The artist and WOAW Gallery founder discuss Sun Woo’s first Hong Kong solo exhibition, “You Have a New Memory”, on display through 4 August.

Notifications are a funny thing. The average user is estimated to receive around 63 each day, from their morning alarm to texts from friends, serotonin hits by way of Instagram “likes”, and the prospect of yet another dating app match that will exchange a few brief messages about weather, work and the weekend before both parties tacitly agree to never communicate again. I’ve got a Cantonese language-learning app that occasionally pops in to tell me I’m “doing great”. Not in any academic sense, mind you — we’re both aware it hasn’t been opened in months — but who doesn’t appreciate a gentle nudge of pre-programmed encouragement from the void?

One notification, however, cuts me to the core. A presumably well-intentioned feature designed to remind iPhone users of a day by the beach or a weekend with friends, it materialises out of nowhere, this eldritch horror of our technoculture scored by a soundtrack of royalty-free stock jams:

“You have a new memory.”

One part Black Mirror, one part exposé of the clumsiness of the current state of artificial intelligence, jumbling dank memes and screenshots and saved images with a random selection of whatever else made the album that afternoon (my “Good Eats in Wan Chai” memory features a photo of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — don’t ask), it’s a bleak, thousand-yard stare into the uncanny valley, carved bare by the potpourri of digital debris, knowledge and yes, memories that the external hard drives in our pockets now bear the burden of recalling, day in and day out.

It’s also the theme, and the name, of South Korean and Canadian artist Sun Woo’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, on display now through 4 August at WOAW Gallery in Central. Sun Woo’s “You Have A New Memory” explores the notion of memory and what it even means in our digitised, curated, algorithm-dominated world. The result is a mix of nostalgia created by Woo’s own analog keepsakes — burned CDs (Google it, Gen-Z), hand-written love letters and physical photo albums — combined with recommendations from her smartphone and her own existing memories and experiences.

Lifestyle Asia reached out to Sun Woo and WOAW gallery owner (and new father!) Kevin Poon to get their thoughts on technology, memory and experiencing life on both sides of a pre- and post-digitised world.

How did you and Sun Woo come together on this project?

KP: Sun Woo and I came together on this project through the introduction from Mathieu at Case Studyo who is a longtime friend and collaborator of WOAW Gallery. He told me to check it out, and immediately I thought Sun was super special, and wanted to continue the conversation.

How does it feel to be presenting your first solo exhibition in Hong Kong?

SW: It feels very surreal. I’ve visited Hong Kong twice in my life, once for a family vacation and once to visit my friends there, and during neither of those trips did I expect I’d be showing my works there in the next few years. It’s also been a bizarre experience putting together a solo show while being unable to physically be there because of pandemic-related restrictions. Luckily and thankfully, everyone on board was extremely supportive, which allowed me to transfer the things in my head onto the space with much more ease. I was only able to experience the opening through images and stories, but I was really happy to see everything unfold in the end.

KP: It really feels great to be hosting Sun Woo’s first exhibition in Hong Kong. We really like showcasing things that we find interesting and not shown before in Hong Kong, and her works captivated me from the beginning. I think it’s a great fit for WOAW Gallery, which is a space to showcase emerging and contemporary artists to a wider demographic in Hong Kong and Greater South East Asia and China.

“Wino Forever”

Do you have any particular memories of Hong Kong — digital or otherwise — that stand out?

SW: What’s really interesting is that when I was gathering images from my photo album to make works for the show, I wasn’t able to find anything from my first Hong Kong trip. Then I remembered I had lost my phone right after returning home, so all the photos and texts during the months leading up to it had completely vanished. I tried digging my Instagram archive but wasn’t able to navigate past 2017. This meant that this data couldn’t be retrieved anywhere and that I had to work solely with what was left in my head. The first thing that came to me was the firework I saw from a boat, which was one of the best spectacles I’ve seen in my life next to the Fourth of July fireworks in New York. Memories of their grand scale, festivity and associated emotions all came together at one point, and that’s how the piece “Wino Forever” in the show came about.

As a Korean raised in middle America myself, I’m curious how your experiences in Canada shaped your identity and the things you remember, want to remember, or can’t forget. My own memories occasionally blur with forms of escapism I used as a kid, such as movies, books and television. Is the digital world just another way to help us compartmentalise our experience?

SW: I can relate to that because growing up, I never really felt like I fit in completely to either culture, which also made me spend a lot more time with online games, movies, books, and televisions than time with friends. Since I was simultaneously exposed to what was popular in both cultures, this hodgepodge of memories seems to have shaped me into the hybrid that I am right now. These memories are pretty faint now, since digital storage was much more limited back then, and I only have a couple of photographs to remind myself of those times. But I guess they’re still stored away somewhere in my body, since I’m still very much triggered by commodities and media that stimulate the sense of nostalgia for the 2000s, as well as accounts, images, and memes that I encounter on social media that are targeted towards consumers and users of my generation.

