Enter­ing the gallery space, one is imme­di­ate­ly struck by the for­est green colour of the walls and a strange mul­ti-limbed piece of wood­en fur­ni­ture in the dis­tance. The for­est green colour dom­i­nates, lend­ing a nar­ra­tive cast to the entire space – fairy­tal­ish rather than insti­tu­tion­al1 — although the play­ful allure of the dec­o­ra­tive colour is not with­out its insti­tu­tion­al side. The worlds dis­cov­ered in fairy­tales2 pre­pare chil­dren for future admin­is­tra­tive set­tings in many ways, and Fan-Ling Suen’s exhi­bi­tion The Broodcer­tain­ly hints at such a geneal­o­gy. The idea of a per­verse inter­gen­er­a­tional entan­gle­ment looms large.

Imme­di­ate­ly to the right, alone on its own wall is an elab­o­rate­ly embroi­dered mul­ti-coloured flo­ral wreath encir­cling the words: Eggs, most com­mon form of chil­dren to eat.” On the oppos­ing wall, the series Bluebeard’s Chil­dren” con­sists of three coloured-in’ draw­ings on linen, scenes from one of Perrault’s fairy­tales: three blue-beard­ed women’s heads dri­ven onto stakes which form part of a rock­ing sledge appa­ra­tus, a blue-beard­ed man’s head nes­tled on a snake-like pile (which itself rests on top of an ice­berg like struc­ture which sinks into a strange upside-down land­scape); three dozen naked chil­dren in mul­ti-coloured dunce-caps tight­ly encir­cled by a snake-like nest (rolling hills can be seen in the dis­tance).3 These draw­ings are mod­est in scale, speak­ing to domes­tic-hand­i­work-style dimen­sions, made in the lap of some­one sit­ting still in her chair. Although appear­ances are deceiv­ing, for these are not entire­ly made by hand; dig­i­tal print­ing and embroi­dery were involved in their pro­duc­tion. Here we have a domes­tic­i­ty gone awry.

At the far end of this nar­row space stands the ornate piece of fur­ni­ture. From a dis­tance its func­tion is inde­ter­mi­nate. The warm colour of the wood has heavy grain mark­ings, per­haps oak. The turned limbs and orna­men­tal detail­ing speak to an his­tor­i­cal era, prob­a­bly Vic­to­ri­an. As one advances a lit­tle clos­er, one begins to make out what appears to be a crea­ture. But what? A sense of unease sets in. With each step the thingtakes on an increas­ing­ly uncan­ny aspect, a crea­turi­ness. It isn’t until one is peer­ing over the edge of what one dis­cov­ers to be a crib, that the full thrust of fas­ci­na­tion mixed with dis­gust takes over the imagination.

Five small hairy crea­tures lie along­side a larg­er hairy crea­ture. Each mem­ber of the brood looks like an elon­gat­ed face­less bald­ing man’s head, or an egg cov­ered in flesh and hair. At one end of each crea­ture is an open­ing (a cross between an anus and a navel). The larg­er moth­er­ly’ one, which the brood hud­dles around, calls to mind a hairy pear-shaped pig with­out head or limbs. The moth­er sprouts a tail or umbil­i­cal cord which plugs into a wall sock­et. This is what gen­er­ates her heat, com­plet­ing the mean­ing of brood(from Ger­man Brut, that which is hatched by heat). The wall sock­et is also ornate, almost steam­punk in style. Vic­to­ri­an elec­tri­cal inven­tion meets 21st-cen­tu­ry exper­i­men­tal bio-lab. These blob-like crea­tures are made of real hair and sil­i­cone rub­ber, and their life-like qual­i­ty brings them not only into the are­na of the uncan­ny, but also into the sim­u­lacral spe­cial-effects indus­try. The Broodref­er­ences David Cronenberg’s 1979 film of the same title.4 Its sig­nif­i­cance seems to lie in the idea of an inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma uncon­scious­ly chan­neled from par­ent to child, result­ing in the per­verse cycle of pow­er rela­tions that sub­tends the human con­di­tion.5 It is sig­nif­i­cant that broodmeans not only a lit­ter of ani­mals, but also the idea of nurs­ing ideas/feeling in the mind(late-16thcen­tu­ry). The moth­er fig­ure in Cronenberg’s film lit­er­al­ly hatch­es new crea­tures through tap­ping into repressed trauma.

