Mark Soo

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It's a weekday afternoon and Mark Soo is sitting in a Davie Street coffee shop. Cups clatter, customers laugh and chat at every table, and, hey, doesn't anyone work in the West End? Apart from the baristas, that is. Apart, too, from this emerging Vancouver artist, musician, and curator whose solo exhibition, Is It Any Wonder (1600 Kelvin), runs until October 14 at Artspeak.

Amid the commotion, Soo talks about his concept-driven art-making. “It's a research-based practice,”  he says “There's a certain amount of play and a certain amount of investigation.”  He sips a glass of iced chamomile tea. “Really important to me is the idea of speculation, the idea of trying to test the limits of a particular subject.”  Soo's particular subjects range across the social, political, and scientific, from the history of flight to lost hippie ideals. His means are just as various: from CDs to posters to helium-filled balloons.

Is It Any Wonder, a photo-sculptural installation, employs large colour transparencies of an English Bay sunset backlit by the kind of sodium lights that Soo says are used to discourage injection-drug use in Oppenheimer Park. The orange lights drain all hue from everything they shine on: photos, gallery, the veins of drug addicts... The work also speaks to an array of issues, from economic disparities and social control to touristic depictions of Vancouver and notions of the sublime. “There's a weird dialectic,”  Soo says, “between looking at a sunset””the sense of euphoria, hope, nostalgia...and also this euphoric feeling one might have when shooting up.” 

Soo's résumé documents a decidedly international career. Since graduating from the Emily Carr Institute in 2001, he has participated in a dozen group shows and projects from Brisbane to New York City, with appearances in artist-run centres in Vancouver, too, including the helium balloons, which were printed with the names of curators and grouped to symbolize art-world networks.

“That piece came about after a prolonged absence from art-making,”  Soo says. “I was engaged with other things, just trying to figure out what happens after school....What's your relationship to the system of art?”  During this hiatus, he investigated electronic music, made sound works, and played in a couple of bands. “Music, for me, was a way to think about the body in a very immediate sense: how we are affected by rhythm, by structure, by beat.” 

Born in Singapore, Soo did most of his growing up in Malaysia. He wasn't aware that being an idea-based artist was a career option until he arrived at Emily Carr in 1995, ostensibly to study design. Critical thinking wasn't yet part of the picture, he says. Neither was the line of quirky humour that runs through his work, including an early audio piece that simulates neighbours playing music way too loud.

“Any project might be simple on the outside, but it may allow the viewer to think about the subject on a number of different levels,”  Soo says. “The more levels there are, the more successful the piece can be. Potentially.” 