It is difficult to make an artwork that can induce genuine horror. It is also tricky to make one that can invite gleeful wonderment. At Art Basel Hong Kong, in a single piece, the artist Sydney Shen has done both. In the modest booth of Shanghai’s Gallery Vacancy, part of the fair’s Discoveries section, Shen has installed an antique highchair atop what could be a sloping segment of a ramshackle wooden rollercoaster. The children’s chair is bound with metal chains and rope, shibari-style, and it has small wheels at its legs. With just a little push, it appears, it could go sliding down the track to some horrible fate.
Shen, who is 34 and based in New York, is something of a rollercoaster connoisseur, and has made pilgrimages to cult coasters like The Voyage, a Mayflower-themed beast (the second-longest wooden one on earth) at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana. (Only in America!) Rollercoasters are “so excessive,” the artist said over lunch this week in Hong Kong. “They’re hyper-engineered—they’re meant to push your body to its physiological limits, to the point where your body and mind think you’re going to die.” Their careful design leads to an “extremely safe environment” for that harrowing endeavor, she noted.
At its very best, art can operate in a parallel manner. (Think of Edmund Burke’s famous line that the sublime can be generated by things that “excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is analogous to terror.”)
Granted, art will not simulate a near-death experience (not usually), but it will help you get outside of yourself, and maybe shake you up a bit, as Shen’s works do here. Little Chair (2023), as her intricate centerpiece is called, invites visceral memories of confinement: as a child, being inculcated into domestic life, or even as an adult, put in a position of authority (as first chair cellist, say). It is alluring and precarious.
Lining the walls of the Vacancy’s booth are photos that also draw on the world of rollercoasters, showing mysterious little circles in mountain landscapes. These are images that Shen found online of hair ties that people regularly throw when riding Expedition Everest, a $100 million steel coaster at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. She has printed them in black-and-white, on paper with curving edges, so that they suggest the tintypes of a distant era (perhaps the one from which her highchair comes).
Riders deposited these artifacts—marking their presence, or perhaps trying to distract themselves—while strapped in place, at a moment of giddy joy, extreme fear, or even boredom. Now they are gone, but a trace of them has been left behind. “People, over time, participating in this indeterminate and informal activity [are] quite beautiful to me,” Shen said.
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