A Saturday Afternoon with Salome Wu

Salomé Wu is a multi-medium artist working across an incredibly broad range of processes from watercolour painting to performance art. Using her art as a way to explore her own experiences and emotions, she experiments with the notion of temporality and impermanence, something that feels particularly prominent in a present dominated by the lockdown. Employing sweeping and swaying non-linear forms, Wu brilliantly captures a sense of the semi-tangible, stirring up the viewers previously locked away memories. I spoke to her about lockdown life, her artistic processes, and how the two have combined.

I called Salomé Wu on a Saturday afternoon, interrupting a lockdown cleaning frenzy. We reflected on how the current restrictions have taken claim over even our cleaning routines as I scurried around on my laptop and iPhone, making sure the 4 different recordings I had started were all working, just to be sure I would catch everything. Aside from altered cleaning routines, Wu speaks about how lockdown life has impacted her artistic practice.

Salomé Wu, Untitled, Oil on canvas, 77x 122 cm

Wu: ‘I think, also because of lockdown you just have so much time. And for me personally, I just literally like trying to produce all the time, every day. And now I have to kind of, otherwise, it just feels quite stagnant. So it’s kind of like spicing things up a little bit by trying new things as well, and seeing what comes up.’

This involuntary free time that we all have has led Wu to try out some new techniques, experiment more with style. She says that this was not necessarily an intentional choice but rather something that emerged due to the nature of this new push to always be working. Thinking about this, I wondered what her working style was like.

Wu: ‘It is usually quite spontaneous. I’ll just wait a little bit and have a look at some of my previous writing I have. Usually, that’s how I develop work. I think I’m quite intuitive with words. I develop my work from my words. You just write a little bit and then just start doing a few sketches, and then things will just come together quite naturally.’

I was interested in this idea of her work being rooted in writing that the initial sketches then seemed to flow from. It sounded like a very solid, grounded way of working that seems surprising when considering the airy, whimsicality of the final works.

Wu: ‘I do some really quick sketches. Literally like three seconds or so. So kind of like symbolism. The sketches, they’re just kind of like starting a dialogue between them [the writings] kind of thing. So then I would start with that and then move on to a bigger scale, like oil. I’ve been using oil. Last year, I think the last six months I focused on watercolour, which is a medium that I’m quite familiar with. As soon as we got into 2021 I just got back into oil painting. It was interesting how techniques change after a period of time.’

She speaks about being in the experimental stages of using oil paint, ‘slowly getting a grip’ on it and how it can be used to convey the momentary feeling that her watercolour work does. This exploration of time passing and the subsequent idea of fragility, a changing piece of reality is something that is prominent across her work. I told Wu that looking at her paintings, I experience a sense of nostalgia. The swirling forms, the luminous colours that appear as though lit from within, the sense of fairytale magic reminding me of something from childhood. We discussed this idea of an artwork being able to convey the intangible.

Wu: ‘It’s crazy how the feedback I’ve had makes me realise how powerful an image can be. I think it’s quite important.’

Salomé Wu, Swansong Duet Oil on canvas, 70 x 124 cm

After thinking about how her work made other people feel, I wanted to know how it made Wu herself feel. I questioned whether she felt as though her work was part of herself or whether she used it as an opportunity to escape.

Wu: ‘It’s definitely a part of myself, almost like an extension of me. Like it resonates with my thoughts. I think most of the time my thoughts and experiences as a person are with my surroundings as well. I don’t know, it’s usually like the image comes into my mind and out in paint. It’s kind of weird but I think it’s definitely a reflection of me. I think in a very metaphorical way, I think.

We started to discuss the idea of fragility that Wu often discusses in relation to her work. The notion of disappearance and things succumbing to the whims of passing time. I asked Wu about her own personal relationship with this idea and whether it was something in which she found freedom or fear.

Wu: ‘I used to struggle so much with that. With that emotional reaction. Like you’ve lost something, literally anything, even an experience. I had that sense of feeling like I’m on the edge of feeling constantly like I was losing some attachment. But I think later I started to see that it’s just the nature of everything. During my uni studies, they talked a lot about impermanence and I think you can find freedom through just understanding the nature of things like in Buddhist philosophy. So I think later on there was a transition from feeling that pain and suffering to I think, just feeling free from knowing or understanding that things don't really last and that became rather a beautiful thing. I think I’ll be channelling that idea through my work. My work has become like the healing process for me as well, to kind of let go of that emotion that I felt from quite a young age.’

