Lyric Shen's Hybrid Practice

In conversation with Esra Canoğulları
Photography by Enmi Yang

A tissue-thin image is slowly being lowered into a warm bin of water by careful hands, draped and released onto the water's surface. Transferred onto the transparent film is an early digicam selfie of Lyric from their personal archives. Upon contact with moisture, the skin-like membrane puckers slowly before Lyric dunks a wooden rectangle into the water bath, aligning its shape with the floating image. Within seconds the image skin wraps itself onto the wood – emerging from the water as a relic of their union. What's left of the image when it dries down onto it's new surface feels both painterly and photographic, brined by this ritual of time, memory, and immersion.

Lyric Shen’s hybrid practice is focused in sculpture, working with the ancient crafts of ceramics and tattooing alongside more industrialized processes like inkjet printing, hydro dipping, plasma cutting, and iPhone photos/videos. Their work is a reflection on time spent in the US, Taiwan, and Mexico and of the cultural experiences surrounding lesbian and sex-working spaces.

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E: When looking at your recent solo show Promise's Room at Silke Lindner and past work, themes of artifact and memory continued to come up for me in the way you process and transform your imagery. A trace of something familiar is present and abstracted through the filter of your personal history. Whether it's through clay, metal, photo or a tattoo. What is your first memory of making art when you were younger?

L: That's such a good question. The first introduction, I feel like I would have to say vacation Bible school. Yeah, because the church was such a, like, um, is nucleus the word? It was just a nucleus for a lot of my family's activities. So my sister and I went to camp there as kids, and they would have lots of arts and crafts. I do remember one particular object that we made that my mom still has, and it's like a frame made out of Popsicle sticks with some googly eyes, like really, you know, um, typical arts and crafts, collage-like ingredients, and then a photo that someone took of us, like a little Polaroid photo with a quote written in puff paint that says: “The Lord is my shepherd.” So that's one of my earliest memories of making something, of course, it was negotiated by an older person, a camp counselor, or whatever, but that's one of the first memories I have of making something that had value and was validated by someone else. 

E: What was growing up in Southern California like for you? You're from Goleta, California? I'm curious to hear how growing up there inspired your earlier art-making.

L: Yeah, cars keep coming up lately for me, especially feeling that difference very much now that I live in New York. I’m in a car sometimes, but I think I worked so hard for most of my life to own a car and to drive it around to get to work and stuff. So it's been a huge change now to not rely on that space. It's such a bubble that's really personal and private. Now when I leave the house. I’m just immediately in public. The private space of the car, I think, is really at the forefront of a lot of my memories, and also just that things can be pretty much outdoors year round, whether that's events or objects themselves, don't get ruined from being outside. I think there are a lot of parallels with the way that material corrodes or ages on the West Coast and maybe even human life as well. Like there's more sun and bleaching and drying out of, and like shriveling of things, here there's more elements like water and frost. 

E: That's interesting to hear because a lot of your work has a layer of decomposition. Fading, wear or breaking down as a layer of abstraction. Also, some of your tattoos have a very specific line quality that looks similar to graphite or has a specific texture, similar to how things fade in the sun.

L: Yeah. Maybe in the past with tattooing what might have been regarded as a bad heal or you know, kind of exploiting those qualities so that the ink is mimicking colored pencil or something else is more interesting to me right now. Also engaging with the layer of distortion or abstraction that comes with wear that isn't dictated solely by me, if that makes sense. Wear that is conditional and environmental. 

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E: What was your introduction to tattooing? How did it become a part of the art that you make? 

L: The first tattoo that I like sought out was done by someone who went to my high school. It was totally sanitary and safe, but he was tattooing out of his mom’s kitchen at the time, and I think I paid $50. I went to his Instagram recently, and he's still tattooing, I think. I tattooed myself maybe four years later or something, just stick and poke without a machine. I fucked around like that for a few years on myself, and then I met someone who was a professional tattoo artist or that his whole living. It was really inspiring to see that you could support yourself that way a year after that Corona and I bought a machine in Mexico City. She had also been doing tattoos by hand for a while. We tried the machine tattoos on each other, and the rest is history. I think once people know you have a machine and are practicing, they're pretty eager to get tattooed. I've been that way with my own tattoos. I think I'm kind of slowing down with my eagerness and zooming out and seeing my whole composition and thinking more about it. I think once you have a machine and people hear about it, there's always someone who's like, let me get something. So in that sense, with tattooing, I was really community-taught, not self-taught.

E: Has your sculpture practice always existed alongside tattooing, or was it something you started before? 

