The Work Begins When Things Converge: Shirley Tse in Conversation with Chris Kraus
The below conversation between artist Shirley Tse and author Chris Kraus was originally published as part of the exhibition catalogue for Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. Alongside the exhibition’s 2020 renewal as Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders at the M+ Pavilion, Hong Kong, we are pleased to present this reprint in English and Chinese with the permission of Shirley Tse and Chris Kraus.
Negotiated Differences: Sprawl and Turn
Chris Kraus: The principal sculpture in your exhibition, Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice at the 58th International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia, is called Negotiated Differences. It sprawls all over the room; there are piles of things that still haven’t been assembled. Unusually for you, it’s made entirely of wood, except for the pipe-like joints. Could you walk me around the piece and tell me about it?
Shirley Tse: Sure, why not?
(They walk. The sculpture is skinny and spindly and spans the 8.5 x 5 metre room. Multiple entries can be approached. Tse points to a series of lathed wooden things joined into a jaggedly horizontal arabesque line.)
Here you can see a baluster turning into a recorder turning into a prosthetic leg. There is also a doorknob turning into a Chinese gourd turning into a baseball bat. These objects are scaled differently. Some are life-size but others are larger or smaller than the real things.
Besides these recognisable forms, a lot of these spindles are free style, meaning they’re non-representational. Some of them reference exercises you’re taught when you begin turning wood, such as turning beads and coves. The installation spans levels of competency. It is a record of a learning process, and that is important to me.
In an example of what I call ‘impossible furniture’, a rolling pin and a table leg are one piece. It’s as if it comes from a wood shop where one piece of carved wood is eventually separated to be used for two different clients.
And there is a solid rendition of a waveform, the graphed shape of sound you can see on an oscilloscope. It alludes to the amateur radio antennas that will be set up for Playcourt, the courtyard installation, which we can talk about later. The venue in Venice is housed in a residential building. You can hear the sound of the TV, a washing machine, and people hanging laundry. My antenna will pick up improvised contact conversation between amateur radio users in the region.
Kraus: What made you think of bringing together all of these different things?
Tse: I call it Negotiated Differences because I wanted the negotiation to include as many differences as possible. It’s made of turned wooden spindles and 3D-printed two- to seven-way connectors that are a composite blend of wood, metal, and plastic. Almost all of the spindle forms have been turned on a lathe, except for a few parts that were carved by hand. As well as bringing together all of these different objects, I combine old and new technology. The lathe work subtracts—objects are formed by carving away from the wood—but the 3D printing adds.
When it’s fully installed, the piece will be like a rhizome spreading through different rooms. Most of the time, it stays low to the ground, but sometimes it climbs onto the wall to become a handrail. So, in a way, the piece can be seen as both functional and non-functional. Or it references something functional.
Kraus: Where does the piece begin? Where does it end? Is there a best place to view it from?
Tse: The installation is meant to adapt to the site, so there isn’t really a fixed beginning or an end. It plays with the architecture of the space it occupies. You can start anywhere. No point is inherently better than another. Different species of wood have different weights, and the connectors have different angles. I imagine them having to negotiate with each other to arrive at a balance. They’re joined in their fight against gravity.
Kraus: I see what you mean. The piece looks almost like a sea creature with all these spindles and supports—fragile and monstrous at the same time. It’s hard to know what’s holding it up.
Tse: Well, that is the plan. What’s holding it up is the negotiation itself. All of these differences are coming together, trying to find a way to stand, which they can only do through negotiation.
Kraus: You call the whole exhibition Stakeholders. What does that mean? Who are the stakeholders here?
Tse: Morphologically speaking, there are a lot of ‘stake’ and ‘holder’ forms in the exhibition! Philosophically speaking, the key concepts are negotiation, play, the non-predetermined, and empathy—in other words, the interdependence of individual entities that have agency. In human terms, this interdependence perhaps starts with individuals who realise they have a stake in something once the connection becomes clear to them.
Kraus Is that a cue stick? And that looks like a pestle. Is that a baseball bat, over there?
Tse: These are bowling pins in different sizes. I imagine them tumbling mid-air in a forced perspective way, as in a photograph.
Kraus: And the seedpods?
Tse: They’re banksia pods, from Australia.
Kraus: The openings look like little lips. And there is also a tree branch, yes?
Tse: Yes, I took it from my backyard in Los Angeles. I wanted to include a multiplicity of materials and forms. Things made out of natural wood are connected with processed wood, and abstract carvings are connected with recognisable objects. Making a list of things that have been traditionally turned on a lathe, there are architectural elements, furniture, sporting goods, domestic objects, tools, and musical instruments.
Kraus: When we talked for Artforum in 2016, you told me you’d taken up woodworking. You’d been anxious and stressed, and working the lathe was very soothing.
