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Shirley Tse Explores Societal Differences in a Time of Uncertainty for Hong Kong

As protests over an extradition bill rage in Hong Kong, Tse’s Stakeholders exhibition at the Venice Biennale negotiates the spaces between gender categories like female or male, or race categories like Asian or White.

Shirley Tse, Playcourt (courtesy of M+ and the artist, photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio)

VENICE, Italy — The interlinked objects in the exhibition Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice, guest curated by Christina Li and installed by Shirley Tse — the first female artist to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale — requires a keen eye and an open mind from the viewer, along with undivided attention to maneuver its entire length. If your gaze wanders off, you will be lost in the many different trajectories the sculpture offers, unsure of where your previous entry point was.

Components loosely resembling Lego blocks are composed of an assortment of everyday materials, such as a composite blend of metal, wood, and plastic in 3D-printed forms, as well as wood carvings in different shapes and sizes made by the artist over nearly two years. These form a sprawling, rhizome-like sculpture spanning two interlocking rooms in the the indoor component of the two-part Stakeholders, titled Negotiated Differences. Stakeholders also includes a complementary outdoor installation, titled Playcourt. At our interview — conducted weeks before the recent strike that briefly shut down the Hong Kong pavilion — Tse and I sat in the corner of the bare-bones exhibition space gazing at the massive sculpture before us. She explained that the components of the sculpture are held together “by tension, the negotiation of different angles, weights, lengths, and shapes of the wood without the help of glue, nail, or screws” to explore the idea of heterogeneity.

Hong Kong artist Shirley Tse (photo by Hendrik Vorster)

“I don’t want to only put different things together side by side. I want them to have action, to interlink. They actually have to work together, so to speak, to form an integrated whole,” said the artist. Mass-produced materials that reflect cultural desires as well as the economic and political realities of capitalist society have always been a key part of Tse’s work.

“In Negotiated Differences, I’m talking about different materials negotiating with each other through physics. But one can interpret this almost like a metaphor for individuals in human relationships.” she said. “When two things come together, it’s my view that you don’t really have to dissolve the differences in order to become one, as in [the case of] a solution.”

In the outdoor part of her exhibition, Playcourt, Tse continues to examine how a myriad of ubiquitous objects can come together, each having its own character. By transforming the site into a kind of badminton court, scattered with a lone badminton racket, forlorn bowling pins, and sculptures perched on tripods, which prompt viewers to look up at the laundry lines of the three-story residential building’s courtyard in Venice — the site of the installation — she recalls the objects that hold a stake in her life, and creates an ode to her childhood in Hong Kong.

Installation view of Shirley Tse’s Negotiated Differences (photo by Hendrik Vorster)

Born in Hong Kong in 1968, Tse has been working in the media of sculpture, installation, photography, and text for three decades, but she originally thought that she would be a doctor, as her mother had wished. Being dismissed by a physics teacher, who focused more on the boys in class, discouraged her interest in science. This inadvertently led her to fine art, which she studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I saw that art is the path that allows me to see things differently, and deconstruct the deeper structure of relationships and society,” she related.

Moving to California in 1990, where she is still based, pushed her to further incorporate critical thinking in her work. She was convinced that “art as a practice is the best way to combat social conditioning and conformity,” as her formal education in Hong Kong was about “molding you into being this consenting person within a structure.”

She attempted to break free from this conditioning in the US. Yet, as a female Asian immigrant artist, she found that Americans tried to put her into convenient categories at times. “There are certain expectations of people who aren’t white to make work that has to address their culture,” she explained. These stereotypes made Tse more insistent about resisting any form of categorization, but she acknowledges that she’ll inevitably have to face it: “Our bodies are already socially marked, whether you like it or not […] I’m not neglecting the fact that I have a marked body, so I have to respond to categories like sex, gender, race, or age when an authority uses these terms as a form of control. That is the moment when we must absolutely define ourselves as female artists.”

Shirley Tse, Negotiated Differences (photo by Hendrik Vorster)

Tse feels “honored” to be the first female artist selected to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale — where past solo exhibitions were helmed by male representatives like Pak Sheung Chuen (2009) and Samson Young (2017). However, she is especially heartened that “the world is finally waking up to patriarchy and biases in terms of gender.” She adds, “I’ve always believed firmly that if I can do something to help the world have a different way of seeing through art, then all I need to do is my work. […] And it feels like, wow, finally the moment is happening now.”

Tse’s beliefs were tested as recent protests — which began on June 9 and drew millions to the streets of Hong Kong — over proposed legislation that would allow extradition to mainland China. On June 12, more than 100 Hong Kong arts organizations, including Tse’s exhibition in Venice, called a one-day strike to protest the bill, which is now in suspension. Even though the Hong Kong pavilion in Venice has reopened, Tse, in an email to Hyperallergic commenting on the extradition bill and protests, said that she is still in solidarity with over two million Hongkongers who marched on June 16. She urged the Hong Kong government “to withdraw the extradition bill, to rescind the official description of the June 12 protest as an illegal riot, and to open an impartial investigation into the police’s use of force during the June 12 clashes with protesters.”

She added in her email, “Many concepts used in Stakeholders are more relevant now than ever in the context of civil resistance. Lacking universal suffrage, many Hongkongers don’t feel their voices are being represented in the government. However, as stakeholders, especially the young people, they exercise their agency and take to the street.” She also explained that it is important to “uncover the often unequal distribution of power, and investigate what enables the formation of such power relations in the first place.”

Her comments feel all the more imperative now, echoing how I felt after I finished speaking with her at her exhibition in Venice. At that time, her sculpture had come to resemble strings of molecules working together. 

Whether negotiating the differences between gender categories like female or male, or race categories like Asian or White, exploring multiplicity boils down for Tse to this: “No matter how heavy or light the wood is, whether it’s a musical instrument or an antenna, whether it’s abstract or representational, it all doesn’t matter. What matters is, it’s possible to come together when you are holding a stake.”

Shirley Tse’s Stakeholders: Hong Kong in Venice continues in front of the main entrance of Arsenale (Campo della Tana, Castello, Venice, Italy) through November 24.

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