Los Angeles

Wu Tsang, Duilian, 2016, digital video and sound, 26 minutes 30 seconds. Installation view.

Wu Tsang, Duilian, 2016, digital video and sound, 26 minutes 30 seconds. Installation view.

Wu Tsang

356 S. Mission Rd.

Wu Tsang, Duilian, 2016, digital video and sound, 26 minutes 30 seconds. Installation view.

The revision of historical narratives—rooted in feminist and civil rights movements and inflected by subsequent discourses on identity, hybridity, and intersectionality—is a vital, if perhaps over-rehearsed, artistic strategy. For Wu Tsang’s immersive installation “The Luscious Land of God Is Sinking,” the story reimagined was that of Qiu Jin, a turn-of-the-century Chinese feminist and revolutionary martyr, and that of her friend and biographer, the calligrapher Wu Zhiying. There is no overt historical record of a romantic relationship between the two, but this exhibition, based around historical excavations of the duo, made explicit gestures to that effect in the presentation of a sculptural and photographic archive collected and created by the artist. Encased in museological vitrines built into a dark, monumental fifty-foot hallway was a constellation of objects ranging from a calligraphic copy of the Śūraṅgama Sūtra made by Wu Zhiying to lithographs recalling stone rubbings that displayed epithets such as RAGE AKA FUCKIN ANGRY. The corridor led to a large room containing a projected video that served as the heart of the subjective archive.

The cumulative effect was that of a historiographic exquisite corpse that used the women’s biographies as springboards in its celebration of the generative possibilities of loose translation. Bringing this corpse alive was the goal of the exhibition, which was demonstrated most forcefully in Duilian, 2016, a luxuriant twenty-six-minute video seemingly set in the present, although that assumption was complicated by swank and textural period costumes and props including a colonial-style junk that Tsang chartered around Hong Kong’s South Bay and Aberdeen harbors, where much of the video’s action took place. Intimate scenes of the protagonists’ first encounter, which involved flirtatious hair brushing and existential ruminations between Zhiying and Jin (played respectively by Tsang and boychild, her frequent collaborator) were intercut with footage of women masterfully performing Duilian Wushu, a style of martial arts that blends dancelike choreography and virtuosic swordsmanship. The performers’ routines were executed on the junk’s deck, as well as on a soundstage decorated with a monumental silk banner displaying the crest of the Mutual Love Society (a group of friends and colleagues with whom Tsang collaborates, so named by her), which was also emblazoned on the performers’ flowing silk uniforms. Halfway through the work, a hand mirror falls and cracks, setting the scene for the implied unraveling of the political revolution (by this time already fully underway) that is to follow. Near the piece’s end, Jin joins the martial artists on the deck of the boat, where they teach her how to properly brandish a sword. There are subsequent scenes depicting sword fights, after which the video abruptly cuts to Jin’s inert body floating in the ocean. After an anguished collapse, Zhiying is shown taking brush to paper—tearfully but resolutely chronicling her lover’s biography (a detail taken from Zhiying’s historical chronicle of Jin, by means of which she preserved the story of her friend’s exploits despite government suppression). A nearby wooden crate recalling a coffin was the only other visual element in this room. In its mirror-plated interior was a neon-lettered script: YOU SAD LEGEND.

Punctuated for maximal effect by sounds of rhythmic drumming, gusting wind, cracking thunder, and a mournful flute score, the video’s audio track was otherwise composed of melodramatically intoned approximations of Jin and Zhiying’s verse in Bahsa Indonesian, English, IIocano, and Tagalog. Tsang has described these as “Mis-translations,” the term referring to the Mutual Love Society’s intuitive, self-styled, and free-form interpretations of the verses interwoven within the scenes. The texts were hybrid and anachronistic. “You sad legend in the pavilion of anguish, will I see you again in storm and rain?” “All we can do is brandish our swords and sing karaoke with snot and tears!”

Searching for meaning in these exuberant statements and in the installation itself was both a frenzied and baffling exercise: One metaphor led to another, and cliché eddied around cliché. I couldn’t get deeper than the slickness of Duilian’s high-definition neon luster until I abandoned any attempt at penetration and dwelt on the veneer itself. The impartation of “meaning,” or narrative, wasn’t necessarily the point here—the work’s surface was. Part psychological projection, part fantasy, part parafiction, Tsang’s exhibition was not simply a marker and an elevation of queer desire but an attempt at the revision of its performance.

Erin Kimmel