M+ no longer supports this web browser.

M+ 不再支持此網頁瀏覽器。

M+ 不再支持此网页浏览器。

26 Apr 2019 / by Winny Leung

What Is at Stake? A Chat with Shirley Tse

A woman with long hair dressed in a yellow coat leans against large, dark glass windows. She looks at the camera with a half smile.

Sculptor Shirley Tse. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong and the artist. Photo: Dan Leung

With the 58th Venice Biennale on the horizon, Associate Editor Winny Leung speaks to artist Shirley Tse about her path to becoming an artist, how she chooses her medium, and the focus of her Biennale exhibition, Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice.

‘Not long into his career, pianist Herbie Hancock performed with jazz giant Miles Davis. In the middle of the performance, out of sheer nerves, he hit the wrong chord. Just as he was struck with worry, he heard Davis improvise with it and play a different melody. For Davis at this moment, there was no such thing as “wrong”; he just responded to and interacted with the music.’ Shirley Tse tells this story with profound excitement.

Numerous wooden parts are connected to each other in seemingly haphazard ways through 3D-printed joints. Most of the wooden parts are approximately the length and shape of a table leg, although some are longer or shorter, but with wildly varying forms.

Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019. Carved wood, 3D-printed forms in wood, metal, and plastic. Courtesy of Shirley Tse. Commissioned by M+, 2019. Photo: Joshua White

A lover of jazz, Tse has been particularly influenced by its improvisational nature, and her own creative work shares this same ‘go with the flow’ nature. Part of her Biennale exhibition, for example, is a new large-scale installation entitled Negotiated Differences, comprised of several wooden forms fitted together with 3D-printed joints. The parts are staggered in shape, some seemingly broken, revealing printed layers—the results of printing errors. ‘Sometimes the “mistakes” actually produced very interesting shapes.’

In a way, it was also ‘by mistake’ that Tse became an artist in the first place. A graduate of the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, she had originally planned to study business management for her career prospects, but her A-levels didn’t go as planned and she decided to use Fine Arts to get in and then transfer. ‘Who could have known that after studying art for a year and learning a bit about art history I would do a full 180° and just completely lose interest in business?’ She went on to continue studying art in Hong Kong, and then in the United States, eventually becoming the sculptor and representative of Hong Kong she is today.

The Impermanence of Working with Plastics

Two images side by side. The left image shows a close-up of a sculpture consisting of a green glass and cast resin rounded shape sitting on top of an aluminium stand. The right image shows a sculpture consisting of a cream-coloured, rectangular plastic sheet curved inwards sitting on the top of a metal stand that is adjustable and bent in the middle. The plastic sheet has multiple bunches of plastic chords strung through it.

Left: Green Head, 2016. Glass, cast resin, and aluminium stand. Courtesy of Shirley Tse. Photo: j.schwartz; Right: Optic Nerves, 2016. Plastic sheet and metal stand. Courtesy of Shirley Tse and Shoshana Wayne Gallery. Photo: Gene Ogami

For years now, Tse has primarily worked with plastics, but this was not the original plan. ‘In the beginning, I wanted to play around with standardisation and industrialisation more than with plastics’, she explains. As a child, she lived in Kwai Chung, Kowloon, and watching the constant flow of containers at the port led her to think about logistics, industrialisation, and global issues. Later, she realised that plastic, a modern product, is something that has permeated virtually every corner of our lives and is rich with possibilities for reinterpretation.

But all the most famous sculptures, like Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s The Thinker, are made from sturdy materials such as marble and bronze. While plastic may not biodegrade, it is extremely susceptible to ageing, becoming fragile and even falling apart. Could sculptures made of this material really be passed down for posterity? ‘Traditionally, art has attached importance to permanence, but as a contemporary sculptor and installation artist, I have my doubts about that idea. Why does a sculpture need to be eternal?’ Plastics can last for a long time, but they aren’t very durable, and this paradox has fascinated Tse.

Multiple sculptures set up in a white-walled gallery space. In the foreground, a set of grey shelves hold small rounded objects of different colours and materials, while a cluster of abstract sculptures constructed out of a variety of different materials stands opposite.

Installation view of the exhibition Lift Me Up So I Can See Better, 2016. Courtesy of Shirley Tse and Shoshana Wayne Gallery. Photo: Gene Ogami

The malleability of plastics has given Tse ample space for interpretation, while at the same time placing some limits on her identity as an artist. ‘After a while, both audiences and critics started to focus too much on the material, and I realised I needed to use other materials to bring out the plasticity behind things.’ She began to make use of various other materials, such as in the 2016 exhibition Lift Me Up So I Can See Better, which took Oscar Wilde’s 1888 story The Happy Prince as its point of departure. In this body of work, she used glass, nephrite, bamboo, brackets, and found objects, bringing out the distinctive colours of each material.

Soothing Wood and Soul-Sucking 3D Printing

Multiple sculptures set up in a white-walled gallery space. In the foreground, a set of grey shelves hold small rounded objects of different colours and materials, while a cluster of abstract sculptures constructed out of a variety of different materials stands opposite.

Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019. Carved wood, 3D-printed forms in wood, metal, and plastic. Courtesy of Shirley Tse. Commissioned by M+, 2019. Photo: Joshua White

For the Biennale, Tse has tried something completely new: wooden sculpture. For Negotiated Differences, she used a lathe to create sleek wooden components, shaped as everyday objects like balusters, baseball bats, bowling pins, and water pipes, which together form a large device that weaves through the entire indoor space.