Tse: It is very centring—very magical too. A square thing becomes round in just seconds; it’s like throwing pots on a wheel. I was spending hours on the lathe, and wondering if it would eventually enter my work or remain as a hobby. The artist Dana Duff encouraged me to stick with the process. The day in the wood shop when I noticed all the machines cutting straight lines, while the lathe formed rounded ‘bodies’—I knew there was something there I could use.
Kraus: For years, you’d been almost entirely known for your work with plastic. You gave this brilliant talk at The Chance Event in 1996, where you described plastic’s psycho-geography. By following plastic, you said, we could learn everything about geopolitics, migration, the environment, and the movement of populations. And you made a lot of work around this, including Power Towers (2004), Shelf Life (2002), and Polymathicstyrene (2000). Still, standing alongside Negotiated Differences, I’m realising that every material has a life. You just have to look for it.
Tse: For a long time, I was intrigued by how paradoxical plastic is. It’s many things at the same time: utopian, dystopian, democratic, populist. It’s both alien and ubiquitous; it’s temporal in use and permanent in substance. I realised that plastic isn’t even a substance—it’s a formula, a code, or a syntax. Chemists were able to coax small organic molecules, mostly carbon, to form enormous chains. What makes plastic plastic is its structure and organisation. About twelve years ago, I decided to move away from using plastics themselves to explore the concept of plasticity using a combination of materials.
Kraus: But it’s not just the change in materials that makes this sculpture different. It’s something about the precarious connectedness of these things—it’s a different structure.
Tse: In my older works, I often placed different things alongside each other, to evoke multiplicity. In Polymathicstyrene, a variety of carved forms are displayed on the same horizontal plane. But now, I want the differences to not just sit side by side, but actively engage, negotiating with each other to form an integrated whole encompassing multiple planes.
Kraus: That seems totally timely. And funny, too. You’re taking an ideal that we hear over and over again as a truism, words like ‘diversity’ and ‘cooperation’, and showing how precarious it all is. It’s almost impossible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Tse: This work is open to different interpretations. As an educator, I often think about the classroom situation. I teach at an institution that prides itself on diversity. It might not be too difficult to recruit a diverse class, but it’s hard to get students to work together when they aren’t already friends. I find it increasingly hard to foster constructive dialogues, especially when those involved don’t completely agree.
Kraus: Is the long piece that looks like a spine made of plywood?
Tse: Yes. It’s a reference to Constantin Brâncuşi’s Endless Column (1918). When I was practising coves and beads on the lathe, there was a lot of repetition. I think it’s funny to include an iconic sculpture in this installation. And then there are some self-referential things. Here’s a copy of the handle of the chisel I used to carve the whole thing.
Kraus: The shape of the diamonds looks kind of classic, mid-century modern.
Tse: I looked up different designs common in woodturning.
Kraus: It’s like a Noah’s Ark of wooden objects. There’s at least one of each.
Tse: I was researching what kinds of objects were being turned on the lathe and tried to include them all. Woodturning spans different cultures and goes back to ancient times. This set over here references Moroccan architecture. And there’s an enlarged-scale abacus. Among the objects still turned on the lathe in China are abacus beads.
Kraus: What about the piece with the tiger-striped stain?
Tse: That’s palm wood in its natural colour. No wood is stained in this installation.
Kraus: The joint is broken. It’s hanging together with chicken wire.
Tse: This joint here is 3D printed with metal filament that contains PLA plastic binding. That mesh is actually the exposed layers of the 3D print. I’m teaching myself how to 3D print. Sometimes the printer throws errors at me. I thought, instead of fighting the errors, I would embrace them. This print reveals the secret of its own making. Pushing this further, I’ve begun trying to manufacture mistakes. For example, I printed this connector that looks like conjoined twins. It’s as if the machine were making a mistake.
Lift Me Up So I Can See Better and Quantum Shirley: Converge and Begin
Kraus: In all of your work you begin by exploring ideas through materials, but then the materials take on a life of their own. The last time we talked in 2016, you were making the show called Lift Me Up So I Can See Better, which was inspired by the Oscar Wilde story The Happy Prince (1888). I remember the heads with coloured glass baubles for eyes. You’d found the glass among the art materials from the estate of the artist Miriam Wosk, which she donated to CalArts students and faculty. In a sense, she’s cannibalised in that work. But what I’m curious about is: To what extent do the ideas in your work arise from the materials? Do they change one another, as the work moves along?
Tse: I rarely illustrate ideas in my works, but I don’t know if it’s right to say that I always only start with materials. I think the work begins when they converge. Lift Me Up began when I was rereading Wilde’s story with my niece and nephew. Reading it again as an adult and an artist, instead of being mesmerised by the ruby stones, I was struck by the position of sight. Only when he became a statue, high up on a column, was the Happy Prince finally able to see.
