Sung Tieu: What is your |x|? at Emalin, London

2 October 2020 By

Sung Tieu’s exhibition What is your |x|? at Emalin is a demanding show, wrapped in layers and layers of meaning. The ‘x’ in algebra is used to define an unknown value, and similarly the exhibition is asking us to reflect on who we are in a space marked by intimacy and control.

A symbol of this demand for introspection begins when visitors are asked to take their shoes off before stepping onto white soft carpet. At the back of the room, a large mirrored wheel and eight stainless steel doors are lit by artificial light. One feels embraced, challenged to find a place of focus.

The wheel represents astrological signs and depicts the natal chart of the artist, showing the position of the planets, sun and moon under which Sung Tieu was born on the 12 July 1987 in Hai Duong, Vietman. “The Twelfth House in astrology”, explains the accompanying text, “encloses most of the planets in Tieu’s birth chart representing the realm of collective unconscious. It is the house of the inner soul, secrets, creativity and spirituality. It also represents the house of entrapment, isolation and mental illness.” The exhibition immerses the viewer within these realms with artificial and abstract space.

Holding these concepts together requires an effort of balance which is, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “like all fundamental things, something we can find, keep, lose and use”. I turn away from the wheel, trying to balance these things together, proceeding to one of the unopenable steel doors that carries the inscription, “Your quest of freedom will lead you to new shores”. It sounds like a horoscope, how does it align with mine?

Moving on to another: “when thinking about the recent traumatic events globally and in your own life, you can’t help but feel utter despair” and “you were not born into a positive person, you were made one”. I desperately want to find myself in one of these categories, which derive from Carl Gustav Jung’s eight personality types, a combination of sensing, introverted, extroverted, intuitive and thinking: which the artist transforms into Compulsion, Pleasure, Breakdown, Rule, Ego, Action, Inertia, and Green.

Jung, like the first psychoanalysts, tried to establish psychoanalysis as a science, establishing boundaries between mental health and pathologies, between personalities types and characters. Balancing these notions, the artist plays with personalities and their definitions, their shapes and determinations.

The texts are written using Goldman Sans, a font developed by the investment bank Goldman Sachs to “look, feel, express who we are”, as their website clarifies. This unforeseen detail brings to focus a further element, further complicating our visual perception and impressions. Can a font describe who you are? And what happens if we download this font? What do we give to Goldman Sachs? The link to a global firm adds a further scale to the anxiety that can be felt in this show, reaching the things we can’t control in finance capitalism.

With this typography Tieu complicates the encounter with the space, its design, and its texts even further. The stainless steel and mirrored surfaces – recurring motifs in her other exhibitions at Haus der Kunst in Munich and Nottingham Contemporary – create an experience that shifts and changes, as if poised for balance itself. All the elements in the show seem to highlight the fragility of our condition, the complexities of holding the contradictions that characterise us. A compulsive ego seeking pleasure having breakdowns and moving from actions to total inertia. The types described on the doors are the sum of our variations and contradictions.

Ilaria Puri Purini
Curator of Programmes


Emalin, Unit 4 Huntingdon Estate, Bethnal Green Rd, London E1 6JU. Open Wednesday-Saturday 11.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 7 November 2020.