L: I was super lucky in high school, I had a really cool sculpture teacher who went to CCA (California College of the Arts). You know, public schools don’t necessarily have the funding for specialized equipment and supplies or the best art classes so it’s really up to the teachers to bring what they want to the classroom. Our teacher brought her own lost-wax casting equipment, with a centrifuge and everything. She brought her own kilns and built up this incredible sculpture program at the high school I went to. I didn't do a ton of ceramics with her, but I did learn a lot of soldering, and we did one session of lost-wax casting. Just being able to have an understanding of how things were made, even by doing it once, really opened up my brain to different construction ideas. Specifically with soldering and creating something dimensional out of sheet and wire metal. That process is still on my mind today with how I'll plasma cut and then weld something. It's just a little larger now.

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E: Tattoos and ceramics are both very ancient processes and have a sense of permanence tied to them. I remember when I first took a ceramics class, my teacher was talking about how fired clay will outlive most of our lives. I like to think about these parallels and how clay and tattoos can be used as markers of time or history. Even though your work isn't necessarily trying to be nostalgic or historical, it still engages with ideas of artifact or ancient methodologies and what it means when people intentionally bring them into the present. 

L: Yeah. There's this clay figure that comes to mind that a tattoo artist named Taku Oshima shared. It's a clay figure from the Jomon period, and it just has a full-body suit of beautiful tattoo designs. I thought that was such a funny thing to stumble across; it's the two worlds colliding. But yeah, I guess in both cases with clay, the material has such a memory of its own. That's why clay bodies look so different because of where they are extracted from, and the types of minerals and chemicals that are in each clay are so specific to where they're from. So they interact with form and surface really in really specific ways and carry a lot of information, data and wisdom without the use of language or numbers. I feel like human bodies are similar in that way.  

E: Definitely. Even just thinking about someone's composition of tattoos as a personal record or personal archive of history. 

L: Yeah, and the chemical composition of the materials that were used before color inks. People would mix spit or liquid with ash and then tattoo with it. Also, iron oxides are the standard for black and brown underglaze or glaze chemistry for ceramics. So it goes back to metal too. 

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E: What inspires your tattoo imagery? Some of your earlier tattoos look a lot like stamps or prints made for paper or etchings.

L: When I started tattooing, I was doing everything by hand, and I think that contributed to the texture that I’m still working with even though I’m using a machine now. The imagery I was pulling from was a lot of folk paper cutting and stencils. I would recombine elements that I found from a lot of stuff that my family saved or imagery I would see around my home. I was really making the connections between what I saw as flattering or common in contemporary tattoo design and what I saw in folk art. For example, I like symmetry and think that mirrored images look really nice in a tattoo design, and that’s something you achieve by folding a piece of paper and cutting it or the abstraction of plats into simple symbols like spheres and oval shapes. This same type of abstraction of natural elements is used in processes like embroidery or cut paper. There’s something that’s so elegant about that form of simplification versus the current trend in tattooing of using Ai. 

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E: The images used in your recent solo show Promise’s Room at Silke Lindner have a lot of movement and distortion, they feel like stills or references to video. What is your relationship to photography and video? 

L: I grew up helping my dad pitch his side project, which was basically an early form of AR (augmented reality), I guess. So for a lot of my childhood, there was this handy cam in the living room, and we would play these games that he made at home and I would also go with him to demonstrate the product. He was making the software behind these programs and games, and the application would be for a science museum or, you know, anywhere they could use this program to interact with an audience or a user. His relationship with images affected me a lot because it was such a present thing in my home life. He was always negotiating the difference between the selfie and surveillance. I still think back on those projects and realize it was a really cool way to image the body and image the self — using the camera to make alternate kinds of mirrors and then asking if the resulting image is beautiful or art... 

He also collaborated with dancers and artists who wanted to use the technology to image the body in ways that were not for surveillance or for those kinds of metrics. I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of a photo to create identity via tattoos or other surfaces and also the way the image can be used to classify or surveil or add to ways of knowing / understanding.

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E: The wall pieces in your show felt like windows or a sentimental photo that you would put on the wall in your bedroom. I kept thinking about a domestic space and how images are displayed in a home. Creating this kind of abstract architecture of memory. 

L:  In the absence of having my own room at the time, I feel like that show was very much like, here's me, in a room. 

E: You’re creating imagery that feels very casual or quick and intimate but it’s being transferred onto clay in a process that is very permanent. 

L: There's a contradiction maybe with pace or like the timing of a process and style. The mediums create conflict or a problem.

E: Photography and ceramics are both time-based practices that interact in your work, there’s an immediacy to the process of hydro dipping, but it's still something that lasts a long time on the surface it's transferred onto. With tattooing, it's often a much slower process with a similar level of permanence. 