Wood has long fascinated Tse. In fact, her early plastic creations were carved with a wood router. ‘There are different kinds and textures—wood is organic—so I knew early on that wood sculpting would take a lot of time. On top of that, woodworking is a very specialist skill; it’s not just something you can pick up overnight.’ A change of perspective that came with age drove her to reconsider wood—she laughs as she remarks that now that she’s older, she finally has the time to learn woodworking.

From Plastic to Plasticity: Multiplicities to Negotiation
From Plastic to Plasticity: Multiplicities to Negotiation

Over the past two decades, Tse has addressed the multiple meanings and possible interpretations of material things with an intricate, refined body of work.

Video Transcript

Note: This is a raw transcription of an audio recording. Part of our mission is to release transcriptions as soon as possible, to improve access to M+ talks. Therefore—while we strive for accuracy—in some places, these transcriptions may be imperfect.

DORYUN CHONG: Good Evening. I see more people piling in, which is great. My name is Doryun Chong, I'm Deputy Director for Curatorial and Chief Curator at M+. It gives me a great pleasure to open tonight's event which is the first of a series of public programmes and activities that we are organising in relation to the solo presentation by Shirley Tse representing Hong Kong at the upcoming Venice Biennale, titled ‘Shirley Tse:Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice.’ I will leave the more detailed introduction on Shirley,the curator of the exhibition who will come up next. But I'm here to, among other things, to acknowledge Hong Kong Arts Development Council, our long-time lovely partner for collaboration on this really meaningful project for the art community here in Hong Kong. Just to refresh everybody's memory, the current project is the fourth iteration where ADC and M+ are collaborating, we're co-commissioning, co-presenting and we have been given the great privilege of curating the exhibition. With each iteration, we have been really trying to think hard about how we can further and further contribute to the rapidly growing and maturing community of contemporary art practitioners here in Hong Kong. So what we did in the last edition for 2017 Venice Biennale, we introduced the scheme of inviting a guest curator so in that instance working with the artist like Samson Young, and this time, we continue that tradition but with slight modification, and selected Christina Li as the guest curator who in turn selected Shirley Tse to be the artist representing Hong Kong. It is also a sign of the growth that I was just talking about in the sense that Shirley, who's hailing from Hong Kong originally, has been a long-time resident of Los Angeles, she's well-known as not only an artist, but as a very well-respected educator, and it's really an indication that Hong Kong contemporary art is not found by the geographical boundaries, so really proud of making that contribution. So in summation, this is just the first of a number of events that we are organising in relation to the exhibition which will open to the public in Venice on May 11th running for more than six months until late November. For those of you who will have the chance to see the exhibition, as well as for those who will not have the chance to see the exhibition in Venice, you will get to see the return exhibition as we always do, and we are currently planning to present the return exhibition of the solo presentation at the M+ Pavilion in mid-2020. So this will be a long-term engagement, this will be a repeated engagement, and we are really privileged to have that with Christina as the curator and Shirley as the artist. So following the opening in May in Venice, and as I said, there will be a further series of events that will be happening roughly around the summertime. So I think that's enough of the information for introduction. So to the main part of the show, I'm going to ask Christina to come up to introduce Shirley and tonight's talk. Thank you very much.

[audience applauds]

CHRISTINA LI: Well, thank you, Doryun. And good evening, everybody. I'm so pleased to see so many of you here tonight. It's such a unique opportunity for us all here as we believe that it's really important to reintroduce Shirley's practice here in Hong Kong. It's her first homecoming event leading up to the Venice Biennale presentation in Venice in May. I'm just going to spend some time to give some biographical information and then explain a little bit the structure of the talk tonight. Well, over the past two decades, Los Angeles-based Hong Kong artist and art educator, Shirley Tse, has addressed the various meanings and possible interpretations of materials and things. Shirley's practice spans across mediums such as sculpture, installation, photography, and text. Her practice has evolved from considering plastics as the prime signifier of globalization, recirculation, standardisation, and industrialisation to examining plastic as an adjective as well, and the resonance of plasticity, movement, and ,multiplicity in contemporary society. Tse once deconstructs the world of synthetic object that carry paradoxical meanings and constructs models in which differences might come together. To visualise her originality, Shirley conflates different skills, fuses the organic with the industrial moves between the literal and the metaphorical, merges narratives and collapses to subject and object relationship. With her formative experience in Hong Kong, Shirley graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Chinese University's Fine Arts Department before moving to the U.S. and obtained Master of Fine Arts degree from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Shirley's works have been exhibited widely, internationally in Hong Kong including venues such as Pasadena Museum of California Arts, Osage Hong Kong, Para Site Hong Kong, the Sydney Biennale, MoMA PS1, New Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, et cetera. And her work is featured in many articles, catalogues, and other publications including Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, and Sculpture Today. Tse received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2009, and has been the faculty at California Institute of the Arts since 2001 where she is the Robert Fitzpatrick Chair in the Arts. So I'm going to share a little bit of practicalities before we have Shirley on stage to really tell us what she's been working with in the past few years. Tonight, the talk would be bilingual and with simultaneous translation provided. You can get a headset if you haven't had one already, and you can also test if it works to make sure everything's fine. Shirley will first give a one-hour presentation in English to be followed with a brief conversation with me where she would share some ideas on her project in Venice coming up. And if we have enough time, we will take a couple of questions from the audience in English or in Cantonese. Well, on this note, I would like to invite Shirley Tse to join. To come on stage and please give her a round of applause, please.

