Portrait

A conversation at the desk of singer-songwriter Becky Sui Zhen. By Romy Ash.

Musician Becky Sui Zhen

“This is my hand,” says musician Becky Sui Zhen. She’s holding a silicone replica.

“Your hand?” I ask.

“This is my actual hand.”

“Can I feel it?”

It’s cool to the touch. There’s a hole at the wrist where robotics can be inserted. It’s so detailed and lifelike, I could read her palm. The pointer finger has a longer nail than all the others. I can see that it’s chipped. I touch the replica nail. I look over at Sui Zhen. Her real hand: it’s the colour of flesh, it holds a mug of tea, it manipulates her mouse. All her fingernails look even today. I put the hand down in a pool of warm lamplight, at her desk.

We are in her studio. It’s set up as a band rehearsal space. There’s a nest of cords on red carpet. We are surrounded by a ring of layered keyboards. She’s about to release her new album, Losing, Linda. The follow-up to her successful Secretly Susan.

“It’s a bit creepy,” she says, scrunching her face at a bald, bodyless bust that looks as if it’s staring at us from a corner of the dark studio. It’s another version of her. She shows me a box of flat plaster faces. They’re moulds of her face. They look like a collection of mollusc shells. Then there is her mask. It’s a full silicone replica of her head and neck. It’s also the character she has created: Linda. It’s mounted on a foam core and she sits down to carefully slip it off. Without the core, the mask is floppy. It distorts and flattens in her hands. It’s horrific, and also beautiful. It was made by a special effects artist. She looks down at it. The mask has holes for eyes, voids.

“I have only worn this once. I have another performer who wears it, Megan. It’s been stretched to fit Megan’s face. The way that Megan wears it; I’ve become really used to the look of them in the mask. I got obsessed with ghosts. The mask will come alive in performances, it’s like a ghost of me.”

The mask is the culmination of years of thinking about digital selves, doppelgangers, robotics, androids, ghosts and doubling. This thinking began before Sui Zhen’s mum got sick, but once her mum was diagnosed with cancer, Sui Zhen’s making of Losing, Linda began to shift and connect with a process of grieving and loss.

“My own experience started to come into it when my mum, she was sick, and it was gradual but as she started to slip off and was quite medicated, and then it was like, where is her consciousness?” she says. Sui Zhen began thinking about what we leave behind after we die. Can a self be made from digital data and what might that self look like?

I hold the mask, run my fingers over the eyebrows. The earlobe, in between my thumb and forefinger, has the same firm but soft feeling of a flesh earlobe. We watch footage from one of her film clips. She writes, creatively directs and edits the clips herself. She appears alongside Megan in the mask, and her sister.

“Is that the mask?” I ask.

“No, that’s me,” she says.

“It’s hard to tell now, after looking at the mask.”

She laughs. “When we are together performing and we’ve all got the wigs on like this – it’s disconcerting.”

The wig kit box is the colour of dentures and inside are a selection of wigs in long plastic ziplock bags. There’s baby powder, a swimming cap. The swimming cap is to go over the regular hair, and then baby powder so the mask can slip easily over it. There are also straws. It’s impossible to drink without them when you’re wearing the mask.

“These aren’t all of my wigs. These are just this era of character. I’ve got many wigs in my shed. This is the one I wear – this is the one that goes best with the mask – this one must be the spare that my sister has worn.” Long black hair fountains over her lap.

When she was making the film clip for “Perfect Place”, one of the songs from Losing, Linda, she says, “I was calling myself Woman. Linda was the mask. Linda V1, Linda V2 was my sister. It’s become such a big part of all my visuals now, to have my sister, because I wanted to have this familial, very real copy. Sisters: you’re just copies of someone’s DNA. Making androids, you are trying to mother these other things, but our body already does that so well and effectively, mother to child. So, I’m comparing my sister to my mask version.”

She packs the wigs away and slips the mask back over its foam core and into a box. Putting everything neatly in its place. I’m left with Becky Sui Zhen. Her hair is pulled back with a chunky red headband, she’s wearing glasses, she’s speaking about a song.

“People might listen to the album and think it doesn’t sound sad, how you might think grief would sound. I don’t ever go out to try and make a sad song sound sad. It’s always the saddest songs sound happy.”

The songs do sound happy but, inexplicably, they leave me in tears.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 26, 2019 as "Behind the mask".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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