L: But printmaking is kind of slow too, now that I think of it. Taking a digital photo is very fast, but printing even with a digital printer, takes a little bit of time. It's also about asking for permission. That comes up a lot for me when you're talking about the photos. I guess this is kind of a couple of steps back, but I feel like even when I'm taking photos of animals or insects, I really do try to think with respect or do it with respect. Most of the people I know who are my peers have an aversion to security cameras or just seeing a camera without being prepared or permission being asked. I think that comes up a lot for me with Promise’s Room. The gallery, of course, it's a semi-public space, but I would hope that those feelings might come up or like, might be thought about in the context of the show. Like, oh, you're going into someone’s room.  I feel like the way that the images adhered or dressed the objects was so akin to the way that projection can cling to a surface or like wrap around it.

So when Silke asked me to do the show, I remembered there was a column that ran through the middle of the space. I thought it would make the most sense or be fitting to have a video there. I included a lot of footage of dogs, cats, ants, dragonflies, insects, and also people that I know and that I've filmed over the years. It kind of goes back to that idea of permission and asking for it or trying to film with respect. I also tended to choose clips with signs– window signs or typography that I spot in the wild. I wanted to give those moments with people and animals as much importance as something that was maybe more set up or took more time to conceive if that makes sense. And to recognize how good something looked without much preparation or without much fussing. So I feel like that's a big theme in all of the videos and photos I used. Feeling really struck by something just existing without much intervention. 

E: Just being a witness instead of trying to direct a moment.

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"I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of a photo to create identity via tattoos or other surfaces and also the way the image can be used to classify or surveil or add to ways of knowing / understanding."

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E: I wanted to ask about your zine Elastic Anthology and the reading that you hosted for it. What inspired the project and who are some of the contributors?

L: So it has been over a year in the making, I'm so happy it’s finally in the flesh now. The idea was inspired by another zine that I had contributed to in the past called All Sex Workers Go to Heaven. It was formed by a group of current and former sex workers in Los Angeles who wanted a collective that centered Black, Indigenous, and People of Color sex workers because the founders felt at the time that there was a gap that SWOP (a sex workers outreach Project in LA) didn't really fill.

I just wanted to keep the dialogue and project going. The person who invited me to be a part of the All Sex Workers Go To Heaven zine is also included in Elastic Anthology. It feels like an ongoing dialogue. When you zoom out and look at it, I think it's interesting that this question comes after the last because there's something similar to the way everything was compiled.

Some of the writing is very edited and more academic leaning, and some of it is notes or collages that people have made on their phones. So talking about the video and the hands-off directing style, or just like the collection of imagery, feels related to found objects and recognizing one's own found material that is floating around them without much intervention. So in that sense, I was really excited to see what people submitted because the call for submissions was very open. 

There's so much distance and removal of meaning from our lives as sex workers. The anger and chaos, there's the removal of all these emotions and realities that tend to be seen as less legitimate, and that has to do with respectability politics. I feel like the reality of our lives would be diluted if someone else were to do the archiving or collecting because those are not the attractive parts. 

There's so much distance and removal of meaning from our lives as sex workers — people who aren’t in this industry often see a totally different picture. The feelings themselves are not easy to share — in a whorephobic culture, you’re wrong for enjoying, feeling neutral about, or feeling negative about working. The anger and chaos, there's the removal of all these emotions and realities that tend to be seen as less legitimate, and that has to do with respectability politics. I feel like the reality of our lives would be diluted if someone else were to do the archiving or collecting because those are not the attractive parts. I also have to be cautious/diligent not to conflate the celebration of sw’ers with the celebration of “working.”

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E: Is there anything that you’re working on next? Any new material explorations you’re excited about or shows coming up?

L: Yeah, I'm making work for a two-person show titled The Petal with Misa Chhan in San Francisco at Et Al Gallery that opens Friday, August 4th. I feel really excited, and I don't know what the show will look like yet. I know I want to keep working with this printer and the hydro-dipping process. The bumper that I printed on, I found in the trash. I find myself drawn to using or trying to use more living or biomaterials when I'm in California. I think that might be an avenue I'd like to explore. Misa, who I'm asking to do the show with me, does a lot of natural dyeing with plant-based materials. So I feel like having a conversation between us will be really nice.

E: It will be interesting to see the way the work will change depending on your environment too. You were talking earlier about the environmental conditions of California and how it’s inspired the way that you are attracted to certain natural elements or processes.

L: I don't mean to make a distinction between humans and nature because I think that's a huge problem to say that we're not a part of trees or soil or whatever. To say that we are different from that is like part of a problem maybe. I'm around nature all the time here. Maybe it’s just that my place on the chain has changed. My place on the chain in California meant more access to open spaces where there were fewer humans, I don't think that makes it more natural. I think it makes my relationship to material change.

E: Yeah, the environment is not less natural, just maybe more or less populated by different things.

L: There's more human impact, maybe. Or just that the consequences of human impact are being seen quicker. 

Gallery documentation of Promise's Room by Chris Herity
Courtesy of the artist and Silke Lindner, New York