[audience applauds]

SHIRLEY TSE: Thank you, Christina, for the introduction and I'm so delighted to have this opportunity to share my practice with you. And I want to let you know that I'm going to talk a lot in the first few slides and to give you an outline of my thinking process and then, we're going to move to slide very quickly after that. And this is the title page. I think in the event, we only have the first two lines. And— No, no. Actually, we have the first line and the third line but there are more. There's always more to the story. So this title page describe how my work moved and shifted in the last 20 years— The last 20-plus year. And this list, indeed, can go on. For example, from abstract to figurative, from the general to the personal. But we're going to stick with this for now. The shift I'm talking about is a shift of emphasis. So all of these things, all of these eight words you see here, are present at all time. So you see— Language can be so linear sometime that it's misleading. It's as if I'm moving from point A to point B and leaving point A totally behind. No, that's not what I'm talking about. In fact, it's more like a—

It's more like a sound mixer with fader knobs. So, you know, like, the song is still there but then if you turn the knobs from up to down, then you might hear the bass more, the treble more. So the same thing here, you can see plastic, plasticity, polymer, polysemy, multiplicity, negotiation, philosophy, and economics. It's always already there, but in the last 20 years, I can shift... freely shift between the two points. So I'm using plastic as both as a noun, as an object, a material, and also an adjective from day one and to this day as well. And it's just that I shifted the emphasis from a material to a state of rotating and paradoxes. And polymer. In chemistry, plastic is referred to as synthetic polymer. There's also organic polymer as well. But plastic is referred to as synthetic polymer. And polysemy is a linguistic term that means multiple meanings. Multiplicity describes a state of differences within a certain thing. And negotiation put the emphasis in the action of each entity within such a thing. So you see that? And you see, I'm using the term negotiation in a philosophical way, and it's not limited to its normal usage in business or politics. I also use negotiation in a spatial sense as a spatial negotiation, as in body moving for space. So that is actually really important, the way that I'm using negotiation as well. And now... So that's sort of, like, the more philosophical usage of the word negotiation. Now, economics. By economics, I don't mean the managing of finances. Because money is just one form of many possible economic system. I mean, economics in the more fundamental sense. As in, economic signs. The study of formula system that describe the relations between resources within a society. The understanding of how a dynamic function, how power fluctuated within an equilibrium, how to translate between different modes, and articulation of the concept of exchange in terms that are not monitored. So that sort of lay out the main concept of the practice that I've been having in the last 20 years. And, finally, moving to the artwork.


So, you know what, plastic— Surprise! This is not plastic, it's metal. So, what's going on? I've been known to the artist who use plastic and use it exclusively for over a decade. But it really was mass production, the factory-made, standardisation that I was drawn to. And in my art, I play with the resistance to such standardisation, uniformity, but introducing differences. So this is actually a really good example to show you why I chose plastic, because of the idea of addressing standardisation and uniformity. So this is a piece that I did in 1995. And in LA, in Los Angeles, there is a store called Home Depot. It's sort of, like, the IKEA version of a hardware store. So it's a giant mega store where you can buy all sort of parts so that you can put your bathroom together, or put your kitchen together, and, you know, just like IKEA when you put a table together, maybe you'd feel a sense of accomplishment. So the same thing with Home Depot, you can get stuff and fill your own, you know, bathroom. And you might even feel, like, you... Even though you are buying the parts to get them, putting it together and following instructions, you might feel like you actually built it. So... And I thought I would buy a kit to put some brass wearing—this is made of brass—together. But I'm not going to follow an instruction. I knew that I'm going to mess it up. I'll bring in brass part from even maybe another object and sort of combine them. But in order to mess it up, I need to learn how to cut, bend and braze. It's a form of welding for brass, but it's really brazing, in order for me to change the shape of all the parts. This is what you have now. So in the end, I have under the same line, you can see these differences that is not predetermined. It's not determined by the factory or the company. II made them. And I can show you a detail. One of the parts is actually a chain, and it's kind of ridiculous to have a chain, and so it stopped to even function as a support. And that is kind of like an example of how I tried to put all the differences under the same roof, so to speak. And then we— Now up to us, a piece that is done around the same year. So you can see that even from the very beginning, I was using different material before I move on to using plastic exclusively. So in the back of Home Depot, those supersized store, there's often a world of dumpsters. In the 90s, those dumpsters were filled with packaging styrofoam. And I began my dumpster diving days by salvaging those styrofoam and used them as artwork. And those curious objects have full of paradoxes to my eyes. Because if you look at the styrofoam, they really are trash, but then they're brand new. They're so clean. And it's permanent in substance, so it does not biodegrade but temporal in use. It's ubiquitous but other otherworldly. And they are light yet strong. And they're both surface and structure at once. So willingly, me interested in all these, you know, kind of like the same materials occupying all these multiple sites at once. And this piece, what you're seeing now, is made of those found styrofoam which I painstakingly upholstered them. So, what I'm talking about, maybe I should show you some... Here's another view. They kind of stacked together, but they are... This is in details. So, what happened is I would take a block of styrofoam. I will trace all the facet of the styrofoam and transfer it into vinyl sheet, as in... This is like a beige colour vinyl sheet as those vinyl that you used as a tablecloth. And then cut them out, and you spray adhesive and put it back. So I would even cover the...

I wonder if this cursor or— Yeah. So I would even cover the negative inside the hole as well. So it's rather labour-intensive. And the reason I do that because, when I was looking at those styrofoam, I was like, this is really curious because if you look at them, you might think that all this negative shape must be, you know the negative or the positive of those electronic appliances, like, TV or computer, whatnot. But then if you study them closely, then you—

I'm going to go back to— Oh, this one. So if you study them closely, you might notice that there are spaces like this hole here. They don't really fit into anywhere for the computer or the, you know, the TV. And so I started doing some research and talked to, actually, Hewlett Packard. And I managed to find out that what happened is, you're talking about a kind of mass-produced object here. This is like— It's done in large quantities. So we have a solid corner. You don't really need a solid corner because if you hollow it, it's going to save a lot of money in terms of mass-produced things. And then for this low protrusion here, you know, you can see this— At the very back, directly underneath that protrusion, is some cavity. So it's sort of like the male and female form. And they don't really fit anywhere into the computer or your TV or whatnot either. So— So the designer told me that they're actually for the block to be linked up to each other for ease of transport. So when you think about it, you know, I'm really curious on how the final outcome of this form is a convergence of multiple reason. It doesn't come from a single source. It comes from a functional reason to— indeed, to be the negative shape or the positive of those electronic appliances.

