The mechanisms behind the manufacture, consumption, and circulation of objects—as well as the individual and collective relationships they impart—are fundamental touchstones that define socio-economic relations and subjectivities. They are also the raw and reference materials in Shirley Tse’s two-decade- long exploration into contemporary society through her expansive practice. These elements predominately concern consumer plastics and polymers such as polystyrene or styrofoam, which she worked with in the 1990s through the early 2000s. She takes their polymerous uses as entry points to decipher the world, deconstructing their entanglements. Her rigorous investigation into what she calls ‘multiplicities’ within these generic elements engenders ‘a form of materialism which calls for the ability to think fluidly, to understand complexity and to negotiate conflict’1, culminating in poetic and unexpected sculptural amalgams of common materials.
For Hong Kong’s 58th Venice Biennale site-responsive presentation entitled ‘Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice’, Tse juxtaposes plastics with raw materials, namely wood, and readymades including studio and sports equipment to unravel the histories, imaginations, applications, and technologies embedded within them; the two installations on view, ‘Negotiated Differences’ and ‘Playcourt’ (both 2019), look at individuals as stakeholders in the production, use, and meanings of objects. The individual as producer and user of objects, and most importantly as citizen, is thoroughly articulated through techniques that are new to the artist, namely in ‘Negotiated Differences’, such as woodturning and digital technology. The work, which traipses through the interior space, is a diagrammatic hybrid of constructed wooden forms and found everyday articles such as balusters, baseball bats, prosthetic limbs, and handrails linked together by 3D-printed and hand-carved metal and plastic joints. Each wooden and synthetic articular joint is dynamically counterbalanced in space as determined by multidirectional connectors and gravity. The sprawling display perambulates the room’s surfaces in this former wood storage site. Tse plays with shapes and production in using deliberately erratic 3D-printed articulations based on open-source designs and woodturned reproductions mined from an index of musical instruments, sports equipment, and furniture. Apart from the counterweight of material, form, and craft in the installation, negotiation acquires an added reading. Working with a rotary lathe—an archaic apparatus considered the point of origin for machine tools—the hand becomes intermediary between machine and matter. In the turning process, Tse works with, rather than against, the grain; turning here could be understood as a tactile manifestation of conflict negotiation. The work is an exercise in improvisation where form and composition are in the process of making, a constant process of extemporary negotiation with old and new elements and actors.
The agility of form and function, and the themes of agency, unpremeditated action, and exchange are synchronously addressed in the courtyard installation ‘Playcourt’. The work engages with the domestic function of a cloister with sculptures perched on tripods directing the viewer’s gaze skyward to the alignment of residential laundry lines above. Taking a cue from the makeshift badminton courts of her childhood in Hong Kong, where street furniture stood in for nets, existing works appear alongside new anthropomorphic sculptures on stands and working antennas. They are arranged in two converging lines resembling nets, thus transforming the site into a potential field of play actuated through physical negotiation and imagination. Aside from plastic, other material and personal narratives explored in Tse’s oeuvre—such as her family’s link to colonial trade probed in ‘Quantum Shirley Series’ (2009–ongoing), plastic, technology, and the body— are synthesised and translated into shuttlecocks made out of vanilla beans and rubber. The overlay of site-responsive histories takes on another layer as Tse incorporates amateur radio equipment, forerunner to digital communications, into the presentation. The antennas are designed to pick up non-commercial frequencies and recreational broadcasting, thus making audible flows of communication in proximity to the courtyard, amplifying the cacophonic articulations assembling and negotiating. The playful choreography of Tse’s subjectivities among the sculptures in an organic movement of encounters activates the sculptures as place markers, shaping the potential interactions that unfold within the contested field of action.
Tse works against conventions of protocol and efficiency at the core of productivity-driven mechanisations of contemporary society. The artist rigorously unpacked this early on in her practice, and in ‘Stakeholders’, as an antithetical gesture, espouses slowness. In this transgressive contrarian space of affect, empathy, and ethics, the two-part presentation gives form to turbulent societies circumscribed by individual decisions and the failure of consensus politics. If things are the tools Tse uses to decipher the guiding mechanisms and forces behind them, they are also objects that through activation bring out into the open how they shape societies and those who live in them. Tse’s meticulous approach to objects and process helps visualise dynamics and ethical codes in interactions. The Venice Biennale presentation implicates the public as stakeholders in improvised negotiation, and the manifold processes and materials delicately counterbalanced in ‘Negotiated Differences’ and the imaginary polyphonies conjured by ‘Playcourt’ invite the viewer to consider coexistence in affirming each other’s agency at the core of a shared heterogeneous society. Through her unique sculptural practice, Tse carefully considers what individuals can learn from ubiquitous materials, processes, and structures that shape a pluralistic world.
1 Shirley Tse, ‘Technology, Plastic, and Art’, Art and Technology Symposium, International Association For Philosophy and Literature 22nd Annual Conference, University of California, Irvine, May 1998, revised May 2003.