A half-dressed drag queen takes her smoke break on the rooftop of a Hong Kong skyscraper. Her pantyhose stay on, but her thigh-high red leather boots are quickly coming off. Costume jewelry drapes across her collarbone; remnants of a full face of glittery makeup are evident around her eyes, which stare into the distant skyline with a steely glare worthy of Eartha Kitt.
The drag queen is one of the many LGBTQ subjects who populate Ka-Man Tse’s photography in her portfolio-prize winning exhibition at Aperture Foundation celebrating the artist’s first monograph, narrow distances (2018).
Focusing on the intersections of Asian, Pacific Island, and queer communities, Tse explores contested and contingent notions of home. She converts small details of exchange (for example, a one-sided hug, a stabbing glance into the mirror) into symbols of an overarching precarity — both emotionally and physically. Moments of queer intimacy are often set against Hong Kong’s intimidating urban skyline, which looms in the backdrop of Tse’s photos like a malevolent voyeur.
How many windows look onto these scenes of queer embrace? Hundreds? Thousands? Although homosexuality is legal in some East Asian countries, social norms prevent many people from publicly embracing their LGBTQ identities. The people featured in Tse’s photos likely had to weigh the costs of their own visibility against safety concerns. Perhaps this is why many of her subjects look tense, with arched shoulders and piercing gazes.
Lingering in my mind is an image that portrays a man buttoning his blouse in a tiled stairwell. Wearing a ruffled, brown skirt, he looks up at the camera with a slightly askew glance as light shines across his body, highlighting the bulging blue veins of his hands. There’s something incredibly awkward about this photo and Tse’s role in creating it. Has she simply come upon this person, half-dressed, changing into feminine clothes in broad daylight? Or, more likely, has she asked her subject to adopt this pose of contrived reveal?
Such hangups complicate my appraisal of Tse’s work, which more often than not glamorizes its LGBTQ subjects in pursuit of an idealized version of queer counterculture in Hong Kong. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like anyone else, gay people are entitled to rendering their fantasies whole — but it does impede Tse’s ability to render a clear image of her subjects and access the larger scope of their personalities and contradictions.
What I most admire about Tse’s photographs is her ability to make subjects pop out from their urban environs. Like the German photographer Andreas Gursky, she excels at rendering urban landscapes flat. She uses this technique to stage her subjects with almost theatrical finesse. Tse’s image of seven girls smoking on a Brooklyn street evinces this approach, allowing each figure to exude personality.
The vibrancy of Tse’s work illuminates possibilities for her queer subjects, but these same photos establish fantasy as a premiere space for LGBTQ people when reality may not be as welcome. Created in one of the world’s most densely populated cities, there are no strangers in Tse’s photographs, no passersby to chip away at the veneer of safety that fantasy may provide. Looking at narrow distances, one wonders what happens when the artist’s subjects rise up from repose, move out into the world, and live their own lives.