Interview by Eva Mayhabal Davis

Culturework interviewed Jia Sung, an artist based in New York City who works with illustration and painting to deconstruct and assess cultural traditions and interpersonal connections between humans, animals, and spirits. 

Culturework: Jia, thank you for taking the time to speak about your work. You’ve had a busy summer! Your exhibition Folkloric Taxonomy at Wave Hill, public garden and cultural center, has just closed. What was your experience like there? Your installation was in the Wave Hill House Tearoom, and at first glance seems like a polar conversation with colonial architecture and your ever-present pseudoscientific imagery of Buddhist iconography and Chinese mythology. How were you intentionally responding to this?

Jia Sung: Thank you for inviting me to be in conversation/correspondence with you!

For me, the tea room is this orderly space that carries connotations of stuffiness, propriety, control, ritual. Everything about the space at Wave Hill suggests this: the sconces, panels, decorative molding, fireplace with mantel… I wanted to symbolically interrupt this narrative through the work I put up. For example, we anchored the space along with the cardinal directions by nesting relief sculptures of the mythical Four Symbols in various panels and alcoves. Clusters of my tarot and zodiac drawings were grouped beside each sculpture according to their elemental affiliation, along with an embroidered tapestry depicting the bhavacakra or wheel of reincarnation. My idea was to create a diagram or microcosm of the world seen differently within the space, and I’m so grateful that curator Emily Alesandrini was open to working together on this.

CW: You are working with a variety of mediums! Sculpture, drawings, and embroidery… can you speak about your constraints — or lack thereof — as you put together this installation? Do individual works have a life of their own too? You use the word microcosm and I’m wondering what life looks like for your work at a macro scale. 

JS: That’s actually been a major goal of mine in the past year, so it’s incredibly gratifying to hear you say that! Especially since I produce a lot of client work as a freelance illustrator where constraints and consistency are key, I’m trying to let go of that result-focused mindset and be more open to experimentation and play in my personal practice. I took the Wave Hill show as an opportunity to push out of my comfort zone of painting and drawing. It was my first time incorporating embroidery and sculpture into my work, so on the micro-level there were a few months of figuring out how those processes translated in my hand, and how they might sit within the rest of my body of work.

CW: It is so important to push outside the comfort zone and I often find myself reluctant and later on grateful that I did! The discovery of one’s ability is surprising and reinforcing so to rediscover is always a push. I’m glad you are considering these transitions for your work! 

Do you see yourself working more in producing objects? There’s an intimacy there that is translating across the spiritual, and powerful imagery of embodiments of the likes of hot-pink, femme fatales, heroines, and cellophane androgy. For example, if your tarot deck figures came to life, they would be the living embodiments of the energy that red lips smacking send through a room. Can you elaborate more on these figures and tarot cards?

JS: Yes! To objects! I’m hopelessly drawn to tactility, texture and mark and whatnot. The meat and joy of my work is when the structures and research are all in place and I am just immersed in making. That’s always going to be the fun part, the exciting part, the moment where I’m being fully present. I was talking to a writer friend about this the other day: all the trappings of ‘being an artist’ beyond the actual act of making the work, the uploadings and openings and having to talk about the work, is like having the Birthday Feeling. You know? ‘I’m supposed to be happy today, so let’s go through those motions.’ Post-mortem pantomime for the appropriate moment.

I love and will treasure that description of ‘red lips smacking through a room.’ The tarot project came from my simultaneous love of inherited stories as the thread of connection to history, the magic door into our ancestors’ questions and answers, and my desire to reclaim and reimagine the power of those narratives through the feminine lens. In some ways, it’s another manifestation of wanting to arrive back at play, and give me the freedom to interrupt and rework these archives and archetypes instead of revering them as untouchable unless faithfully replicated.

CW: The Birthday Feeling! Yes, one must unravel in that feeling, whether you like it or not, one lives in their truth. I am excited to see you take that further and as your work embodies it so will your audience. Can you speak about the future of the tarot project, are you selling sets and other upcoming projects?

JS: Right now it exists physically as a limited edition handmade set, thanks to the team at Endless Editions and their Copy Shop residency project. We printed it via risograph and duplexed + trimmed it all by hand. I made full-sized prints of the whole deck which I’ve been using in a virtual reading project of sorts. People share what’s on their mind with me, and in return, I send them a set of 3 prints with a handwritten letter explaining each card. The proceeds are sent to a charity, so it’s vaguely like penpalling with strangers for fundraising?

Hopefully the minor arcana will happen someday, but meanwhile, am head-first deep-diving into work for my upcoming solo show at Knockdown Center. It’s a series of ink and gouache drawings and poems examining the role of the female trickster – to be collected into an artist book edition, and displayed as a narrative across the gallery walls. I’m excited and nervous to share the fruit of my obsessive re-imaginings, but come through and find out what it looks like on November 2nd!

CW: Thank you Jia! All our best in your endeavors! 

Jia Sung is an artist and educator, born in Minnesota, bred in Singapore and now based in Brooklyn. With a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, Sung is a 2018–2019 Smack Mellon Studio Artist and Van Lier Fellow, and an art director at Guernica. Her paintings and artist books have been exhibited across North America, including the Knockdown Center, RISD Museum, EFA Project Space, Lincoln Center, Yale University, and MOMA PS1, and featured in publications including Hyperallergic, Jacobin Magazine, Asian American Writers Workshop and The Guardian. She has taught workshops at such organizations as the AC Institute, Abrons Arts Center and The Museum of Chinese in America.

Eva Mayhabal Davis is the arts content editor at Culturework.