Hong Kong

Shirley Tse, Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019–20, carved wood, 3D-printed filaments in wood, metal, plastic, dimensions variable.

Shirley Tse, Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019–20, carved wood, 3D-printed filaments in wood, metal, plastic, dimensions variable.

Shirley Tse

M+ Pavilion

Shirley Tse’s exhibition “Stakes and Holders” was reminiscent of an animal—one that has adapted and changed shape as it traveled from the plain-brick building near the Arsenale entrance, where it occupied the Hong Kong pavilion for the Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale in 2019, to the sleek postmodern showroom of Hong Kong’s M+ Pavilion. This magnificent creature, its sprawling arms and tentacles extending onto the ceiling and the floor, greeted visitors with a voice intercepted from local amateur-radio broadcasts, filaments sprouting from her 3D-printed joints and watchful lenticels from her wooden legs. Her main body, a hyperconnected installation called Negotiated Differences, 2019–20, crawled silently through the space, its legs sweeping through the tubes and pipes on the ceiling, sensing and learning the spatial dynamics of a new place. Another body part was Playcourt, 2019, a badminton field formerly shown in a courtyard, but now deconstructed and brought into the interior to await the next call to action.

A mischievous game, Playcourt reflects on Tse’s childhood memories of makeshift badminton courts on the streets of Hong Kong; from overheard radio broadcasts and anthropomorphic sculptures, multiple references emerge, confront, unite, and negotiate with each other. One element of the work addresses Hong Kong’s contested identity: A pair of badminton rackets respectively branded IMPERIAL and VICTORIA are watched from a distance by a spindly tripod topped with a knitted cap embroidered with the Chinese characters AN QUAN (safety/security). Several sculptures in Playcourt, such as Quantum Shirley Series: Shuttlepods, 2019–, are from the ongoing sculpture/installation series “Quantum Shirley,” 2009–, in which Tse negotiates among multiple versions of the self through parallel story lines referencing personal memories and her family’s migration histories. In both Playcourt and “Quantum Shirley,” Tse elaborates the individual’s complex relationships with the world and the (quantum) possibilities that exist invisibly between them.

For the assemblage Negotiated Differences, Tse became proficient in both wood turning and 3D printing in order to painstakingly create roughly four hundred spindles from at least thirty types of wood. The spindles are based on myriad objects, including a traffic cone, a soy sauce bottle, Brancusi’s Endless Column, and an umbrella. Adopting the technique known as nonviolent wood turning, which requires cutting shapes that follow the grain of wood, the artist moved between control and ceding control. The work—which involved the shaping of the spindles, the 3D printing of the connectors, and the assembling of these elements against gravity—could only succeed thanks to her mediation among the materials, the space, the open-source 3D-model files, and so on. While Negotiated Differences presented an utterly beautiful metaphor for togetherness and symbiosis, the installation’s often distorted gestures also suggested the travail and agony involved in such sustained transactions—the entanglements and knots created by the tension bore a resemblance to various scenarios in daily life, such as those involving boisterous dining tables and barricaded streets.

Vedic literature speaks of a hybrid sea creature called the makara, whose body combines aquatic and terrestrial animals and who sometimes disgorges a chain of life forms that signifies transformation and the trespassing of territories. According to Malaysian artist and scholar Tan Zi Hao, the appearance of the makara across Asia outlines the “potential connections . . . fossilized by ever-new types of boundary mechanism.” “Stakes and Holders,” a split version of the ever-morphing and growing makara, channeled an intersubjectivity in the field of Hong Kong. The “signals” it picked up and linked together included the streets of Hong Kong last summer, Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s notorious claim that protesters “have no stake in the society,” conversations shared around dining tables, and many, many voices that we ought to care about but that have been shut off. This ever-changing creature is still learning, slowly, about wood turning, 3D printing, radio transmitting, caring. . . . But everything will be connected.