But then there's the economic reason, and then there's the transportive reason. And at that time, I was really interested in— This is done maybe right at the time when I was about to finish graduate school. So I was really interested in subjectivity and how an artist makes aesthetic decision. And when an artist makes aesthetic decision, can they truly say that it's their own or it's come from somewhere else? So, looking at this product of industrial design, it’s kind of gave me the inspiration that I believe, I mean, for me, subjectivity is never singular. So it's always somehow a mixture of multiple things. You might think that this idea comes from you, but it might be— You know, it might be— It comes from a company, sort of something else, and then it becomes part of you. So I'm really interested in this sort of convergence of different sources.

Oh, here. So I'm interested in a paradox and the multiplicity of the styrofoam, but then I am also looking at these objects in a world where it's used for packaging, as well as other kind of plastic, like bubble wrap. And I think both styrofoam and bubble wrap is the prime signifier of the 20th century. Because when you think about the 20th century, it's essentially about movement, be it in movement of people, as in migration, and I am one of them, and also the movement of goods, as in trading. So, when you think of it, plastic is really the residue of that movement. It's the forgotten space in between, the sort of interstitial space between that.

And I started researching into the history of plastic, and I discovered that it's a portal to understanding American major industry history, military history, modern medicine, synthetic garments, as in polyester, industrial design, material science, aerospace technology, environmental pollution, waste management, petroleum trade, geopolitics, and a myriad of many things. And then it's quite curious to me that a single substance can span such heterogeneous field and form so many connections.

Plastic was an utopian substance right after the war in the 50s just like, you know, like— “Better Living Through Chemistry” was the logo for— from DuPont, for example, but within the 20 years, by the 70s, it's completely becoming a dystopian thing because of our awareness of the environmental disaster that it can create. Of course, the fact that it's non-biodegradable makes it dystopian, but to me, our consumption pattern, the single use, our culture of convenience, is by far more of the culprit than the material alone. Because when you really look at the material, And then I was trying to study the chemistry of all these different polymers, and then it dawned on me one day that plastic, so to speak, is not even a substance. It's a formula. It's really just a formula. It's a code or a syntax. Chemists were able to course more organic molecules, mostly carbon, to form enormous chain. So what makes plastic? Plastic is actually the structure of it, the syntax of it, the organisation of it, is the synthetic action that is plastic. So it's really not a thing when you really think about it. It's a code. So with no fixed identity yet and gender cite of conflict and ethical debate.

So now, depending on where you stand, you might see plastic differently. You've been looking at this image of the Kwai Chung Container Terminal for a long time now. So this image was indeed used in one of my art piece that I did in 1996, which is now known as the genre lecture performance. I presented a paper with slide images for this thing called “Chance Conference” put together by the writer Chris Kraus. Because of— name of the conference is called “Chance”, Chris thought that what was more fitting than having this conference, instead having it in an academic place, we'll have it at a casino and have Jean Baudrillard at the keynote. Because I have written a thesis on plastic as simulacra, so she thinks that I should contribute to the conference. So the next thing we know is she rented an auditorium at Whiskey Pete's Casino in Nevada in State Line, where philosopher, poet, gender theorist, Butoh dancers, stockbroker, you know, using chaos theory. Delivering the paper onstage, they were full bar at the very back. I wish that one, this one right now, but... So some adopted a philosophical wave, so my contribution was a paper titled ‘Post-colonial mutation and artificiality — Hong Kong a case study.’ So I talk about the paradox of plastic and the fact that it's kind of occupy multiple site at once. I know it's actually using Hong Kong as a case study, and that's why this slide show up. So what happened was I was on stage. I wore a wig. It was outfitted with lots of shining plastic and show images of documentation of my other performance. So here's a snippet from the essay. An incident in 1992 give us the perfect sample of the paradox of artificiality. A freak ocean storm washed a container off a freighter in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, releasing 29,000 plastic bathtub toys being shipped from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. Over the next year, thousands of blue turtles, red beavers, yellow ducks, and green frogs washed up on the Alaska coast, giving oceanographers a great deal of data on North Pacific winds and currents. The marine research community dubbed this incident, quote, “the quack heard around the world,” end quote, and used it to update their computer models of the ocean. By the way, the slide's only a simulation of the actual situation.

So this is the Santa Monica Bay, so— and I didn't leave it in the ocean. I picked them up, so don't worry, no trash. So was— The question I want to ask at this part of my paper is that “Was it a violation of natural Alaskan beauty by the efforts of our industry? Is this a boon to scientific knowledge?” Because we have new model for understanding ocean current. Or does it represent another rush order, creating much-needed jobs and overtime for Hong Kong factory workers? Because my mum has worked with these toys once. So as a piecework from the factory from Kwai Chung. So Hong Kong is make plastic by other industrialised power but then in turn bombard the West with an uncontrollable wave of plastic, washing ashore to enrich inner-city slum and minority neighborhoods, ending up as oil fillers' piles of factory excess. So now, depending on where you stand, you might see plastic differently. It's a sight of competing ideology. And after doing the performance and the image of these plastic object in nature was very striking to me. So I decided to actually make my own sculpture and put them in landscape, so this is the beginning of my photographic series where I would create sculpture made of polymer, and I would place them in physical landscape. And the thing is that I will never show these actual sculptures, so you would never know the scale of the piece.