I found that narrative very moving in 2016, because it addresses income inequality. I was also looking at the anatomy of the eyeball because I was diagnosed with glaucoma. I instantly thought of Wosk’s glass baubles. She was my happy princess! I knew then I would make an exhibition addressing the different vantage points. Various stands were used to signify the ability to elevate. The glass baubles are combined with metal wire, styrofoam, turned wood, CelluClay, and other materials to make semi-figurative forms that are propped up by the stands at various heights.
Kraus: The installation begins with a personal story, in which you recall rereading Wilde’s Happy Prince when you were diagnosed with glaucoma. But it immediately connects to thinking about income inequality in 2016. The references to your own past, when they appear in the ongoing Quantum Shirley Series that you began in 2009, as well as in some of your earlier works, are very particular. And yet your personal story isn’t the point; it’s more like a place to begin. I feel very close to that as a writer. Refusing the boundaries between oneself and the world is not very American. Even though you live in America, and have lived in the United States for most of your life, I don’t really see you as an ‘American artist’.
Tse: I’ve always inhabited the interstitial, the liminal. Hong Kong, my birthplace, is neither British nor Chinese. Cantonese is the everyday language in Hong Kong, but my parents were overseas Chinese—they spoke Hakka to each other, and they spoke Cantonese with thick accents. At Chance I gave the talk ‘Postcolonial Mutation and Artificiality—Hong Kong, a case study’. I often see myself as a mutant, culturally, and my work as a mutation of already constituted concepts. I can see writers have the same conundrum about life and work. Reading your work is an experience of seeing real life and writing itself unfolding at the same time, not one after another.
Kraus: As a writer, my material always comes from ‘real life’, most often my own, but that doesn’t mean that my own life is the point of the writing. Rather, it’s a place to begin. In a sense, my work begins when experience collides with the discipline and boundaries of writing.
You invented a whole body of work to let yourself hold all these contradictions. In 2009, you called yourself 'Quantum Shirley'.
Tse: I began a series called Quantum Shirley—I didn’t call myself that! But indeed, the lecture-performance format came back with Quantum Shirley. It continues to be a generative conceptual framework for producing work that addresses the multidimensionality of experience and the negotiation of different realities. It weaves together personal story, quantum physics, the trade movement of colonial products like rubber and vanilla, and the geographical displacement of the Chinese in the last century.
I propose that there is another Shirley in a parallel world—we simply cannot observe her existence. According to quantum theory, when a card falls it falls on both sides at once. This can be explained by the ‘collapse of the wave function’, which basically means that something exists in many states but then collapses into one state when it’s observed.
Kraus: That’s profound! Your work is synthetic in a really large way.
Tse: I think initially, I steered away from using my own personal story because I was more interested in things in the world than myself. I would observe phenomena, both physical and cultural, and formulate models for seeing them differently and thinking about them. But now I challenge myself to find a way to show how my story is not just about myself, but rather an intersection of larger historical events: political, social, and economic.
I began Quantum Shirley with a personal story about my mom almost giving me up for adoption by her cousin Simone, who lived in Tahiti. But it is important to know that a series of historical events germinated the conversation between my mom and Simone.
Kraus: Quantum Shirley is like a character in a children’s book—she could be anyone, but she’s also a confluence of circumstances.
Tse: When a personal story is seen through another lens (for example, scientific, economic, or historical), a radical change in our perception of events can take place. I mean, according to the many-worlds interpretation that holds all possible futures and histories are real, the existence of another Shirley growing up in Tahiti is real. I’m intrigued by how new physics validates reality.
Playcourt: Back and Forth
Kraus: The courtyard installation Playcourt takes this even further. There’s the badminton game with the shuttlecock made from vanilla and rubber—the two colonial places in your own past now conjoined. I remember you saying a few days ago when you came back from Venice that the courtyard reminded you of the street badminton games you played as a child in Hong Kong.
Tse: That’s right. My mom was second-generation Chinese born in Malaysia. In the early 1900s, displaced by wars and famine, my mom’s family migrated to different parts of the Pacific and became part of the labour force for plantations run by imperial powers. Her family found work in rubber plantations in Malaysia, which were controlled by the British, and her cousin Simone’s family moved even farther to Tahiti to work on vanilla plantations, which were controlled by the French. Combining these two colonial products in a shuttlecock feels provocative. I played a lot of street badminton in Hong Kong with my siblings when I was a kid. It was only later I realised that it’s a colonial game that arrived via British India. We’d improvise in an empty alley, setting up trash cans to use as a net.
