BY Simon Wu AND Andrew Durbin in Interviews | 21 DEC 23

Simon Wu Bridges the Pop Culture-Art Writing Rift

Ahead of the publication of his new book, Dancing On My Own, Simon Wu speaks about his influences and allegiances


BY Simon Wu AND Andrew Durbin in Interviews | 21 DEC 23

Andrew Durbin Earlier this year, we published your essay on the year in Asian American media. It’s partly about the film Joy Ride [2023]. You write that the film argues that your identity is not just your heritage, but your friends. The passage prompted me to think about the artistic and aesthetic allegiances that make us the writers we are, and I’m wondering about the other writers or artists you align yourself with?

Simon Wu My family and friends make most of my creative process possible. I feel like everything I do is collaborative, so friendship is a practice for me, too. Generally, I am drawn to people whose work sits awkwardly between worlds. Or people that give me new ways of working and being together: the art collectives CFGNY and Shanzhai Lyric, for example, or Ajay Kurian, who also runs New Crits, an alternative art education program. My friend Julie Chen who is a poet and pop star. David Wojnarowicz and Ken Okiishi's parodies of David Wojnarowicz. Danh Vo. I like when artists and poets write about art, and I looked at a lot of that for my own forthcoming book: Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong, Amy Sillman, Jack Whitten. I also love gushy, emotional stuff. Maggie Lee’s videos. Chen Chen’s poems. Lana del Rey’s lyrics. They teach me how to wield my emotions more powerfully.

Shanzhai Lyric, Endless Garment, 2015
Shanzhai Lyric, Endless Garment, 2015–ongoing, from 'DREPM THE WORLD'. Courtesy: the artist

AD The rise of the personal essay over the past 30 or so years has tracked the slow diminution of criticism; fewer and fewer people read it, fewer and fewer people write it. Now, in the art world, we just call it ‘art writing.’ How would you describe your work?

SW A lot of my most recent writing comes from trying to find ways to talk about encountering art in life – how a painting might return to me while watching people warm-up at Crossfit, or how something in a novel might remind me of the way the boxes are stacked in Costco. I found that I was having my most profound art experiences away from the artwork itself, at random moments, where it served as an angel or devil on my shoulder. If a personal essay is led by character development and art writing by ideas, then lately I’ve been writing personal essays where encounters and evocations of artworks are ‘plot-significant’. These encounters act as nodes in the writing that change the course of my thinking. But it’s truly an experiment. I’m just getting started. There are writers like Olivia Laing, Justin Torres, Ben Lerner who sometimes do stuff like that, but maybe mine is with the art element turned up. 

David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984
David Wojnarowicz, Fuck You Faggot Fucker, 1984. © Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy: the Estate and P.P.O.W

AD Dancing On My Own is an eclectic mix of essays on fashion, art and politics. Are there any threads that knit these pieces together?

SW I guess on paper the topics are eclectic, but in my head the connections are so obvious. To me, what connects Telfar bags, queer raves, a love of The Sims [2000-ongoing], Costco and Asian American art collectives is that they’re all about people situated at the crossroads of many rifts – generational, ethnic and artistic. Often, it's people who are the children of immigrants, or are queer, or both, but I don’t think exclusively so. In my book, I call this the ‘emotional and aesthetic landscape of class aspiration’. It was inspired by trying to understand the difference between what I want and what my mom wants. She prefers her Victoria’s Secret to a Telfar bag. Do my desires and tastes matter more than hers? What systems make that so, and how do we try – and fail – to reconcile those gaps? 

AD Your book’s title is taken from a song by Robyn, and earlier this year you reviewed Lana del Rey’s There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd [2023] for frieze. There’s a tension in pop music – between authenticity, authorship and identity – that you seem especially drawn to.

Lana Del Rey, Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, 2023
Lana Del Rey, Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, 2023, album artwork. Courtesy: Interscope / Polydor

SW Pop has a special place for me because it made me feel gay before I even knew I was gay. The first song I downloaded on my first iPod Nano was Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ [2004]. And then I think Teenage Dream [2010] by Katy Perry. Pop captures affect so well, so viscerally. I also remember recording a Britney Spears concert on tape and bringing it into elementary school for show and tell. And buying a bootleg Aaron Carter CD and ripping copies for friends. As an adult I refrained from writing about music because it felt so magical to me, but then I started doing it through a back door. For The Drift, I wrote this essay called ‘Party Politics’ [2020] – a greatly reworked version is in the book – about the countercultures that form around music, in particular techno and rave cultures. That opened a door for me, and then as I became more interested in the ineffable aspects of contemporary art, and theory started to feel less chic, it felt natural to ground the affect of an artwork in the affect of pop; it was an easy translation. 

AD You also work as a curator. Does that aspect of your practice shape your criticism?

Simon Wu, Dancing On My Own, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Harper Collins

SW My primary audience for criticism is usually the artist. I try to write as if I were in their studio, synthesizing what they’re saying and giving my feedback and advice. The other audience is me. I don’t imagine that many people read my criticism, but it has value because it allows me to channel my emotions towards something. So, it’s been increasingly interesting for me to use my curatorial work as a way of ‘writing-in-space’. Last spring, I did a show called ‘Victoriassecret’ based on an essay [it’s actually the first essay in the book, ‘A Model Childhood’, about helping my parents clean out their garage]. It opened this reciprocal relationship where I’d write out an experience with art, and then bring the art into a curatorial project under that aegis of that writing, and then have new experiences that brought me to write about it again. Sometimes, writing an essay is like working the door at a party: you’re trying to decide who to let in, and when. Curating is not dissimilar. Something happens when ideas are manifested as physical objects in a room and people can interact with them. An essay can be like architecture, or a party; inviting people in, and seeing what happens. 

AD What are you looking forward to in 2024?

SW I’m excited for my book to be out in the spring, and to talk to people about it. I want to read a tonne of fiction and get back to writing fiction. I also really want to surf. 

Main image: Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. 

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.