Los Angeles

Wu Tsang, How Do I Play?, 2013, C-print on aluminum, 50 x 34".

Wu Tsang, How Do I Play?, 2013, C-print on aluminum, 50 x 34".

Wu Tsang

Michael Benevento

Wu Tsang, How Do I Play?, 2013, C-print on aluminum, 50 x 34".

“I’ve done research,” says Wu Tsang in Mishima in Mexico, 2012, the centerpiece of his recent solo show at Michael Benevento. “I made mood boards.” Over the video’s fourteen minutes, Tsang and artist Alexandro Segade wrestle themselves into the narrative of Yukio Mishima’s 1950 novel Thirst for Love, entwining their own creative process with an adaptation of the book’s tragic affair between a kimonoed lady and a fundoshied young gardener. “It’s so gay,” quips Segade. Then Tsang: “I wouldn’t say gay. Maybe queer.” “So Japanese.” “That’s why we’re in Mexico.” Cultural transposition is only the beginning. Identity in general is portrayed as malleable (or as one Los Angeles Times reviewer put it, in Tsang’s work, identity, as well as art, is a Q, not an A). The video cuts between luridly shot reenactments and heart-to-hearts or fretful scriptwriting in a mod hotel room. The artists swap roles, then feel out the limitations of storytelling, then succumb to their plot’s inevitable, murderous climax, in a contemporary gloss on the cross-dressing traditions of Kabuki or Elizabethan theater.

Hidden LEDs synched to Mishima bathed the gallery in mood light: red as red-tipped press-on nails scratch a sweaty back, purple or pink in charged moments, off in the hotel scenes, and so on. Lines such as “Desire is so depressing. It makes me want to kill myself” fall flat, and the foreshadowing and mood cues are obvious; Tsang frustratedly bumps over-the-top histrionics against the conventions of melodrama. For a second short video, Tied and True, 2012, Tsang collaborated with Ghanaian filmmaker Nana Oforiatta-Ayim to reimagine Douglas Sirk’s 1955 blockbuster All That Heaven Allows (another adaptation of a midcentury novel, another high-class woman and a gardener) set in a generic postcolonial town. In one scene, for example, a bigoted industrialist patriarch toasts the excellent “breeding” that produced his young African bride. Here again, deathly serious dialogue and luscious production flirt with camp; again, good-looking actors play mind games and smoke cigarettes and act good looking. This video, like Mishima, cites a history of activism and queering identity through artistic practice (Tsang quotes ACT UP luminary Gregg Bordowitz in the press release, for instance). Yet despite their scrambling, the works struggle to build on the precedents they tout. Indeed, while Tied and Mishima touch on significant socioeconomic, racial, cross-cultural, and transgender issues, Tsang’s treatments remain primarily cosmetic, in that they aestheticize more than challenge these concerns—and resemble rather than articulate political statements.

A series of C-prints in the second gallery showed Tsang in the “off” moments of a recent performance (adjusting his clothes, ducking out of a spotlight) or posing dramatically behind floating, confessional paragraphs, turned away from the viewer as if deep in thought. In My Fear Makes Me Do, 2013, the word FEAR crosses Tsang’s bare chest. Stream-of-consciousness monologues were printed as wall texts, interspersed with the photos, while a section of aluminum stage-light rigging reminded us that the exhibition, no matter how earnest, has been an act. With this show, in a continuation of his earlier reflections on the adaptability of selfhood, Tsang turned inward to focus on artistic identity, casting himself as the central character and treating creative production as role-play, the exhibition as theatrical construction. But whereas identity and its representations were open questions in such earlier works as Tsang’s portrayals of the Los Angeles trans club Silver Platter (the feature film Wildness, 2012, for example, and the related Green Room installation for the 2012 Whitney Biennial), even as the narrative posturing in this exhibition may expand the Tsang brand, the drama here didn’t venture far from the surface.

Travis Diehl