Salomé Wu, Oaths Oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm

I brought up the idea that maybe young people today suffer from the idea of losing time and experiences partially due to the pressures of social media and the new speed of technology that we simultaneously rely upon and yet suffer from as a consequence. I wondered whether Wu found social media as a useful tool for the contemporary artist or whether she actually considered it a bit of constant burdening presence.

Wu: ‘I mean, it definitely takes up a huge percentage of my time each day. But it becomes almost such an instinctual thing these days because I feel like, especially since lockdown, I cannot promote my work without it at all. So I do actually need it for work. But then it is that instinctual thing where I am always on it and it almost takes over a part of my consciousness even though I want to stop it! I find it really difficult. But I do think that it is a way of escape as well, from my own emotions. I can just stare at the screen and not really think about anything else.’

It is impossible to look at Wu’s paintings without noticing the abundance of blue. Maybe it was this colour choice that sent my brain sweeping back through a childhood of blue genies coming out of magic lamps, periwinkle ball gowns that appear from a veil of smoke and glitter, mermaid tales gliding through the deepest depths of a crystal clear ocean. I asked Wu how she came to use this colour so heavily.

Wu: ‘I think I just really connect to that colour. It’s funny because I only realised the other day that a while back, in 2016 or 2017 I wrote something quite funny like ‘shoot the arrow into the moon’ or something. And that was before I started doing all these oil paintings. I developed a bit of a narrative based on that colour. And I just started like that. I just really connect with it. I couldn’t imagine using any other colour. It’s quite a particular blue as well. It’s that blue that you see during the blue hour in the evening.”

I questioned whether the blue was likely to stick or whether she could feel a change coming that would emerge through another colour.

Wu: ‘I think I have to keep exploring it [the colour blue]. I don’t think I will completely detach from it. I think there may be some dialogues between other colours with blue but it's very, very central to my narrative. It’s also something...I just deeply connect to it. I can’t keep my eyes off it. When I go to an art shop to buy paint, I always get the same colour. I tell myself that I have to try something new but then I’ll get paint and realise that I already have it at home.’

Having read about Wu’s interest in music in relation to her art practice, I wanted to know how much of a hybrid she felt painting and sound was. I asked whether she felt that these things were inherently connected or viewed them as separate forms of art.

Wu: ‘I think I would like my music to be connected to my art at least the topics. I actually just finished a project, an album. I’ll be releasing it in the next two months. When I was writing that album, a lot of narratives overlapped. So my lyrics are all around me and have the same narratives that my art comes from. So I do want to keep that. I’m starting a new project with a friend of mine, we’ve been writing a bit. The style of the music is very different to what I’ve previously written but I think the lyrics will share a similar tone with the paintings. Because essentially I think all of them represent this space. I could call it a universe. I don’t like to call it a world. Definitely from the same family.’

I couldn’t help but think back to the changing working environments that we’ve all had to adapt to as a result of the pandemic but specifically how this would affect an artist. Wu spoke about how it altered her working experience.

Wu: ‘It pushed me into something different. A lot of the usual facilities are not available. Like I couldn’t use print. And so then I kind of had that time and space to work alternatively. I pushed myself more into video art and performance. Which I wouldn’t do if that lockdown hadn’t happened. I don't think I would have felt the need to do it. I would have asked other people to make a video but not seen the need to do it myself. Or perform. But I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. It really just bridges the narrative in my writing and the painting. It just connects them together and makes it very cohesive. So I think that’s something I want to explore more in the near future.’

I wondered where Wu saw herself being in ten years' time.

Wu: ‘I think it changes a lot. I used to think I would do a PhD. I was quite nerdy. I don’t think that now. I think I definitely want to perform. I could see myself performing the music that I write. And I would like to be successful with my painting and my art forms. I would like that. But we’ll see. There will be so many changes during that time my mind might change again.

I informed Wu that I was onto my final question for her and that she would swiftly be able to return to her weekend plans that I had intercepted with my bombardment of queries. I asked her if she could have created any work of art that someone else had made, what it would be.

Wu: ‘Wow, I always have a different favourite artist every week. My favourite at this moment...I recently, in the past few weeks, have been looking at this American band, Swan. I think it's like experimental punk rock, it’s hard to describe. I think something like that. But with some sort of painterly ability. Yeh, I think I would like to perform on stage for a three-hour set. I would just like to be onstage. From a really young age actually. My family would always tell me off because it’s really unrealistic.

Thank you to Salomé for taking the time to talk to me about her amazingly beautiful work and process.

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