And this is from a silicone, not exactly a dot, dot, dot. From 1998. And I'm just going to skip through them in the interest of time. And the next installation is called Polymathicstyrene , and we're now up to two— the year 2000. And polymathic styrene is a, You know, I like to mix kind of, you know, just made-it-up title. And it's the combination of the word "polystyrene," which is styrofoam, and "polymath." A polymath is someone who have encyclopedic knowledge, so sort of like a Renaissance person. And so what you see here is a new installation shot of this piece, and it's quite large. It's about 200 square and 200 linear feet. And it has about maybe 38 panels with different length. They all have the same width, weight, length, you know, in one dimension, but the other dimension is where it does vary, and they have different thickness as well.

So and here's another installation shot. So we installed at waist height, so when you come into the room, you only see one line, so you can't really see the whole piece, and that's really important to me because I want to make this sculpture in a way that you cannot be consumed by one single case. So what you must do is to use your body and move around in the space and look at all the different panel, and then you experience. So the sculpture will be a composite of your memory, so to speak. So, in a way, it's kind of cinematic, and then you will see some details going on. Here's another view of the installation. And then I don't know if you can see. This is installed in the biggest space of the gallery, where it's connected to a smaller space on the other side. And, in fact, I have the sculpture blocking the doorway that goes between the big space and the small space. So there's another door in the smaller space so that you have to go around to go to the other side. This is polystyrene, styrofoam, and it's done using a handheld router, so it's done by hand. There's no CNC machine involved. A lot of people thought it was CNC, but it's not. And it's done using just, you know, a basic working— woodworking tool router using also jigs, so I created special jigs for them. And I sort of have a mental checklist of what sort of form I want to carve, but from the beginning— but there was no blueprint from day one, how, what the form are going to be. So I just have some sort of checklist of I need to cover all— as many aesthetic as possible under one roof. So, for example, you can see some area where it's kind of abstract.

There's some more representation or is this is a landscape. And some of the landscape looks like so futuristic and other looks like ancient ruins. And here is another representational image that actually look almost like a 3D drawing, so more shallow and it's kind of referencing bubble wrap as well. And then here is a panel that I carved right after a visit to Legoland and where I was like, I was in Legoland in San Diego, and then I was kind of marveled by the way on how they use Lego blocks to create a facade of Albert Einstein. So when you— there's no mistaking that that was Albert Einstein, but then when you stand really close, it's totally abstract. And, so in a way the piece, because I didn't have a predetermined plan of what they are, so it ends up being like a visual diary as well, so it took two years, maybe more. Two years plus for me to make this piece. And then if you look at the support, some of them are baroque and some of them are very modern, and from the same panel because it's kind of a circle formation depending what are you going to move from the right or to the left, or left to right. It could be going from chaos to order or vice versa.

And then now, this is going to repeat throughout the hope, you know, my practice in the last 20 years. I always have some sort of cell referentiality to my sculptures. So that there's no mystery to the making of the works. So this panel shows you a collection of all the router bits I have at one point. So— but since then I have even more. So I need to add another panel. And what I like... what— why I choose to do this because remember the styrofoam block before, that convergence of things? So in this case, I really like the fact that I'm using my hand and a router, I mean multiple router bits, and these router bits, a manufactured product, because router bits only comes in a quarter inch or, you know, how many inch or what not. They have a certain, you know, standardized shape to make crown moldings of buildings and what not, so I really like that. This piece is done as a negotiation between my hand, a machine and some premeditated form like, you know, those checklists that I have, abstract, representation, two-dimension, three-dimension. And here's an installation shot of— This is actually installed in a different space, so. This is also— the sculptures are also flexible. It doesn't need to be on that side, so it could fit in a different room maybe a little smaller and so forth. And then here is just a shot of it from the smaller room, how it blocked the entrance and then also you see another collection of photographic images... that I'd done, it's called... ‘Diaspora? Touristy?’ And I'm going to just show the image and skip to the next work. So the next installation is called ‘Shelf Life.’ It's a commission by Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 2002.

And after that first piece, the previous piece that I was using,the view of body as a way to engage the sculpture in a kind of temporal way, the walking movement. In this piece, I want to play with the subject-object relationship again. In fact, I want to make a sculpture so big and then it's also going to block the entrance, so big that the only way for you to experience it is to be in it. So literally make the styrofoam sculpture, a sort of an island and it blocks the entrance of the gallery and then there some steps that carved onto it, so you will have to climb on top. And then you'll see, there is some depressions that is filled with vacuum form. And actually, the overall form of this— Maybe there is another installation shot later on. The overall form is actually a blown-up image from polymathic styrene. So I just take a small section from the blue piece you see, and I boil it up to the scale. So there's like a ship scale. And you're welcome to sit in there. This looks like a Jacuzzi, but it's actually— You know how you buy, like, plastic toys and they come in this sort of clear plastic clam shells. So that is an image of one of those packaging for toys. And then there is memory foam where you can walk on it, and it will retain the impressions of your foot for like a long minute before it reverts back. And here's an installation shot of the piece.

