Sins & Sensibility: The Art Of Soyomyoyo
Soyomyoyo is a video and performance artist whose work uses aspects of horror, fetish, and other gruesome inspirations as a means to “embrace the shadow” within. Cell Vision correspondent Sylvea Suydam spoke to the Boston-based artist about her work past, present, and future.
All images courtesy of Soyomyoyo
I met the multimedia artist Soyoon Hia Cha, aka Soyomyoyo, in the Boston nightlife scene many years ago, first crossing paths one night during the monthly Don’t Ask Don’t Tell party at the now-defunct Great Scott. Soyo is one of those people you hear about before you meet (once, when I was in town for a show, I even had an Uber driver mention her when we were chatting about art!). Various friends of mine had modeled for her, and I was lucky enough to collaborate with her during Halloween 2019 on a grisly surgical performance in one of her torture chamber installation pieces.
On the surface, her work is dark and intense. Creepy videos loop on television sets as helpless people strapped into chairs and apparatuses watch, Clockwork Orange-style. Models writhe under piles of insects, or are covered in blood and slime. Behind the gothic veneer of the work, however, is a chill, level-headed artist who is down to earth and a bit shy. Her most recent series, Sin, is a reimagining of the famous seven vices, and she has started production on a new series focused on fairy tales, a la The Brothers Grimm. I caught up with her via Zoom.
CELL VISION: When did your journey as an artist begin?
SOYOMYOYO: I guess it began with photography in high school, taking black and white photographs of my friends, and loving the magic of the darkroom. Learning digital photography, though, led me to photo collage in college, using photographs I had taken of home and places that I traveled to. By juxtaposing and blending all these different places onto one canvas, I guess I was trying to create an imagined space out of real spaces, somewhere beautiful yet unreachable for all, just as my home in Korea was unreachable to me, living in America.
CELL VISION: You grew up in Korea?
SOYOMYOYO: I was born in Hawaii, but my parents moved back to Korea when I was 2 years old. By the end of middle school, I was predominantly in Korea, then high school was a boarding school in New Hampshire.
CELL VISION: Oh my god, I'm so sorry haha! Was it Philips Exeter?
SOYOMYOYO: I was at St. Paul's school, so we did play Philips Exeter in sports—not that I was doing sports. But yeah, my parents were very "ooh, higher education" and by then I was like, “Cool, guess I have home separation issues!” After that, I went to grad school seeking more critique and wanting to make my collages into wall-sized murals. Instead, I fell in love with welding and the movement I could capture with video, and I haven’t stopped making videos since. I now have about 40 working-ish CRT TVs in my space, a collection I started in grad school to show my video work. I’ve always loved how the CRT TV, as an object, holds so much nostalgia and just the raw grit/pixelation of the image on the screen.
CELL VISION: I get a hint of Cronenberg aesthetic to your work—Videodrome obviously, but also the recurring insectoid and body horror themes in his films. Are you a fan, and have you seen his latest trailer?
SOYOMYOYO: Actually no I haven't seen it, but people have referenced him to me before, and while I guess as an artist I see the differences more than similarities, l do see some connection there—and, you know, his stuff is great. The Fly was so epically disgusting and twisted and just “yuck,” but if you look closely there are bubbles and rivers cascading down skin, oozing beauty. I’m at a point where I find it beautiful more than horrifying, especially seeing the hard work of the special effects makeup and the artistry that goes into it.
"Both the horror and fetish embrace the shadow, dance with it, and so do I."
CELL VISION: What drew you towards this sort of horror/fetish aesthetic you’ve cultivated?
SOYOMYOYO: To be blatantly honest, as a child and teenager I was never drawn to horror aesthetics. I was easily frightened and prone to nightmares, would cry at sleepaway camps and had a real hard time adjusting to boarding school and college. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experiencing a ward firsthand, I was able to see horror through a different lens and inadvertently started using my art as my own therapy, trying to visually convey the mania within, the shadows and demons. To this day in my video work, with many of my immersions, I encourage the models to emote in a raw and visceral way—the pain, the agony, the lethargy, the melancholia. The horror and fetish came naturally. I always say that there is beauty in the darkness, in the broken and the damaged. Both the horror and fetish embrace the shadow, dance with it, and so do I.
CELL VISION: So would you say that some of your work is autobiographical, in a way, kind of like self-portraiture?
