An illustrator who deals with the macabre and the scientific, Jazz Szu-Ying Chen is a Dutch based artist who recently came to our attention via her collaborations within the music scene. Check out our 1-on-1 Q&A with her below…
Hi there Jazz. According to your Facebook page you’re currently based between the Netherlands and Taiwan. How did that dual lifestyle come about?
I’m primarily based in Rotterdam, while going back to Taiwan at least once a year. Well, I have a network and exhibitions in Taiwan, which is some of the reasons I go back other than seeing family and friends. The Netherlands is my main base because I live/work here and my studio is here.
Other than Netherlands and Taiwan I also travel to London at least once a year for showing my work. I’m hoping to make that a little bit more regular though!
You had your first solo show in Taiwan when you were 17. Can you remember what inspired you to put that together?
Initially it was a way to potentially improve my university applications, so I took my portfolio to a gallery and they were kind enough to give me, a naive know-nothing high school kid, an opportunity at their newer off-shoot space.
For the main concept of the exhibition, it was based on the idea of carnivals and merry-go-rounds and its symbolism as social commentaries. It was the first time I had to come up with a full theme too, which was challenging but incredibly enjoyable. My work has progressed a lot since then, thanks to some wonderful guidance and all the exposure to great resources.
You graduated with an MA in Art & Science, and are influenced by anatomical drawings. Did you start off as a scientist or as an artist?
I came from the artistic side, though at one point in my pre-teen years I wanted to become a surgeon because I became super obsessed with Osama Tezuka’s manga/anime series “Black Jack”! I got super excited when I was starting my biology lessons in middle/high school but my interest faded pretty soon as all I wanted was to look cool dissecting things..so back to art!
My dad also played a part in it too, he’s an ophthalmologist and I loved looking at the dissected eye illustrations and figurines he had in his office. I’d like to think he had a minor influence on my morbid interests.
We recently spoke with Timna Tomisa about this dual interest and she said that “it takes a great deal of creativity to be successful in either of the disciplines.” What is it about the sciences which inspires your creative work?
I’m a bit of a classicist I must say, I’m a lot more interested in the medieval, historical and gruesome side of medical science rather than the futuristic end. I’m especially drawn to the old anatomical imageries from the 18th century and their depictions of the dissected human body. A good (curated) example of that would be London’s Wellcome Collection’s permanent exhibition “The Medicine Man” and Florence’s La Specola museum.
Actually, La Specola is ultimately what inspired me to do my more recent body of work (2012 onwards) I was suffering from an artist block during the final year of my Bachelor’s course. I was in an artistic rut. So I took a wander in the university library and I ended up in the medical aisle and next thing I know I was carrying a few textbooks about dissection and with the La Specola’s Taschen catalogue on the top of the pile, back to my studio.
During my Master’s studies, I got to know my former tutor (and someone I’d like to consider my mentor) Eleanor Crook, who’s been giving me great advice and guidance regarding my work even after my studies. She loves telling her students that whatever they do, turn the dial up to the absolute maximum! I find her works to be super inspiring. It echoes the craftsmanship of 18th medical artwork but she has her own unique language in her works.
Talk to us about your illustrative style, I imagine a lot of there references to East Asian symbolism may not be that recognizable to a large proportion of your Western audience. Which styles do you combine and how do you do it?
Yes – there are quite some references to East Asian, specifically Chinese symbolism. One motif that I’ve used repetitively are Chinese bats, I’m intrigued by their odd unconventional shapes and also their meanings behind them. You can see a little bit of that in my recent commission with Houndstooth.
For my solo exhibition series in 2017, I re-appropriated Chinese mythological monsters into my own kind of creatures by adding many different kinds of elements to it – such as ornamental masks, bondage rope work, art nouveau/baroque motifs, and definitely a little bit of dissected anatomy.
You’ve recently worked with London based label Houndstooth and Irish producer Eomac on artwork for a compilation and a solo LP respectively. How has this embrace by the electronic music community in the UK come about, and what do you think it is about your work that suits various styles of techno and experimental electronica which you’ve helped decorate?
I initially started off doing some illustrations for UK breakcore/dark drum’n’bass scenes, when I used to be really into that type of music. I departed from it when I had to really focus on my studies and developing my personal work.
I got to know Houndstooth’s A&R Rob Booth through his Electronic Explorations podcasts years ago, so I was very excited when he approached me for the IDDK project! As for Eomac, I shot him a message via a mutual friend because I’m just a huge fan of his works.
I’m unsure if my work suits many styles of electronic music, I am aware of the nicheness of my artworks. Though, I adjust the way I work when I can (For reference, though not music oriented, I did a series of works for London’s Chelsea & Westminster Hospital in 2015, and it was all colours and happy skeletons).
I think a lot of it depends on the concepts the musicians had behind their sounds, rather than just “music that is dark for the sake of being dark.”
The prints of the artwork for the Houndstooth compilation sold out pretty quickly. How do you think producers and musicians could work with artists more closely to overcome the relative boredom of just distributing MP3s – to bring a bit of magic back into the process?
I was over the moon when I learned the prints have sold out!
I think it is important for everyone to ultimately get out of their own usual circles and comfort zone. But for that, a lot of it really also depends on financial matters/budgets. So I’m also rather lucky this time… I know I’m already a bit of an anomaly because what I make isn’t exactly commercial so that is already a bit of a challenge! That said, I think a lot of artists/musicians are already doing quite a lot of cross-disciplinary collaborations (Bjork being one of the great examples).
At the moment I’ve got some of my works showing in a group exhibition at Gallery Untitled in Rotterdam. It’ll be on show till end of March.
Later this year I’m going to St. Louis, Missouri for an art residency with Paul Artspace. I am looking forward to developing my work further there and also getting to know other artists/the St. Louis art scene!