We all grew up in this pre-digital world. How have you noticed the way your smartphone has changed the way you remember or experience things?

KP: I think the idea of “You Have a New Memory” really resonates with us, especially those born in the ’80s and ’90s that know life pre-internet and post-internet. We are the only generation that would know that, because all people born now will only be post-internet. I definitely think technology has altered a lot of how we live and think, and most importantly, I think, is to tie everything over with love as the central theme.

SW: I used to be a huge hoarder and have an entire bookcase dedicated to self-made photo albums, shoeboxes full of hand-written letters, and CD collections of favourite pops. Today, my devices have taken over this job, and they’re doing it on a much more massive scale. No longer is memory a process of constant recollection and reconstruction, but it’s rather a file that can easily be retrieved and played back as many times as we want. Because I’ve lived through and witnessed the shift from cassette players to today’s iPhones, these new technologies made me reflect on the changes in the way we collect, store, and retrieve personal histories, especially the way that our devices are increasingly participating in our decision of what to remember and what to forget and complementing the limits of our body. What kinds of memories are fed back to us, and which ones go idle? What are these mechanical decisions and algorithms based on, and do they really reflect our emotions?

“Memory Box”

These thoughts inspired “Memory Box”, the edition sculptures I made in collaboration with Case Studyo for the show. It’s a physical container that’s been modelled after a Nike shoebox that I used to, and still use, to store objects of personal significance, aimed to disrupt the mechanisms of digital memory storage. I’ve made it to resemble human flesh so as to locate the skin as a symbolic place that carries the traces or scars of our encounters with the outer world, thinking about the relationship we have with the digital devices that have increasingly become an extension of our physical body.

Did you experience any re-discovery or surprises while going back through old texts and images to form your work?

SW: Yes, for sure. Many of the works in the show resulted from those surprises. The piece “Coldest Summer” started with an image of a mosquito coil that’s been offered to me by the Memories feature. Looking at the date of the photo, I rummaged through my boxes of letters and diaries to help me fill in missing bits of that summer, like the heat, smell and other senses associated with the event. The paper that the coil sits on is actually a love letter that I found during this research, which I received from a friend who was serving in the army at the time.

“Coldest Summer”

Is it easier to erase traumas that we can simply scroll by?

SW: I don’t think traumas, whether personal or cultural, are ever erased. They could remain vivid or grow faint, but they’re never completely forgotten. They’re essentially involuntary memories that continue to return, triggered by signs that are anchored back to a specific traumatic event. I think that’s one of the ambivalences about automated technologies, as they can sometimes bring unexpected joy, and at other times, enormous pain. It’s easier nowadays to stumble upon these triggers, since social media exposes you to the lives of so many others. In the past, you could avoid certain places or certain movies that would irritate the wound, but today, anything could be fed to you over the screen that sits in your hand. You can’t control where your friends on Instagram go and what they upload. Even if you’ve scrolled past the image, you’ve already been re-exposed to the phantom of that stressful instance. I think the same thing goes for cultural or communal traumas.

How would you describe our dependence on technology and commodities, and is it positive, negative, or something else entirely? How does it make you personally feel?

SW: As an individual who grew up in the flood of technologies and commodities and has largely been shaped by them, they’ve already become a huge part of who I am. I don’t think I can talk about my identity without talking about all the media I’ve consumed and the images, videos, and products that I’m still consuming today on a daily basis. What I personally find the most important is that we acknowledge the pros and cons and continue to talk about it whilst living inside of it.

KP: I think sometimes technology can be good, and sometimes it can be bad. Having a healthy balance and knowing when to switch off is important. I think the key to life is everything in moderation.

What do you do to disconnect?

KP: I like a lot of outdoor activities when I am disconnecting. Beach, swimming, hiking, running, dog walks; all great for the mind, body and soul. I used to do yoga — not so much lately — but would love to get back into it. Also meditation and breathing are also important.

SW: I enjoy sharing ideas with friends about the latest trends in pop culture, as well as news about new gadgets or devices in general. I find them inspiring because trends always seem to reflect something about the society as a whole or desire of the masses. I also enjoy listening to and watching classics, because they always seem to come around. These days, I’m looking a lot at pop cultural images from the 2000’s and things that arouse nostalgic desire.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Woaw Gallery, 9 Queen’s Road Central, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2965 2715

Nathan Erickson
Editor-in-Chief
Made in Seoul and based in Hong Kong, Nathan has covered food, drinks, fashion and more from New York to Paris to Oaxaca. He enjoys street photography, buying too many hooded sweatshirts and he'll never turn down a tequila soda. Catch him on weekends hiking trails all over Hong Kong in hopes of finding his idol, Chow Yun-fat.