Stranger in a Strange Land
Shing Yin Khor brings an outer space apothecary to Old Earth
The antique Edison bulb flared in the rebuilt wooden gashapon as I cranked the lever. One turn, and a fortune, as divined by LA-based artist Shing Yin Khor, was dropped into my palm. I opened it carefully and uncurled the yellowed paper. “You are a forgotten protagonist,” it read, “but not for long.” “Wow, that's actually one of the more positive ones,” Khor laughed as I read it aloud, meanwhile, her scruffy little dog, Bug, paced about our feet.
We settled on two wooden crates (built by Khor herself) in the gallery space of Stranger Factory in Nob Hill to discuss the fantastical worlds that Khor creates in her work. Bug settled on my lap as I tapped the record button on my phone.
Khor was in the middle of her install process, and so we sat straddling two worlds—the one we know, and the future, outer space world that her imagination inhabits much of the time. Cabinets of curiosities filled with monsters, mysterious diagrams, obscure medicines, alien specimens and space detritus already lined a portion of the wall behind me. “People remember,” Khor said about the concept for her month-long exhibition at the space, Apothecary: An Introduction to Ritual and Tradition in the Outer Colonies of Space, “They remember Old Earth. The idea of this whole thing is humanity trying to make sense of a world that is falling apart. A lot of people are just looking to the past, and they're like, 'How did people make sense of the world centuries ago?'” Ritual, tradition, understanding—and how people access these things—interests Khor, and they emerge in Apothecary in interesting ways. Here there are new methods of divination, a trove of pseudo-science ephemera and ancient medicines bisected by a Space Age, albeit fringe, world.
“I had been building these haunted house installations out in the desert,” Khor explained of the genesis of this work, “essentially placing this little immersive universe out in the middle of nowhere. Last summer I did an installation called Last Apothecary and took it to Burning Man.” The installation was the ramshackle home of Theodore Lee, an intergalactic eccentric who set off for the messy, frontier lands of the Outer Colonies and started building a wacky collection of medicines and memorabilia in his home. Visitors entered as explorers of the abandoned site in the aftermath of Lee's death. “This,” Khor gestured to the works she has created—handcrafted monsters, alien phrenology heads, divination boards and so much more—“is a little bit of a sequel to that.”
In this particular installation, the story has progressed. Lee's daughter has left the “tightly controlled, clean lined, very lit Inner Colonies” for the Outer Colonies that “are full of space hobos and junk.” When she reaches her father's empty home, she has a series of revelations about who he was—a really interesting person, although “gullible as hell” as Khor described. She wants to take her father's trove back to the Inner Colonies to study, but she needs money along the way. “So, here we are!” Khor laughed. And so, we along the way, are privy to the apothecary's private collection. There are specimens from a lost planet called Oceanus, a compendium of space hobo codes, dental casts of humanoid species, a gazillion specimens of strange creatures, palmistry models for unfamiliar hands (like the paw of a “cat-like humanoid,” sporting nine life lines). It wasn't even fully installed, and I was already immersed in the world Khor was creating.
Khor's background is in theater (though she works in many mediums; she even recently finished a graphic novel), where she learned many of the technical skills needed to be a prop maker. She made a living in the theater world, but eventually got a more run-of-the-mill day job, which was important because then, for the first time, she started sculpting for fun. It was at that time that alien creatures began to take shape in her workshop, and, “Once you start down a certain path, you end up opening up so many other paths,” Khor explained of how the world she has created becomes continually more expansive. “I kind of got obsessed with these spaces that really absorbed you in their world,” she continued. “The idea that you can build immersive sets and allow the audience to be the actors in them … Being a story teller and a sculptor and a theater person, it was like, 'Oh my God, this is so obvious!' Why not put all these things that I do into one thing that I love?'” And so, Theodore Lee was born.
Despite this being largely Lee's story, Khor's comes through, too. “I am an immigrant, my home country is Malaysia, which has a really long history of settlement and colonialism,” she said. “I am fascinated by the sense of searching and wonderment when we didn't have science to tell us what the world was [as in early cabinets of curiosity]. In a sense, this was also incredibly destructive, because this was in the colonial era.” She points out some text near one of her cabinets, written by Lee's daughter, it reads: My father was a complicated man, I'm not sure that he was a good man. “Having grown up being surrounded by a lot of post-colonial detritus, these are things I think about a lot. They kind of sneak into my work.” Khor is quick to point out, too, more playful elements that reflect her in the work. “I'm a sort of anxious and curious person,” she described. “All the faces that I've sculpted … these are very anxious faces. None of them are ever smiling. They're like, 'I don't know what I'm doing! What am I doing here?' Which is a fairly constant theme in my life.”
Khor hopes that visitors might find themselves just as bewildered when they step into this world. “That's sort of my preferred state,” she explained. “I want everyone to come with a little bit of curiosity, a sense of adventure and a little bit of bewilderment.” And, perhaps most important, to ask themselves: Who am I in this world? Who would I be? What sort of person am I? Those answers, in this curious reflection of our own world, may be more telling than we realize.