A fune­re­al urn has been carved at the height of each of the crib’s turned limbs. The com­bi­na­tion of death orna­ment6 with nativ­i­ty scene, adds to the uncan­ni­ness of the viewer’s expe­ri­ence. The six-poster crib exudes excess and lux­u­ry, and the jux­ta­po­si­tion of pri­mal and civ­i­lized ele­ments could be under­stood as direct­ed to the absurd cel­e­bra­tion of pro­cre­ation through sub­li­mat­ed cap­i­tal­ist habits.7 The crib hear­kens back to the Vic­to­ri­an ori­gins of the con­cept of mater­nal sanc­ti­ty, which fur­ther ratio­nal­ized women’s con­fine­ment to the domes­tic sphere. In turn, the moth­er cul­ti­vates a desire to pro­tect the child with­in an opu­lent cer­e­mo­ni­al precinct. The hexag­o­nal enclo­sure of the fur­ni­ture-sculp­ture, with its six sides exposed for inva­sive view­ing of the brood, speaks to a panop­ti­cal space. For­mal­ly then, the furniture’s func­tion is decid­ed­ly dis­ci­pli­nary. Six sides for six crea­tures, such that the mother’s nur­tur­ing is ful­ly exposed for all to see.

In Fan-Ling Suen’s exhi­bi­tion, pro­cre­ation takes on a dis­turb­ing aspect rather than sacred, laced with ani­mal instincts. In our biopo­lit­i­cal age each and every indi­vid­ual is bio­log­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly con­trolled from birth. Increas­ing­ly, the only polit­i­cal agency that one might feel capa­ble of is from the per­spec­tive of bod­i­ly main­te­nance (bare life). One could go so far as to say that Suen’s work con­veys a rather sober­ing mes­sage – the cycle of oppres­sion revealed in the col­lec­tive uncon­scious passed on through sto­ry­telling, but also through cul­ture in gen­er­al. This is con­firmed by pic­tures on the wall: a brood of unhap­py entrapped chil­dren, women’s decap­i­tat­ed heads, a sovereign’s head float­ing on its autonomous island, and an embroi­dery speak­ing to can­ni­bal­is­ti­cal­ly con­sum­ing one’s young.

At times I found myself puz­zling over the promi­nence of a num­ber of nar­ra­tive strands with­in the exhi­bi­tion and won­dered whether this might be com­pet­ing some­what with the mate­r­i­al and con­cep­tu­al rigour of the exhi­bi­tion itself. Suen’s strate­gic instal­la­tion draws us into a gen­dered and engen­dered world per­me­at­ed by mul­ti­ple fairy­tales and oth­er nar­ra­tive ref­er­ences that evoke a com­bi­na­tion of hor­ror, dis­gust and fascination—a world that points to the past, the reit­er­at­ed ori­gins of our present. The com­bi­na­tion of uncom­fort­able emo­tions also makes for black humour. Any view­er who dares to pick up one of the brood, is more like­ly than not to be the object of uncom­fort­able laugh­ter from any­one wit­ness to such a spec­ta­cle. The artist draws the view­er inad­ver­tent­ly into the nur­tur­ing cycle, no mat­ter how grotesque the being.


1 Insti­tu­tion­al (chrome) green might come to mind; it was used in hos­pi­tals and asy­lums because it pro­vid­ed a resis­tant coat (due to type of pig­ments used), was sup­pos­ed­ly sooth­ing to look at, and con­trast­ed the colour of blood. Thanks to Bob Brown for point­ing this pos­si­ble asso­ci­a­tion out.

2 There has been much research done on the foun­da­tion of bour­geois val­ue sys­tems found in 17thcen­tu­ry fairy­tales and fables.

3 These are based on a few dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Blue­beard, orig­i­nal­ly a French folk­tale La Barbe bleue. The fairy­tale itself leaks into the oth­er aspects of the exhi­bi­tion, espe­cial­ly with Mar­garet Atwood’s ver­sion in her short sto­ry, Bluebeard’s Egg.”

4 In Cronenberg’s film, psy­chother­a­pist Hal Raglan per­forms psy­choplas­mics” on his patients in order to release their repressed emo­tions, result­ing in phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes, such as pro­trud­ing growths on the skin, and in the case of the char­ac­ter Nola, the birth of a mur­der­ous colony of dwarf-like crea­tures. We come to learn that the birth of these crea­tures stems from the cycle of parental abuse; Nola abus­es her daugh­ter Can­dice, and we find out Nola also suf­fered at the hands of her own mother.

5 Freud’s super­ego, Lacan’s con­cept of the big oth­er and che vuoi?, and Santner’s con­cept of the creaturely.

6 It is inter­est­ing to note that orna­men­tal fea­tures in archi­tec­ture and fur­ni­ture orig­i­nate large­ly from sac­ri­fi­cial set­tings (e.g. columns were trees on which vic­tims were tied, the entab­la­ture was the alter on which the vic­tim was slain).

7 For exam­ple, the cre­ation of a sep­a­rate baby room in bour­geois homes, replete with baby-themed dec­o­ra­tion and spe­cial­ized accessories