As I mentioned earlier, the Venice venue is housed on the ground floor of a three-storey residential building with laundry lines strung across the courtyard. I really want to draw attention to the residential nature of the space. While there’s a lot of horizontality in the sprawling indoor piece, outdoors I want to direct the viewers’ sightline up towards the sky. I thought that the courtyard is perfect for playing badminton! My plan is to set up a series of sculptures on stands to create a kind of optical net. Then, there will be sculptures resembling rackets and shuttlecocks on either side. I’m setting up a kind of surreal and poetic scenario, which is rather absurd—playing badminton over delicate sculptures. Well, no one is actually going to play badminton. It’s just a suggestion.
Thinking about the improvised trash cans and whatnot, I instantly thought of my ‘characters’ in Lift Me Up So I Can See Better (2016)—those sculptures on stands that oscillate between the functional and the non-functional, between devices and bodies, are perfect for playing badminton over. I decided to recast a few of them into Playcourt, and I will be making more head forms as well. A motorcycle helmet is a thought-form of shuttling between places, like the shuttlecocks. A radiation therapy mask is shuttling between life and death.
I also want to literally use some devices that are functional, such as a windsock and amateur radio antennas. The faint sounds of everyday people’s improvised radio contact may add to the residential soundscape of Playcourt.
Kraus: The image of playing street badminton in a courtyard is so poetic.
Tse: I think I’m shuttling like the birdie between places. And you just came back from Minnesota and Finland.
Kraus: Yeah, and I still have half a foot in New Zealand.
Tse: Right, exactly! To describe an artist by their nationality seems inadequate in the twenty-first century. We all travel, and we all work globally in a way.
Kraus: Nationality isn’t necessarily an indicator. Yet we still have identities.
Tse: ‘Identity’ is a very tricky word. I tend to resist categorisation. That’s the whole point of my practice: multiplicity of differences, heterogeneity, and movement. But on the other hand, I’m not denying the fact that our body is always already marked with social or political codes. These codes can be class, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, et cetera. Let me put it this way: I don’t like to put myself in categories, but I will call it out when identity is used by the dominant power as a way to control and suppress. Does that make sense?
Kraus: Yes. You’ve maintained ties to Hong Kong over the years, as an artist and through your family. When did you realise you’d have to leave Hong Kong? Did your determination to be an artist grow while you were still a student at Berkeley?
Tse: Yes! The exchange programme at Berkeley, and the subsequent year in New York convinced me that art was the best means of combating conformity and social conditioning, things I’d experienced as oppressive in Hong Kong. I knew I had to further my study of art, but there weren’t any MFA programmes in Hong Kong.
In fact, there wasn’t much infrastructure at all for contemporary art, in terms of venues, grants, facilities, curators, critics, and audience. When I found out the scholarship I applied for was awarded to someone who’d study economics, I was disappointed by my failure to convince them that Hong Kong needed art more than anything else. I even wrote them a letter, urging the men in power to support the underdeveloped art environment in Hong Kong. A lot has changed since then, over the years, and I’ve witnessed this change during my frequent returns. Maybe I am both a US and Hong Kong artist; maybe I’m neither a US nor Hong Kong artist. We’ve forgotten that our brand is LA!
Kraus: That’s right. I agree. Instead of American, we should really say we live in LA. My friend the photographer Reynaldo Rivera said something really interesting about the city in a recent conversation with Vaginal Davis: unlike New York or Berlin, where people arrive and eventually become New Yorkers or Berliners, LA changes its shape according to the immigrant flux, and who’s living here. It’s a city with a great deal of plasticity.
— Los Angeles, 9 January 2019
The above text has been edited for house style. All photos courtesy M+ and the artist, unless otherwise specified. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Chris Kraus is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, author, and educator. Her novels include Aliens and Anorexia, I Love Dick, Torpor and Summer of Hate.
The Chance Event: 3 Days in the Desert, took place at Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm, Nevada, between 8–11 November 1996. Billed as a ‘philosophy rave’, Chance brought together the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the cyber and gender theorist Rosanne Alluquere Stone, the poet Diane di Prima, a Butoh theatre company, a croupier school instructor, a chance theorist, a stockbroker, and many others for a marathon summit on chance, desire, existence, invention, and play. Shirley Tse was a main stage performer, speaking about the geophysical qualities of plastic. As well as lecturing, Baudrillard performed his lounge song Motel Suicide backed up by artist Mike Kelley’s chance band. Sarah Gavlak curated Hotel California, a pop-up exhibition staged in ten rooms with such artists as Sam Durant, Andrea Bowers, Liz Larner, and Luis Bauz. Five hundred people from North America and Europe attended, and Chance came to be seen as a sign of the shift of art world centrality between the East Coast and West Coast.