SOYOMYOYO: Yeah kind of. I guess you could say that actually. I suppose, ever since being diagnosed bipolar and whatnot, there's been so many times I couldn't really say things out loud, like it just doesn't come out right in words but I can very much feel and envision it in my brain. So expressing through the visual and making conceptual videos where I really direct the model to move and emote the way that I want is my way of saying these things. I do impress upon the model that they should be able to reflect their own traumas or issues and relive the moment with me under the lens. It's quite therapeutic for both of us because I’m fairly uncomfortable in front of the camera these days.
CELL VISION: It’s funny because I'm also definitely a behind the lens person now, but we’ve performed together once in one of your torture chamber installations at an Area 51 rave. We tortured and vivisected a friend, and it was very exhibitionist you know, the way we were dressed in fetish wear and everything, so it's interesting to learn there's a shy side to you behind this very strong and powerful art.
SOYOMYOYO: Yeah, I get very anxious quite easily but then I don't know, like when performing with you and Zac that night, I knew you two and just going out there with makeup on, and you’re there in the night, in the performance, it just becomes kind of a mask. That was a fun night! But otherwise, I am very much a hermit these days.
CELL VISION: You recently completed a series based on the seven deadly sins, which was such a great vessel for the type of work you’re doing. Can you tell me a little about how that project came about?
SOYOMYOYO: I had a very strong Christian upbringing, and though I consider myself an Omnist, the Protestant Christian values are still at the core within me. My work on Carl Jung’s theory on shadows led me to think of the deadly sins, which to me seemed like humankind’s shadows, and still felt relevant to this day. I did a lot of research into each sin, wanting to really show something raw, yet to still show the beauty of the sin. My early video work involved doing what I call “body immersions,” where friends laid in tubs for me in the fetal position, and I would immerse them in materials like dirt and water, or milk, and I wanted to continue this idea of using the human form with specific materials for each sin. For wrath, I had the model pound his fists and face into clay. For lust, couples smothered each other in liquid chocolate. For greed, the model smeared herself in gold and glitter. For sloth, I covered the model in dirt, flora, and mushrooms. For envy, I asked a couple to paint all the parts that they were envious of each other in white, and by the end, they were covered in white. For gluttony, I asked the model to devour eight or nine cakes—but just to pretend! Not actually try and eat them all. Lastly, for pride, I had seven humans trying to climb each other to get to the top covered in glue and lube. All together, this piece stands as a seven-channel video installation and took me a year to complete. I still haven’t shown the full piece anywhere. I admit, when it comes to showing my work, I shy away, but maybe I’m just waiting for the right space. Oh, to project my nude bodies in a church!
CELL VISION: A church seems so obvious as the perfect exhibition space! You haven’t actively looked for any churches or similar sacred places to desecrate?
SOYOMYOYO: It's an idea that's becoming more realistic. Right now it’s still an incomplete art proposal, and I just haven't had the courage to put it out anywhere for some reason. I've had my work shown in video and film festivals, and art exhibitions, but I never really made that big move for myself. The idea is becoming more real though, and I have more of an inclination to get it out there this year.
CELL VISION: What are you working on now?
SOYOMYOYO: This year my new project is a fucked up fairy tales series. I was inspired by, and am doing in memory of, my good friend Alyssa Woodcock, who tragically passed away this past December, and who loved her fairy tales.
CELL VISION: I’m sorry to hear that.
SOYOMYOYO: It’s a way to try and work through that grief. It’s definitely been therapeutic to concoct and craft items for the videos and then shoot the fairy tales my way, amplifying the horrifying twists often left out in the retelling of these tales. Currently, I’m fixated on Grimms’ tales and their Disney translations, but I have future plans to get into Hans Christian Andersen, as well as some old Korean folktales.
CELL VISION: What have you done so far?
SOYOMYOYO: Snow White, using the heart of a pig, a dagger, and apples, and Rapunzel, with a bathtub full of hair weaves and a homemade prosthetic to put thorns in her prince’s eyes.
CELL VISION: I'm really excited to hear about this new series, it seems like such a great follow-up to the sins, this ‘twisted old tales’ type of thing. It sounds sick and gross to be honest, with real hearts and everything. I know in the past you’ve used dead octopuses and blood and tarantulas and rats.
SOYOMYOYO: Ha, yeah it can get pretty gross. I love the story about that tarantula shoot because the model, Zac again, had a great fear of spiders and I suggested to him “How about we have a shoot with spiders?”
CELL VISION: Of course you did.
