formative changes. I am now having a lot more time to sit with one thought. But perhaps I am also not having as many perspective changes from not seeing people or moving about as much. There have been many groundhog days in the year 2020.
Can you evoke the concept for your Hi-Viz Short Work Commission in a few words?
Somewhere between a ghost, a memory and a caring voice in the digital abyss, Sui Zhen reinterprets the world of Linda’s living memory (of her Losing, Linda LP) from within a lockdown lens with an audiovisual performance made with regular collaborators Carla Zimbler providing vision mixing and Megan Payne providing choreographic guidance.
What’s one thing you do to keep stimulated and engaged as an artist?
I work hard to find balance, so I can clear my head and feel out where intuition is trying to take me.
Chamber Made acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which we are based and where we make work, the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) peoples of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and to all First Nations people throughout Australia.
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