When I first was given the site, and I noticed that the ceiling up to space is covered by insulation foam. And then I was like, “Oh, my God. The piece is already halfly done.” All I need to do, you know, because in this piece, I really want to is to pack— Packaging— Oh, what I forgot to say, Polymathic styrene is not packaging consumer goods anymore. It was packaging my philosophical idea multiplicity, right? So in this case, I want to package viewers' body and movement. And, so all I need to do, if I want to sandwich them, is to build this sculpture about five feet tall and raise them up to the ceiling. So then, they will be sandwiched. And see, this is what happened. Here's another view if you were participation. And then now... And then kids really like it. And now back to the idea of the negotiation between the hand and the machine. Again, at that point, I'm really interested in subjectivity that is not purely my own and I was moving on beyond the idea of art as a mod of expression only. I want to engage with other ideas. So as you see, I was not using— I kind of give myself some rules. So when I’m not using my hand and pencil or paintbrush to make any mark. So any gesture I make need to be mediated through some manufacture item. So in this case, I was asked to make some drawing for an art fair. I was like, “Okay, I don't want to make drawings. So, what should I do?” But I can use correction tape. Do you guys know— Some of the younger ones in here, do you even know what correction tape is? You know, maybe before the time, when we used typewriter instead of computer, you know, if you make a mistake, you use, like, correction fluid. But then, they came up with— And then it's kind of messy, so they come up with this product called correction tape where you can use it over the mistake you made. And those correction tape comes in again, you know, I don't know if this is like a quarter inch or, you know, 3/8 or something. So they all have standardized sizes. So when I make this drawing of a basket, a woven basket, then I can use, you know, different sizes and, you know, when you go to the supermarket they ask you, “Paper or plastic?” Actually, this is like from something, so. But doesn't really make any difference. Both of them are equally questionable. But anyway You see this is an image done in a kind of drawing form of a woven basket, but at the same time, is literally woven with a physical material. So even though this is a drawing, it’s also a sculpture at the same time. So that is really important to the workers. So this is a series of them. You can't really see, but these kind of have and then I also used this method to make words drawing. So you need to read it really quickly because I'm not going to tell you what it is. And then next installation I want to share with you is called ‘Power Tower’ that I made in 2004. And It's made of a series of sculptures that It's based on actual power towers in our world, like, through the different periods. So I did some research. And it's made of HDPE, high-density polyethylene. And I buy them.You know, it's actually— You know that material, because in the kitchen, sometimes you have a chopping board, that white plastic chopping board. I bought them in sheet and I cut them to bars and then I put them together using screws and then you can see a detail of how. Usually, when you cover a screw, you use a wood putty, you know, as the case in wood. But in this case, because it's plastic, I use Silly Putty instead of wood putty. And then you can see that it's even oozing out of the screw holes. And they're all connected with distort plastic line through this kind of curious looking hub, I call. And then you can see this sort of egg-shape is where Silly Putty comes from. You know, they're packaging it in an egg-shape. And here is the invitation card for the show. It comes in a post card, I mailed them. And it's sort of like a didactic diagram to explain, you know, what the work is about. But, you know, because at that time, I’ve been teaching for a while now and then they kind of struck me. There's a lot of my students that are so scared to talk about their work. It's as if— If they talk about their work, it's— The artwork is going to lose its mystery and so, in a way, it’s sort of like a joke on my student. No, I'm going to tell everything about this work. But I'm still really confident and the sculpture is going to speak for itself, you know. It's like just going to add more layers to your experience and your interpretation of it. It's not going to take away the mystery of the object.

Or the phenomenological experience of the sculpture. So don't worry about it. And for this, what happened in this piece is that, after doing some major shows, I was actually feeling a fatigue. I had a burn out. And it's very common when you, as an artist, working for a while. You have all this work and, you know, one day, I totally ran out of idea. I had no idea what the hell I'm going to do next. So I feel very tired and I need energy. And the idea like, “Wait, Shirley, you need energy, you need power. Why don't you just build a power plant?” So just, you know, like language always in my head, just, like, the idea of literally turning this idea into sculpture excites me and that's it. It just happened like that. I said, “Okay, I'm just going to build some power tower. I'll build a power plant in my studio because I need energy.” But at that time, I was not sure how is it going to relate to my practice of using plastic. Because, you know, I mean, the materials HTP is plastic, but the idea of power plant? What dose it have to do with packing styrofoam and, you know, signify globalisation and whatnot? But, I went ahead because I trust my intuition. And sure enough, you know, when I start doing research on energy production and electricity transmission, I discover that the event of large scale electricity was not possible until they invented synthetic plastic or rubber as insulation, because in the early days, they use copper wire and it will lose heat after a certain distance.

It won't travel very far and also it's a fire hazard. And then, the Silly Putty was actually a by-product in a chemical experiment trying to come up with a synthetic rubber. So, it's all connected. And then, of course, when I'm doing more research, I also find out that the people who lived near power plant, you're actually more prone to depression because of your exposure to EMF, Electromagnetic Frequency. So it kind of come full circle, so I'm trying to get out my own depression by making ‘Power Tower.’ But if there were real power tower then I will get the depression again, I guess, so— And then, in the same show, sort of sister piece to ‘Power Tower,’ I have this installation called ‘Inter-mission.’ And it is an interlocking booth, about six of them, and in each booth, there is a sculpture. And the sculpture is named after a site or place that has significant to me personally. And this booth is actually the gallery that had two spaces. And I was going to put one installation in each space but decided not to use the second space, left it empty. But instead, I will put ‘Inter-mission’ into the dealer’s office. And I'm just going shove into


into the back room. Sort of, you know creating some degree of inconvenience for them. And I did that because I was really— It was around 2004, which is the year when US has a presidential election. So the idea of a polling booth was kind of curious to me, I was like, “What is a polling booth?” It's kind of like public and private at the same time. And then, because of proliferation art fair, you know, we show art in the booth. It was really strange. And then, when I think about booth, I think about the bathroom stalls. So, all this kind of public and private things come together. And then, the back room of a gallery is that sort of liminal space in between. So, you know, it's a visitor, you're not really invited to go into the back room because they do the deal there. If you're not invited, you shouldn't go there. But since the exhibition continues into the empty room, so you are invited to go. So, you know that is my way of trying of transgressing that system. And here is a view and this piece, the fan is like Chinatown. And this is called ‘Tahiti.’ And this is called ‘New York.’ This is a detail of ‘New York.’ And this is called ‘Beijing.’ Detail of ‘Beijing.’ And this is called ‘Rome.’ And it's like, this is really dating me because I'm still using the—


A DVD player.


