From the moment he first put pencil to paper as an art student to his runway presentations in Paris with his eponymous brand, Sean Suen has turned his fields of work into gateways through which he explores perception, sensation, emotions. With Dionysian, it is the opposition between the endless world within and the shrunken confines of a world under lockdown that he considers, exploring a meniscus of conflicted emotions as intangible as a thought and as weighty as being human.
Throughout your work, you’ve often questioned individual perspectives, particularly in “Depth of Perception” (FW20) where you pinpoint the influence of external stimuli. How did Friedrich Nietzsche’s argument that reality is subjective, contingent to fluid perspectives and interests, turn into a gaze locked inwards?
I knew of this book and its concepts when I was in college, and recently I came to read it. Nietzsche took an aesthetic perspective of the painful nature of human being and the vertex of the art form, and pondered upon life and the world.
There was an outbreak when I returned to Beijing after January’s menswear session in Paris, and the city was in lockdown. From that moment until March, I was almost in a “vacuum” state with no communication with the outside world. It started off an external influence and gradually became a choice, due to the overwhelming negative news, rising death toll, unknowns about the virus, social distancing rules, and a tendency to make the pandemic a political rather than public health issue, etc.
There were emotional ups and downs. These cycles happened several times a day. The first outbreak in China was my first low. Then when the global outbreak turned into a pandemic, it sank me even more. Further to the epidemic, there were many cultural conflicts where people do not understand each other. So, I finally chose not to communicate.
There are many similarities between the self-state and the Dionysian spirit. That was where the journey started.
The pandemic forced us to live lives that are entirely disconnected from each other physically. Do you feel that this has forced a reconnection to the self for each person?
I’m not sure if this has caused me to reconnect with myself or find a greater rift in my body and spirit. During the pandemic I had a lot of time to think, review, and iterate over and over.
What was the result of this echoing dissonance between your inner world and the reality outside? Did this amplify or numb?
As you said, the feelings run in a cycle, around and around. For me, both the problem and result were that the inner world and reality could not be fused together. The outside numbness is very powerful and will make the sensitive inner self feel lonely. When this situation persists, it will change a person, at least as far as I’m concerned. And then the creativity part comes out.
Dionysian, my summer 2021, is an expression of my recent emotional state. To embody it through my medium of fashion, I envisioned it as a voyage through the many stages of this rollercoaster of emotions: from the deep feeling of a pain outbreak to the half-death and numbness, to madness and fanaticism. Threaded within are more and more personal emotions, the strong influence from the outside world and the subtle unlimited transformation of the inside world.
The removal/destruction of Dionysius, a symbol of life lived fully, in The Birth of Tragedy signals the loss of a connection to a greater whole. How does that relate to our contemporary lives?
The lesson that Dionysus’ death teaches is that destruction and the resulting pain are indissociable from life and the pleasures derived from existence. Understanding this is key in order to derive aesthetic feelings from the tragic nature of life. The loss of connection with the whole is actually the integration into another existence, feeling that new existence and the essential pursuit. As Nietzsche expressed, we should maintain an aesthetic attitude to life in our present life, revaluate all values, get rid of sin and self-repression, and enjoy the freedom of the soul and the joy of life. Born in the tragedy of life, reborn in destruction.
The world as we know it is at such a crossroad. Do you think society, including the industry, can be reborn from this tragic moment?
I find that our world is not as beautiful as I thought. There’s too much ego around us. The tragedy is the individual, whether it is one person or a group of people. The world will always be there; it is the human being that needs to be fixed. But this is a big topic.
Considering only myself, somehow I’m still in a pretty messy state. I continue to reflect on myself, on what’s important, shall we slow down? Shall we consume less substance in life? How do we interact and affect people around us? Many questions remain for my own self, and the answers to these questions, interconnected, will affect one another.
Throughout my work, both as a designer and artist, I have always tried to express the inner workings of the human mind and consider more spiritual matters. It’s long been an instinctive and intuitive path. The disconnect between internal and external is certain. Now the whole world is responding to this. The Internet has also aggravated the whole situation. We need to rethink, what will eventually remain?