Artist Juno Shen on the Lunar New Year & Neon Love

February 5, 2019

Double Happiness neon sculpture, 2019, from the In Your Favor series by Juno Shen

Happy Lunar New Year! As we ring in the Year of the Pig, we turn the spotlight on New York artist Juno Shen, whose latest series In Your Favor celebrates the traditional Chinese symbols of happiness, fortune and luck.

Favorite Lunar New Year traditions?

The Lunar New Year celebration lasts for 15 days, and every day you do something different. My favorite is the last day, the lantern festival. I’m from a little town in Southern China called Rugao, and on that day people eat sweet rice balls and walk the streets with lanterns to welcome spring. My grandpa was a very handy man, and every year he would make me the biggest lantern in town. It was always a rabbit with tassels on the edges, [the Chinese symbol for] Double Happiness on the body and wheels on the bottom. I would drag this giant bunny lantern around feeling like the coolest kid in town—I loved it.

What's your Chinese zodiac sign?

I am the Year of the Dog! The dog is the symbol of loyalty and honesty. People born in the Year of the Dog possess the best traits—they are honest, friendly, faithful, loyal, smart, straightforward, venerable and have a strong sense of responsibility. Who doesn’t like dogs? We’re pretty much the best. 😀

What's the backstory behind your In Your Favor series?

This collection is a celebration of the belief that fate is not something we passively accept; it's something we have control over. The Chinese believe that one can change his or her luck through the use of rituals and symbols. If your house has a corner with bad feng shui, you can put a mirror there to deflect the bad energy. If this year brings trouble for your zodiac sign, you can wear certain colors to protect yourself. If you want to improve your financial luck, put a really cool neon sign that represents good fortune in your home! These traditions may be pretty specific to the Chinese, but I wanted to remind people of the universality of the belief. On any given day, we can change our lives with the choices we make. The pieces from In Your Favor are reminders of this power that we all innately possess.

Why neon? What do you love about working in that medium?

I have always been intrigued by light, but neon was something I became interested in only after going through the process of making it. The practice of bending glass is extremely intense and requires a lot of focus and patience; the reward is the finished work. From a purely light perspective, I don’t think there is anything quite like watching electricity and gas interact under pressure. It’s such a beautiful interplay between elements that I think humans are biologically wired to love. Every time I turn a piece on, I become Harry from A Bug’s Life; I just want to stare at the tubes and get lost in the light. 

Juno Shen with a sculpture from her 2018 Spatial Light series

Make a Fortune, 2019, from In Your Favor by Juno Shen

Tell us about some of your other works…

I have a series of neon pieces that are made in a “tortured” style, which reflects the feelings I was experiencing when I went through a severe bout of seasonal affective disorder. Those pieces are also all designed to encourage human interaction. I am always trying to find ways to encourage a closer bond between my audience and light.

In that same vein, I’m a big fan of immersive experiences that transform an environment and stimulate people’s senses. Most of my work in this realm have been virtual experiences as I used to be the VR developer at 88 Rising. My subjects there were mostly rappers so I tried to put them into funny and unexpected situations that challenged them, like saving a puppy from the edge of a skyscraper. I also shrunk Action Bronson, put him into a kitchen and asked him to make us a pizza. I think he put ramen on it…

Photography is another extension of my interest in light. I produce and photograph all of my own photos. It’s a very personal medium as I get to interact with friends in a very different way than I normally would. There is a level of trust that needs to exist between a photographer and his or her subject, and that's really fun to build with people you like.

What's the common theme to your art?

Artificial light is only 150 years old, a mere blip of time in the evolution of earth and its species. Biologically speaking, humans and the plants and animals we share this earth with have not evolved fast enough to adapt to artificial light. I’m most interested in exploring this disparity and promoting a deeper understanding of the effects light has on our world.

Favorite artists/creatives ever?

James Turrell—he is such an interesting man. I love how he synthesized all his knowledge in life into these crazy experiences he calls art. He studied perceptual psychology, mathematics, geology, and astronomy and applied that knowledge to create these amazing showcases of light and human perception. You can see the breadth of his knowledge reflected in every piece of his. I love how he showcases his scientific findings in a way that people can feel without any need for explanation.

What's your top art hack?

Umm, Google is my best friend!

Flashback: A young Juno Shen with the massive Lunar New Year rabbit lantern built by her grandfather

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