Su-Mei Tse

For many, the news that the 2003 Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion would be awarded to Luxembourg-based artist Su-mei Tse was, to say the least, unexpected. But for the happy few who’d managed to find their way through the narrow streets and overcrowded canals to the Luxembourg pavilion, there was little to be surprised about: After all, Tse had conjured a simple, powerful, and—why not?—beautiful transformation of a complex reality. Her video projection Les Balayeurs du desert (The Desert Sweepers), 2003, for instance, made a poetic yet lucid comment on how the Western world is keen to use immigrants but, if possible, without having to see them in society. So in Tse’s translation a group of Paris municipal sweepers, complete with green uniforms, were placed in a barren desert. The sound track unveiled the real story, allowing one to hear the sweepers doing their daily job, before sunrise, in the streets of one of the biggest cities in Europe. Tse succeeded in scratching the varnish away from a polarized and, in many ways, hypocritical society without belaboring the point or stridently pamphleteering.

Tse’s recent show in Antwerp, despite some echoes of the presentation in Venice, was less topical. Her concern, in general, was how to make time visible—even tangible. This was manifested most clearly in personal times, 2003, four huge hourglasses hung side by side as if communicating. The hourglass typically has negative associations—when the sand runs out, that’s it—but here a hidden mechanism made the installation turn over so that the sand found its way to the other compartment again and again, ad infinitum. East Wind, 2004, a large mixed-media installation, looked like a frozen landscape in which a group of cypresses bent sideways, as if a strong wind was blowing in their direction. The words EAST WIND written in white neon illuminated the installation like an artificial sun. Again, it looked as if the artist was trying to grasp time and to stop—or at least to pause—the insane velocity of contemporary life.

Doubtless the strongest work in this collection of poetic statements was The Yellow Mountain, 2004. Any description of this large-scale video projection necessarily overlooks some of its subtler qualities. The portrayed landscape with its animated sunset evoked a world of contemplation, a sort of visual haiku. In this piece Tse’s talent for combining into a single frame totally different means of expression—video, photography, animation, and music (the artist trained to be a cellist before studying graphic arts)—achieves pure poetry. We need art like Su-mei Tse’s not to escape from reality but to contemplate it and—who knows?—succeed in transforming it while regaining a certain mental equilibrium. Is that such a utopian vision?

Jos Van den Bergh