With, you know, a DVD player with... a video running in the styrofoam beads in a way. But then, the actual video is a bunch of trash, basically. These are plastic bottles being trapped in a waterway in Rome. so it's titled ‘Rome.’ And then, we're moving on to 2005. This series— This photographic series called ‘Waiting at the Place Where America Parts from Eurasia.’ And after ‘Power Tower,’ I was always doing research on energy production. I was struck by an image of people bathing in a lagoon next to power plant. In my mind, someone who lives in city that heavily dependent on fossil fuel, I thought— I made assumption of all power plant polluting, maybe the environment. Little did I know that geothermal power exist where the image is from. So that image of people bathing in front of the power plant was actually from Iceland. So Iceland sits squarely on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is being split apart as North American plate is drifting away from the Eurasia plate. I know that I must go there and make this work because it was in 2004, shortly after George Bush was re-elected, which prolonged the aerial surveillance and justify invasion of oil-rich region.

So I thought the metaphor plate tectonic is apt. In fact, the drifting is both a metaphor and an actual event of the United States moving away from European allies, isolating itself, going alone. So, and you see there is a sculpture that make it to a foam. That, sort of, beige tone foam and it's just sitting there waiting. So we have to wait in another four years for another election. And you can see the trim of the photograph, is made of the same material. So this again, there's no mystery, to what the material is... Well, you're not allowed to touch it, at least you can see very closely what the bench is made of. So in the interest of time, I'm going to move forward this pretty quickly. And... after doing the research on power energy, I realised that plastic is a petroleum-derived substance. So its link to the oil industry and the military action can no longer be ignored by me simply because I'm using plastic. So in this exhibition, I want to focus on the use of ancient and modern militaristic objects. So I want to address the use of plastic in these things in three different ways. The first one is literal. So I will incorporate objects that plastic that's used in a submarine. And this is called ‘Sink Like a Submarine.’ And I was given some factory-rejected part for a submarine, which is what you see in this sort of square block. And the found object, and to my eyes, they look like jade. And the next thing I know I want to create, cast some ancient sword form in resin to mimic that resin that look like jade colour, but then in the middle of the sculpture, I came back to Hong Kong and I went to Canton Road. And then I have a Jade carver, carve a heart organ for me and I placed it in the middle of the sculpture. And then this is a sister piece and I'm just going skip forward and... And then the second way I used militaristic object is representational. So quite a few pieces trying to reference tank tire, and this is one of them. And then you can see the mini globe, and one of the mini globes is actually not a mini globe but a world map that sort of combo into this ball-form. And this is another more abstract rendition of a tank tire, that's, sort of, wrapped around this thing, and then this carving of a little tank in there. And I really like the way that the factory dimension come back again because when you buy fabric in a roll, they only come in 36, 56 and then 96. So this is all standardized dimension, I didn't alter them. All I do is cut and slice them in two, and then I wrap them up. And here is the third way in which I address military technology. When you think about the most recent technology it's no longer objects, it's information. Information is the newest weapon. And then the computers actually inspired by the loom, if you know, inspired Jacquard Loom that is the first programmable loom that has a punch card and here it is. And then I'm just going to quickly— I guess we're running out of time. So I want to quickly show you the series called ‘Quantum Shirley.’ And because I'm doing all the research, and reading all the story, I find that narrative to be incredibly plastic. All the stories sum up, bending, converging together, depending on who is telling the story, and to whom the so-called reality can be totally different. You have to negotiate between the different versions of the story you hear to get a grasp of what you're willing to believe. So now I'm up to the idea of how do we negotiate, of what story to believe in, what kind of reality, and the idea of quantum physics will be interesting because according to quantum physics. When a card falls, it actually falls on both sides, it's called ‘Collapse of the Wave Function.’ The fact is that because you are perceiving one side so that closes off the other side. You just have no access to the other side anymore. And in this series, I weaved together my personal story, new physics, the trade movement of colonial product as in rubber and vanilla. Which has the relations to my family history who worked in the rubber plantation and vanilla plantation in the South China Sea, and the geographical displacement of Chinese in the last century. And here's a few images. And some— Under this series is not to be taken so literally and sometimes I use the concept of translation, and in this case it's from square to globe, and so forth. And here is a performance under— a lecture performance under ‘Quantum Shirley,’ and then you see how I'm emphasising the connection between different things. And that's part of the lecture performance. And this is my most recent solo show called ‘Lift Me Up So I Can See You Better.’ And again, this is an exhibition that I have converging three or four different things together, by combining the story of Oscar Wilde's “The Happy Prince”, and also I was given a glass chunk by a deceased artist. And the fact that I've been recently diagnosed with glaucoma, so I've been studying the eyeballs a lot. And in Oscar Wilde's story, when I'm reading it as an adult again, it's no longer the ruby stone, the precious stone that caught my eye, but the idea of being high up. So the Prince didn't know what's going on in his town until he becomes a statue high up. So that once he's high up, he's able to see the mystery of his own people. So the idea of being in a highest perspective, gives you new understanding of relations with people is really important too. That was my interpretation of the work.


