It goes without saying that we’ve come a long way from Greek myth and Michaelangelo, and WeiXin Quek Chong’s work expands the imaginative possibilities of touch. Her installation ‘sft crsh ctrl’, which won her the 2018 Singapore Art Museum’s President’s Young Talents award, is a cascade of tactile materials: top-hung silk prints, latex sheets and faux fur, with accompanying ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) video.
Making Fur Fly: WeiXin Quek Chong's deepdreams_sublimed
We so often think of art as a visual medium, but in many ways, it is all about touch. The viewer steps into a museum where she can’t touch anything, and yet expects ‘to be touched’ by what hangs on the walls. A bit like Michelangelo’s God reaching out towards Adam, we expect a work of art somehow to animate us, but from a distance. Meanwhile, we give the contemporary artist the Midas touch, as urinals, sharks, receipts and money become fountains, sculptures, monochromes or just more money.
ASMR is the tingly feeling some people experience in response to textured sound, and for Dr Giulia Poerio the ‘sensation is like a synaesthetic type of experience where you can experience touch without being touched’. WeiXin’s most recent exhibition deepdreams_sublimed at A.I. Gallery in London once again brings in ASMR along with another form of touching-without-being-touched, vacuum bondage, a sexual fetish involving total confinement inside a latex ‘vacbed’ that effectively shrink-wraps the user.
Ever-curious and unflinching, WeiXin’s work unfolds at the edge of intellect and intuition and touches on everything from loneliness to self-care, from niche kinks to the all-too-human and increasingly urgent desire for intimacy, in our extremely online globalised world.
Like the many-tailed fox spirit from East Asian folklore that inspired the sculpture 狐云非龙 ☁ (seven-tails) (2021), WeiXin is a prolific shapeshifter whose work is hard to put in neat categories.
I'm curious, what made you decide to make an exhibition about touch?
I think touch, as part of an overall sensory sensitivity, has always been a hugely important element to me as well as something that we actually need in order to survive, develop and grow. It is one of the material languages in which we sense and communicate what's around us, and as with all nonverbal languages, it is often de-prioritised. So in a way, the exhibition is very much about touch simply because my practice and perception is shaped by tactility.
Could you talk a bit about your family's involvement with the harvesting of latex from rubber trees?
My paternal grandparents tapped rubber trees in Malaysia for a period of time to help sustain their young family, and my grandmother used to tell me stories about how she would carry heavy containers of the tapped liquid sap to a common facility where she would pour them out to make sheets of latex, then sold by quality to a middleman. She was proud of the high quality of the sheets she used to make!
"Interestingly, when I began to source natural latex sheeting for my own work, I found that a lot of it was still produced in Malaysia and sold through a British company, a living continuation of historical relationships extracting and exporting natural resources."
While I was laying out the latex sheeting for my sculptures at home in Singapore, the familiar smell attracted my grandmother and stirred some of her rubber tapping memories. One of her more heart-wrenching accounts was how once, with my then three or four-year old uncle on her bicycle as they carried a large container of sap, the child's foot got caught in the turn of the bicycle wheel and rather badly injured.
She only discovered this at the end of the bike ride though, as my uncle had resisted making any sound or distraction in fear that they might lose balance and risk spilling the gathered sap. She always recounted this with immense pride for how mature and brave my uncle had been at such a young age.
Interestingly, when I began to source natural latex sheeting for my own work, I found that a lot of it was still produced in Malaysia and sold through a British company, a living continuation of historical relationships extracting and exporting natural resources.
What sparked your interest in vacuum bondage? As an outsider, it can seem like quite an extreme form of subordination involving huge amounts of trust - do you think there is perhaps something universal about this kink, that even people without it might be able to understand?
"I often view kink practices as a kind of resistance and subversion of focus, or even just a shifting of emphases"
I think my ongoing fascination with latex led to exploring vacuum bondage. A friend sent me a link to a video about it and I was hooked. It definitely has potential to be universally relatable- though people with claustrophobia might find it challenging! This feeling of being encased, hyper-aware of your own breathing, can be quite transcendental and otherworldly, not to mention the heightened sensation of the skin making the experience one where you can feel very much connected to your body, while simultaneously beyond it.
What is the link, for you, between ASMR and vacuum bondage? Is it that they represent two more intense experiences of tactility (without actually, technically, involving being touched)?
ASMR is a contemporary way to highlight and in some ways abstract the sensory qualities that shape many of our experiences. I see it as an attempt to reconnect with and emphasise the primacy of highly sensorial experiences. Many cultural and religious rituals for example, that historically and up till now form touchpoints and cornerstones of identity, are very much about embodying such experiences and imbuing them with specific meanings and associations. Our daily lives can also be full of rituals and the specific scents, sounds and qualities of things often cement our memory and knowledge of them, whether it's home, work or elsewhere.
Contemporary dissociation with the nonverbal, non-verbally-rational in our realities can create sense-starved, touch-starved societies where the connection to sensory experience and knowledge is more fragmented and segregated/ emphasised mostly in terms of products and services. We could perhaps see this as a contrast to global, pre-colonial-capitalist ways of thought...
In relation, I often view kink practices as a kind of resistance and subversion of focus, or even just a shifting of emphases. Vacuum bondage, for example, combines the sensory experience of being encased in a skin of latex with bondage of movement/ paralysis caused by the vacuum pressure. It also heightens and alters the skin's tactile sensation, and in that sense could even be viewed as a kind of prosthetic skin.
Cover photo: Installation image of orchid breathing in deep blue mode. 1-3, 2021. Print on silk. Courtesy the artist & A.I. Gallery
By Sammi Gale