SOYOMYOYO: He was absolutely terrified by the idea but went through with it. I really love creature work, especially bugs and slimy things. I’ll save worms I see on the pavement. I love working with the slime, the blood, it’s just what intrigues me so much about the horror that I can run with, the Cronnebergian insect grossness.
"I love working with the slime, the blood, it’s just what intrigues me so much about the horror that I can run with, the Cronnebergian insect grossness."
CELL VISION: You also create a lot of really sick installation pieces using TVs and medical apparatuses. The first time I saw your work, it was someone strapped into a chair with chainsaws and blades connected to tubes running into a wall of TVs. Have you been continuing this line of installation art?
SOYOMYOYO: Well I’ve been doing a lot of metal fabrication and helping other artists with metal and wood fabrications for local Burning Man type events, and have been a part of The Reliquarium outside of Providence pretty much since their inception, starting as their videographer. Learning welding in school allowed me to help with their metal fabrication needs, but I also paint, stain, sand, and upholster their custom wood pieces. We used to produce a lot of intricate music festival stages, and still do, but fabrications have expanded to include interior/exterior design work as well as fabricating all elements you would see in an escape room/game room.
CELL VISION: That’s funny, in my last interview he also mentioned working with escape rooms. Everyone’s doing escape rooms! Are yours along the same lines as what you've been doing in your installation pieces, or are they tamer and more family-friendly? I imagine you would make something like in Saw haha.
SOYOMYOYO: The escape rooms were definitely more of a corporate job. For example, the group of designers at The Reliquarium were given 25 rooms to fill out, and so we created a pirate ship room, an under-the-sea room, and that kind of stuff. I was given a room to design myself which turned into the alien spaceship room
CELL VISION: It’s perfect.
SOYOMYOYO: Haha yes, it struck a chord with me! I was able to buy a bunch of vents and pipes and make my “pipe dream” come true.
CELL VISION: “Pipe dream,” good one.
SOYOMYOYO: But yes, I'd love to get some more space in my garage and add to my gurney and torture chair work though. I haven’t welded much lately, I’ve been very lazy about it.
CELL VISION: Due to the nature of your work, you’ve had to deal with shadowbanning on social media. How has that impacted you?
SOYOMYOYO: I honestly have given up figuring it out but I’m not there for the likes and popularity contest. My inspiration and creations come in waves. I emote and use my art as my therapy, and once in a while end up helping someone else too. Instagram recently released an option to not display or be able to see others’ numbers of likes and I feel that has been great for my head. I don’t really enjoy how the numbers can sometimes inflate or deflate my ego or my confidence over something.
CELL VISION: Have you ever changed or altered your art to get around that?
SOYOMYOYO: Working predominantly with nude models, I tend to self-censor my work when posting online, not only because of what the platforms have stipulated but because I don’t want the nudity of the model to distract from the concept. The body is just a canvas for that concept. It’s about the immersion, the raw visceral emotion, the humanness. To the rest of you challenging the algorithm gods though, and flashing and proudly showing what you want to show I say, “More power to you! Give ‘em hell and come back enraged when they kick you off!” because girl, I have heard some stories about how many times models have been booted for their content and it’s just ridiculously unreasonable. Let us show what we want to show in the way we want to show it! I do enjoy a repellant reaction, it is a reaction after all!
CELL VISION: What other art, media, film, or literature are you consuming these days? Anyone you'd like to shout out?
SOYOMYOYO: I fall asleep to horror or sci-fi films with a mix of drama; sitcoms and horrible horrible reality shows, nothing worth mentioning.
CELL VISION: I do that too. Forensic Files is my go-to.
SOYOMYOYO: Reading-wise, I read a fairy tale from time to time and research renditions of them to think up my next video piece pertaining to the project. Art-wise, I enjoy friends’ work but do try to keep to producing work, otherwise, the comparison and existentialism that comes from just viewing art can be quite paralyzing.
CELL VISION: What are your goals as an artist?
SOYOMYOYO: To create something that can make others feel. Finding and working with others that can relate and/or enjoy darker aesthetics.
CELL VISION: What would your dream project/opportunity be?
SOYOMYOYO: Probably to have a solo show of my video work in a white-walled gallery. To be able to show my work as projections as well as on my CRTVs, to be able to show my work to a larger audience.
CELL VISION: Well, maybe if any of the readers own a church they should get in touch with you?
SOYOMYOYO: Yeah, if you have a church, call me!
You can find Soyomyoyo on Instagram, check out their website, or check out their Vimeo channel via the links below.