31 March 2020
Due to Covid-19, UKS is temporarily closed, and hence Portuguese artist Bruno Zhu’s grand solo exhibition Shhhhhhh and all its (secret) oddities are hanging out all alone at our St. Olavs gate premises. The exhibition period (initially scheduled to end on 29 March) is now extended, with the hope of opening to the public again as soon as the situation allows for it.
Finding ways of sharing thoughts on the show online, Bruno Zhu and UKS’ Live Drønen had a longer-than-usual chat—from their respective self-isolating home offices—about how to cope with the current crisis, men that are too good to be true, golden velvet walls, and farting.
Live Drønen: OK, so Covid-19 came and delivered your imperative “shhhhhhh” right back at us. First things first: How are you?
Bruno Zhu: Gosh I didn’t mean it to be like a holy mandate! I’m doing OK, but I’m unable to ration my snacks to last for more than two days straight. A very first-world complaint.
LD: Same. Which snacks go first?
BZ: I’m relying a lot on my all-time favorite—nuts and dried fruits—which is making me fart a lot.
LD: On the subject of farting, I remember you telling us, during the install of your show, about your band that has something to do with just that. Is that right?
BZ: The Unplugged! Yes, we are jamming through these times of self-isolation to keep our spirits up. The Unplugged came to me in 2018, during a long period of flatulence, so long that I started recording myself in the toilet, hoping to catch a little fecal splash on mic. Things have pivoted since, and together with my friend Gianmaria we are developing sounds that can speak to a wish for extreme release. Genre-wise, we are a covers band.
LD: Let’s talk about your UKS exhibition! A big part of it is only experienced when asking for more information from UKS staff members. Why is that?
BZ: I felt an impulse to draw a game to map my anxiety regarding representation. I’ve grown bored of seeing images and subjects being stabilized in artistic production, and by that I mean how categorical things have become in an era of supposed fluidity and inter-“add word.” I wanted to get out of that, knowing how impossible that desire was in the first place: “Wasn’t this an exhibition after all, a solo one to say the least? Isn’t biting the hand that feeds you just a flat trick? You arrogant, pretentious, artsy artiste, Bruno, you silly.” And I think that’s how I arrived at conceiving a show as not being “on show.” I would argue that the oral experience is the actual exhibition—an invitation to talk to each other. A conversation becomes etiquette, a lens to view the world together.
LD: I like that, how you intertwine the visual, oral, and written. When it comes to the former, the golden velvet walls are very present in two of the three spaces at UKS.
BZ: Given that the exhibition is grounded in storytelling, I wanted to build a “shelter” to house these stories, especially the two objects I had chosen from the UKS archive. At this point I was full-on Alice-in-Wonderland-ing and an association to a jewelry box was made. Thoughts came to mind about keeping things safe, things that are precious. If the exhibition was to exist immaterially, I felt the setup needed to announce the grandiosity of these stories and host the intimacy that would tie the listener to the speaker. So the velvet walls are simultaneously a maxi container and a therapist’s couch.
LD: You’ve really embraced UKS in this show: digging through the archive, presenting oddities from it and making our staff’s own UKS-related stories appear. How has that process been?
BZ: The lasting memory I will have from this project will be the time spent with the team. It was an out-of-body experience to listen to the gallery sitters retelling stories that were presented as mine, then blended with theirs, during the workshops we held. I set my biography as an instrument for collective writing. Watching the process was troubling and overwhelming, but it was also deeply moving to listen to family events being retold into a larger history.
LD: [A note to the reader: There are two stories written for each day of the week that UKS is open; one connected to each of the two presented objects from the archive.] If you were to share one of the stories digitally, to accompany the exhibition documentation, which one would it be?
BZ: My uncle had a restaurant, which quickly became a vortex of debt. His grand lifestyle of hosting dinner parties at the casino didn’t help either, so he lost his home and the restaurant. He saw an opportunity to restore his social standing through my cousin. In 2014, he tricked my eldest cousin to marry, telling her he would buy her a high-end BMW if she did it. The wedding was a high-yield opportunity since it was done in a Chinese way: the money given to the newlyweds was not meant for the couple, but for her parents like a modern form of a dowry. My uncle bought the BMW in time to drive her to the aisle with it. After the ceremony, he decided to keep it.
LD: In the middle of all the velvet, stories, and gossip, hangs a male figure that you’ve instructed us to ignore. (It’s not that easy to do.) Why should we, and why is he (as the title says) too good to be true?
BZ: Ah hmm oh well, haven’t you ever met an annoying man? He’s overbearing, patronizing, commanding, or just mysterious. He takes up space. Someone who you can’t really ignore because something about him makes you give two seconds of your patience. You go along because you’re attracted to him to some degree. This is not sexual. He is a colleague that just has the extra flair, the more successful peer, the guy poised to be on a listicle about “best at something.” I think he’s too good to be true, and I want you to ignore him with me.
LD: I’ll try, though he’s on my mind even when home-officing. One last question regarding him: he was “made” between 2010 and 2020—how did you make him?
BZ: He is a composite of several garments I have developed in the last three years: trouser-gloves, hairy velvet balaclavas, and six-toed socks. While his body parts are suggested by these accessories, the body itself is a puzzle of canvas pieces serving as holders for them. For this occasion, I wanted to highlight his cockiness by making him carry a “good package.” That meant a sizeable bulge and a tight butt, which coincided with me renewing my underwear drawer last year. I had many briefs that had been worn out, some of them bought almost a decade ago. I saw them as “worn experience,” which I gifted him in order for him to show us ten years of his personality.
LD: Last but not least, do you have a favorite Covid-19 meme?
BZ: I have so many: Cardi B screaming coronavirus, going anywhere, @bennydrama7 as Lana Del Rey, the return of Chloe Sevigny, but I really don’t want to forget this woman who realized she had been washing her hands with a block of cheese.
LD: Love it. Then I’d like to hear your solace list [see the return of Chloe Sevigny]?
BZ: I bow down to Chloe, so I will reiterate her words: imagine restaurants, stay inside, stay safe and only go outdoors to exherciss, visit le doktour or enjoy some toassth. Plus: renegotiate magenta.
Image material: Bruno Zhu, Shhhhhhh at UKS. Photos by Vegard Kleven