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Artist Sophie Teh talks about her Objects of Desire at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

Image: 'Objects of Desire' by Sophie Teh at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Sophie Teh.

The Smallest Gallery in Soho becomes the site of a strange display of meat: artist Sophie Teh’s textile work, Objects of Desire. Teh is an artist whose work references her Malaysian Chinese background in unexpected ways, and this piece tells the story of longing, sex and consumption. Teh’s sausage-like forms hang from hooks in the window of the gallery, slowly rotating, inviting our gaze and questioning the social conditioning behind our hunger. Run Riot spoke to her about the sizzling work and the inspiration behind it.

Eli Goldstone: How does Objects of Desire engage with ideas about the fetishisation of the Asian woman’s body?
Sophie Teh:
I made Objects Of Desire because the Stop Asian Hate movement got me thinking about my identity as an Asian woman living outside Asia. In some ways the artwork is a site-specific installation. Chinatown is a short walk from the exhibition. Restaurants here customarily display food in windows, hung on hooks to advertise their freshness. One of the foods is sausage. To many Asian people, the sausage is a cheap fast food, related to sustenance. But to others, the sausage’s form, and the act of its consumption is loaded with innuendo. I play with this particular visual relationship and use it as an analogy to address the perception of the Asian female as a hyper-sexualised being to the Western gaze.

The personal story of the Asian female is largely invisible, yet physically, she is a symbol of eroticism and an object to fulfil fantasies. Much like how the hanging food in restaurant windows promises to fulfil a craving in our bellies. The work invites onlookers to re-examine cultural perceptions due to social conditioning.

Eli: So much of art is designed to be behind glass and ropes but this piece begs to be touched - is that physicality integral to the work?
That is an interesting observation! I suppose when an artwork comes in a form that relates to human proportions, appears soft and squeeze-able, the urge to touch and hold it comes naturally. I realise I am guilty of being a tease, but my intention is to provoke a desire to touch and taste my art but not allow that to happen. Objects of Desire sits behind a window, to be seen and not touched. It is human nature to want things we cannot have. I think this tension is interesting.

Eli: You have an interesting CV - tell us about your move from architecture to business and finally back to art.
I became an artist later in life although I painted from an early age. I set aside my painting when school got serious. Later on I decided to study architecture in university so I could pursue a creative career. After graduation I moved to London to live in an art and design city. I thought this would get me closer to art again but as it turned out, as time went by, I started to drift further from it. When the financial crisis hit, I went to business school after being made redundant to find a new way to support myself.  

The turning point came when I met a family friend at my grandfather’s funeral. When we spoke he told me he got into oil painting after retirement and later established himself as a self-taught artist in his 70s. The encounter gave me the push I needed to get serious about making art again. Returning to my childhood passion made me reflect on the contrasts between my life in Malaysia and outside of it. As I began to appreciate my experiences as an immigrant a few times over, I use this to inform my artistic investigation which revolves around identity and cultural perception.

Image: 'Objects of Desire' by Sophie Teh at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Sophie Teh.

Eli: Did you find your practice helpful during the pandemic? Did you think about it differently?
On the contrary, I found the lockdown during the pandemic helpful to my practice. I had the time and focus to read up on the artists I admired and formed a clearer vision about my own artistic mission. I was also productive in the studio. Perhaps this was because I work well under known limitations. It also gave me an opportunity to connect with fellow artists and for us to support one another. It has been a tough time for many people and I am grateful that I had enough to weather it. The period made me think about the sustainability of my practice going into the future and whether it could resist different challenges in my life circumstances.

Image: 'Objects of Desire' by Sophie Teh at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Sophie Teh.

Eli: Is your architecture background apparent in your work?
Yes. For example I notice the Golden Ratio in my proportions and I tend to gravitate towards certain arrangements. I've been told by others that they see architecture clearly in my work, such as the use of frames and in spatial arrangements. Architecture is part of my creative DNA. It appears in my work even though I am not conscious about it. I also do this funny thing where I intentionally go against my architectural training when I am working as a method to make new things happen in my work. The act of rejecting something is also valid evidence something exists.

Eli: You’ve moved around a fair bit - where would you describe as home?
London is my spiritual home. The city claimed its place in my heart in the first days when I came on a solo trip in May 2001. The city was beautiful. Everything made sense naturally to me and I also found inspiration in places and people everywhere. I didn't expect it to be so cold and hadn't packed any warm clothes. But there I was freezing in the rain with a joke of an umbrella and found myself thinking, "This is where I want to be". I went back home to Malaysia after the trip and started to save up and plan my permanent move to London. This feeling has stayed with me even though I currently live in Barcelona. When I come to London it feels like coming home.

Eli: Finally, since Objects of Desire references - and is physically close to - the meat hanging in Chinatown’s windows, do you have a go-to order when you’re in Chinatown?
A must is Cantonese dry-fried ho fun at Imperial China. I am a noodle addict. In general, at any restaurant, I like to order food that I could never make myself. The dish requires tossing noodles quickly in a large hot wok with flames so high it could singe one's eyebrows to get that 'breath of the wok'. Plus the skill to keep the noodles from sticking to the wok without much oil is almost an art itself. Very difficult and messy to make but the dish is the best.

Sophie Teh: 'Objects of Desire'
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4QF
November – 23 January 2022

Sophie Teh | | Instagram | Twitter

'Objects of Desire' was curated by Smallest Gallery in Soho.

About the Smallest Gallery in Soho Curators, Philip Levine and Andreia Costa:
Philip Levine
Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them. Read the Run-Riot interview with Philip Levine, here.

Andreia Costa
Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.

Image: 'Objects of Desire' by Sophie Teh at The Smallest Gallery in Soho. Photo by Philip Levine.

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