And so I put most of the sculpture on some form of stand, and sometimes it's, you know, C-stand, whatnot, but sometimes it's a natural stand as in bamboo. And this is called ‘Income Inequalities’, so a crumpled piece of paper being held together by genuine 24K gold chain. Because, you know, Happy Prince also address the idea of income inequality. So... And combining styrofoam and jade in this case. And this is called ‘Optic Nerves’. And it's sort of an abstract diagram of optic nerves in an eyeball.


And then, if you will remember from the first slide, so I also set up the— the so called subject-object relations go— coming back now. So— So this is spectator stand, but the sculpture is occupying the spectator stand and if you are being the spectator when you walk into the space, like, where are you going to sit? Who are you? If the sculpture is already looking at the other sculpture. And who are you? You are looking at a sculpture looking at a sculpture. So, I guess I will end here.

In the wood workshop, she noticed that the old lathes used for turning rounded pieces had been left to one side, neglected. At the time, she was studying meditation, and she found the process of turning wood on the lathe calming. As the wood chips flew, she felt a sense of comfort, and produced a large number of wooden components.

The connecting pieces, though, were made through 3D printing, straddling traditional craftsmanship and new technology. The printing process was a challenge: ‘Printing one thing took more than ten hours, and I would be there watching over it.’ Sometimes she was a laboratory scientist, writing down the printing data in her notebook with a cramping hand; other times she was a parent, cleaning out a blocked nozzle or ‘bathing’ the connector after printing. She recalls her strong feelings: ‘The machine sucks my soul. My humanity is being robbed by this machine.’ It could not have been further from the sense of comfort the lathe brought.

Eventually, she found a way to reconcile with the printer, accepting its errors calmly, as she would mistakes that she encountered in her life and work. She also deliberately kept the traces of these errors in the final work; for the viewer, they become windows onto her creative process.

Exploring Philosophical Ideas through Art

‘When I start working on a piece, all I know is the materials and the concept, and perhaps a rough image. I don’t know what the final product will be. I don’t like to decide too many things ahead of time.’ To understand Shirley Tse’s creative process is to understand how she thinks. ‘Art is a practice. I don’t want to turn out a finished product like an industrial designer. I want to think through questions via artistic practice, to hone my sense of touch, and to question presuppositions.’

Shirley Tse: An Exercise in Negotiation
Shirley Tse: An Exercise in Negotiation

Tse on how her installations Negotiated Differences and Playcourt negotiate the exhibition space, addressing the complex ways individuals relate to each other in contemporary society

Video Transcript

(Original language: Cantonese)

SHIRLEY TSE: I imagine that some individuals may feel as though they have no connection to the things around them. Through this exhibition, I want the audience to be able to see that, a lot of the time, every individual has a relationship to the whole picture and that, in this sense, everyone is a stakeholder.

The juxtaposition of very different things is the main concept [of Negotiated Differences]. In the course of this juxtaposition, those things need to go through a process of negotiation to accommodate other components with different angles and weights; to achieve stability and to counter gravity.

The negotiation is not just between different components, but also between spaces and how bodies move through spaces. When you walk in, for example, you see an arch that I’ve blocked. The audience needs to negotiate their own way through this space, and when they realise they can’t go forward, they will find another way in to continue exploring the piece.

The Hong Kong in Venice exhibition has an indoor area and an outdoor area. The installation in the indoor area sprawls horizontally throughout the space, while the outdoor installation explores verticality.

In this installation, Playcourt, you can see a variety of interactions and negotiations between different elements. Playing badminton over these delicate sculptures would actually be surreal, even absurd imagery. When I was little, I loved playing badminton in empty public spaces with my older brother and sisters. For me, playing badminton on the streets of Hong Kong is an act of reclaiming the public domain. As a resident in the city, you can make use of public spaces for all kinds of activities. In this set of objects—half equipment, half figurative sculptures—the use of an amateur radio also becomes an example of reclaiming the public domain by echoing daily conversations in the exhibition area.

For many parts of the installations, I didn’t predetermine fixed configurations. More often than not, it was during installation, through the process of negotiation, that I could finally fix their forms. The pieces will always end up coming together differently at different venues.

I hope that when the audience walks into the site, they will realise, oh! There seems to be a game here. But how do you play it? What are its rules? I want to leave room for the audiences’ imaginations.

Language, she believes, can be too one-way when exploring such questions, and lacks vitality. Sculpture and installations let viewers experience things on sensory, physical, spatial, and temporal levels, making ideas concrete and alive. For example, another piece in the Biennale exhibition, Playcourt, will be displayed in an outdoor courtyard space. Through the piece’s height and configuration, Tse aims to guide the audience’s eyes to clotheslines hanging in the air, echoing the residential atmosphere of the exhibition venue. ‘I like to think about the subjective relationship of lines of sight in philosophy. Who is seeing whom? Who is being seen?’

Tse is like a philosopher; as a university student, she was fascinated with sociology and philosophy and considered going on to study it. Christina Li, curator of Tse’s Venice exhibition, praises her way of thinking: ‘Realistic likenesses or technical skill aren’t what Shirley focuses on. She’s more interested in thinking, and she has a real grip on philosophical ideas instead of trying to force them into her works.’ Tse ruminates on ideas, going back and forth through the creation of dialectics of right and wrong, fleeting and eternal, and technological and traditional.

One central question that Shirley Tse has yet to resolve, though, is the role of the artist in society. ‘The biggest challenge for an artist is the fact we can’t escape this society dominated by economics. It’s painful, but also worthwhile—like trying to go against the grain when planing wood. It’s dangerous and you might cut your fingers, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. Such is the meaning of art.’

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Winny Leung is an Associate Editor at M+.

Stay in the know!

  • Be up to date on what’s happening at M+ and the wider West Kowloon Cultural District
  • Discover new videos and articles from the M+ Magazine
  • Choose what content you’d like to receive
  • Opt out at any time