Artist Walk: Shu Lea Cheang

Taiwanese-born artist Shu Lea Cheang has spent her 26-yearcareer pushing the envelope with interactive installations, video andInternet projects that connect digital and physical spaces andexplicitly tackle controversial issues. Sexual politics, racialtensions and AIDS often dominate her artworks, many of which veer intothe erotic.

Some of her most talked-about works include Brandon: A One-Year Narrative Project in Installments (1998-1999), an interactive online exhibition, commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, based on the life of murdered transsexual Teena Brandon; and I.K.U (2000), a sci-fi sex film that developed a cult following and has been screened everywhere from the Sundance Film Festival to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

One of Cheang’s later film attempts, Fluida digital projectcentering on sex and genetically engineered cures for AIDS—madeheadlines after it was squelched in Norway, where Cheang planned tohold “auditions” (use your imagination) in a tent during a musicfestival. She eventually turned the concept into an installation thatappeared at The Project gallery in New York.

But Cheang’s newest installation, Baby Love, at the Chelsea Art Museum,has none of the sexually-charged overtones for which the artist isknown (although she does point out, laughing, that the babies are madeof silicone). Instead, it’s a smorgasbord of cuteness.

Six huge, fleshy infants in cherry-red diapers rest inside sixequally huge, candy-colored teacups that are modeled after spinningcarnival rides. (And like carnival rides, they are meant for humanuse.)

Accompanying the ride is a “soundtrack” of love songs, uploaded byvisitors from their personal mp3 players at the museum or via the Webat http://babylove.biz.The music emanates from speakers inside the babies and changesaccording to the direction and speed of the teacup. When the cupseventually bump into each other, data transfers between the babies andthe songs are re-mixed.

Recently, I paid Cheang a visit at the museum in Chelsea, where shespoke about the complications of giving birth to such a large,mechanical project, and discussed the mass cultural anxieties thatinspired her to depart from her normally sensationalist tendencies.

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Hopping into a teacup with Cheang was a dizzying experience. Shestarted by taking looping lazy circles around the room, pointing outthree speeds and manual and automatic options. Meanwhile anunrecognizable beat thumped from inside the larger-than-life babyperched next to me.

“It’s complicated, yes?” Cheang said, as she lifted the cover offthe base of one of the teacups, revealing the motor. “Each teacup isits own driving unit, just like a car.”

But the conceptual aspects of the Baby Love installation are at least as complex as the technical ones.

The work, which was commissioned by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and has been exhibited in Paris, Taiwan and San Jose, Calif., was inspired by Ryu Murakamisfuturistic novel “Coin Locker Babies.” It is the second installment ofa three-part series from Cheang, called “The Locker Baby Project.”

Playing off the novel, Cheang imagined a fictional scenario in theyear 2030, where clone babies are spawned inside lockers in busy Tokyotrain stations. Each of the babies, created to “receive, store,transmit and negotiate human memory and emotion,” has a locker key andglowing LED numbers on its chest.

“It addresses our fear of cloning and all the big concerns aboutcreation,” Cheang said. “There are also subtle meanings about humaninteraction. You’re supposed to have a very gentle ride, but at thesame time, you are actually scratching the baby [like a DJ scratches arecord]. It’s kind of a rebellion in a way.

“The other big concern is about sharing music,” she added. “Youalways listen to your own music as you go down the street; you’re soinsulated. But the babies create sort of a community. More than 1,000songs have been uploaded. It’s going to be a great archive for the lovesongs of our century.”

But why the departure from her more subversive work?

“I have always been working with the Web and technology,” Cheangsaid. “But in a way, I really wanted to do something that would be moreaccessible. I wanted to be able to show it in regular museum spaces orpublic spaces.”

But she hasn’t turned her back on her other works, she explained. “Istill do controversial things. I just got shot down in Berlin for mysex performance. It was going to be a midnight sex show [based onscenes from Fluid] at the Post Porn Politics Symposium,but they got scared. I get invited to do things like that a lot andevery time I do, there is some kind of trouble. I don’t know why I wantto keep doing it.”

Even in Paris—which Cheang now calls home because, as she explained, “It’s easier for me to do crazy work there”—Baby Lovehas had its own controversy. Three songs deemed “pornographic” had tobe deleted from the play list before the exhibition was allowed open atthe city’s Palais de Tokyo. “I thought that was quite amazing,” Cheang said, looking more amused than annoyed.

Overall, though, she described her experiences with Baby Loveas beautiful. “School boys would come to visit the museum, and they allwould have their mp3 players, and they would just go crazy,” she said.“They would say, ‘I have songs, but I’m not sure if I have any lovesongs.’ For me, it was asking, ‘How do you define a love song?’ It wasgreat.”