Mark Soo
in conversation with
Linda Mai Green

Linda Mai Green – Can you describe your piece that is in the show, “Koons on Ice”?
Mark Soo – The work is a video installation based around my fascination with an existing work of art by Jeff Koons made in the ‘90s, called “Violet – Ice (Kama Sutra)”. It’s a glass sculpture from the infamous “Made in Heaven” series, and it depicts him, and his then-wife, mid-coitus. I wanted to use the sculpture as if it were a camera lens to film through.
The installation itself consists of a video monitor—displaying scenes of these views through the Koons sculpture—which is installed on a larger bronze mirrored panel that also reflects and distorts the viewers as they watch the work.
The Koons sculpture is a marvelous object. It’s an incredible expression of natural forms, and also incredible in itself technically. What I love about it is that the material, glass, is something you see through, and it has long been associated with vision. So an object that brings up transparency is crossed with exhibitionism, and the explicit, autobiographical nature of what’s represented: the artist himself having sex. It’s about seeing through, and looking at something at the same time.

LMG – You mentioned that you wanted to use the Koons sculpture as a camera lens. Could you expand on that?
MS – Yes, I was really curious and wanted to ask, what if we could look through it at other things? What would that be like? What would that feel like? What would you see? Optically, you look at the sculpture in several ways. You look both through it, and at it, but you also see what it reflects and refracts. It unites different conditions of vision, while also splitting up your sense of sight into many facets. Kind of like a prism.

LMG – Why Jeff Koons?
MS – Discussions of Koons are often encumbered by a highly determined reception. In certain circles, he’s an avatar for all anticritical things in art, but I’ve always found much more in his work that has fascinated me. For the installation I’m showing, part of what drew me further into his work was his position as a fantasy, a chimera. He’s not an artist like you or me. The kind of work he makes exists on the plane of fantasy, and you could say it represents a sort of phantasmagoria or mirage of art making and artwork. The market prices his work commands are part of this fantasy, as well as the way his personal life is in the public sphere. All these things combine to make Koons a larger-than-life figment of my imagination, as real as he may be. I didn’t have access to the real Koons object to observe, so I created my own photorealistic, virtual version through computer­-generated imagery. There is a parallel between the figure of Koons as a fantasy, as well as in my own remaking of his work using the ultimate tool of fantasy production: CG animation. The backgrounds are real however, which makes the work a composite of digital and analog, the fantastic and the real. This raises questions about what it means to think, feel, and filter these affects.
In the video itself, it’s as if you are looking through a camera’s viewfinder. You see the lens do what lenses do, which is finding focus. The depth of field changes, things become sharp or blurry, and the foreground and background shift and change. I’ve always been really interested in photography’s ability to selectively focus, because it allows for the possibility of conceptual inversions when focus is placed on things that might otherwise be ignored. This process usually underpins how we designate figure from ground, subject from object, but what I’m interested in is where these borders become indeterminate.

LMG – One particular series of Jeff Koons paintings made you reflect on figure and ground.
MS – Koons made a series of paintings that layer Ben-day dot patterns with what look like hand- painted strokes. Because of the large scale of the paintings, you slowly realize that the dots are a smaller image that has been blown up, and you visually flip-flop between the layers so you never really know what’s supposed to be figure or ground.

LMG – And what looks like photomechanical reproduction—the Ben-day dots—has actually been applied meticulously by hand, so there’s also a reversal in process.
MS – Exactly. The effect of this is that it destabilizes your sense of space by unmooring your eye from a classic sense of ground. These Koons works helped me realize that there are more complicated ways to think about space and vision rather than the binary of foreground and background. When things are constantly in motion or in tension with each other, it creates much more nuanced ways to consider the environment or context, and our place in the world.

LMG – Deciding what’s in focus is also about power. There are some very urgent political issues at stake in where we direct our attention. Do you think about politics when you’re making your work?
MS – I think representation, aesthetics and politics are interrelated fields of knowledge and they absolutely inform one another. I have a certain set of political beliefs, but art is a way to question them. That’s what art is really useful for—dispersing ideas rather than condensing them. On the other hand, the urgencies of the world require a different form of agency. They require politics, which is for me a distillation of decision-­making and power, where people are allowed to come to a consensus about what should be done. Art and politics are entwined, but also don’t necessarily share the same means.

LMG – Going back to the video in the installation, could you speak about the audio? It’s quite uncanny, because you have tight shots of the Koons sculpture set against a mundane street scene, and there seems to be ambient street noise and what sounds like a shutter clicking and a soda can opening?
MS – I thought about how to create the soundscape for a place that doesn’t exist at all. Instead of trying to make the sound realistic, I went in the opposite direction. I tried to make the score as artificial as possible. Because the piece is about fantasy and the meeting point of the real and unreal, the sound I created echoed the process of computer-generated imagery chasing after the properties of its physical source. You hear a shutter clicking or a can opening, but these objects are never visually represented, and there is this discordance between basic sensations: what you see and what you hear. The sounds I used are also quite symbolically loaded, and they bring a whole host of associations as well.

LMG – What associations does the soda can have for you?
MS – A soda or pop can might make you think of Coca-Cola, and by extension what it represents: the world of commodity, consumption, and commercial enterprise. These things also come up with Koons’ work and his position in popular culture.
You never see an actual camera, but the shutter sound is a simulation of an analog device. You become aware of yourself in the act of vision, and in some sense you become the camera. In the last quarter of the video, the backdrop cuts entirely to black and the fantasy sort of drops out. The sound at that point is from a recording of an ice skater circling around, taking off and then landing. There are many directions and suggestions, and I hope, poetic associations between the elements.

LMG – Sound direction and computer-generated imagery—these are all very much in the domain of cinema and creating an illusionistic film world. What role does cinema play in your practice and also—what role do you think fantasy plays in people’s lives?
MS – Fantasy, which I consider a type of abstraction, has always had an essential relationship to the real. It can be a potential space beyond social constraints. Paul Chan articulated the stakes well when he said, “the power to create from empirical reality an essential composition outside the laws of what constitutes the real, has always been the emblem of a kind of freedom.” In other words, imagining another kind of world than only the one we inhabit is often necessary to being free.
Cinema contains a very different kind of fantasy though, often a wholly industrialized one that I don’t trust. However, what’s crucial is that the power of images works in both directions.

LMG – In one of your works I’ve seen what looks like photograms of used condoms, and here we have your treatment of a very sexualized Koons sculpture. What does it mean to look at the world through a sexualized lens? Does sexuality play into your practice?
MS – It wasn’t so much sex or sexuality I was thinking of, but the motif of sex in conjunction with other things. What is it to think about vision as an act of penetration, of possession? The camera as a kind of appendage with which you probe and push and extend, and what it means to focus and defocus, telescoping in and out. I’m definitely late to the game in thinking about vision and sex, but it’s still useful to consider as a metaphor for many different things: power, pleasure, the union or mediation of two or more kinds of things.