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Take Me Apart: Wu Tsang’s Art Questions Everything We Think We Know About Identity

Wu Tsang photographed in New York City, December 2018.

MACIEK JASIK

From the moment artist Wu Tsang began collaborating with poet and theorist Fred Moten, in 2014, they started on the project of dismantling each other’s identities. A Los Angeles gallery was looking for an artist to collaborate with a poet, Tsang said, and “we thought it was funny, the idea that one of us was a ‘poet’ and the other was a ‘performance artist.’ Right away, we were like, ‘Let’s cross off the label.’ We’re both both.”

They made a performance together and turned it into a film titled Miss Communication and Mr:Re (2014), in which they read voicemails they’d left each other while Tsang was on a residency in Italy. It’s a two-channel video—Moten’s face appears on one screen and Tsang’s on the other—shown sometimes with the screens facing each other and sometimes side by side. Tsang and Moten face the viewer, but when they filmed it they spoke directly to each other using an Interrotron, a camera that documentary filmmaker Errol Morris invented to get more intimate interviews with his subjects. In preparation, Tsang and Moten did each other’s makeup; it was the first time Moten wore lipstick, which he said he found “beautiful.”

In 2015 Tsang and Moten made another film, Girl Talk, which Tsang called “a classic example of how we work together.” It once again originated in a conversation: Tsang told Moten she loved his voice and would love to work with it in a film; Moten told Tsang he was sick of his voice and wanted her to come up with a way for him to lose it. Tsang went home to think and decided she would have Moten perform in drag while silently mouthing the words to an old R&B tune. “Coming from my experience, out of clubs, drag is classic,” Tsang said of a tradition that offers the opportunity to see how a performer interprets a song.

Tsang wanted Moten to pick the music, and he chose Betty Carter’s version of “Girl Talk,” a song about women. It had been written by two men (Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup, for the 1965 movie Harlow) and performed by men, including Tony Bennett and Sergio Mendes. It begins, “They like to chat about the dresses they’ll wear tonight / They chew the fat about their tresses and the neighbors’ fight / Inconsequential things that men really don’t care to know.” In 1969 Carter wrote a version for women to sing, in which “they” became “we.” Tsang asked her friend, Brooklyn-based experimental musician Josiah Wise, known as Serpentwithfeet, to record his own interpretation of Carter’s version of “Girl Talk,” for which the song was slowed down and distorted. Using an iPhone—she didn’t have a generous budget—Tsang filmed Moten, in flowing robes, twirling and lip syncing in slo-mo in the leafy backyard of Moten’s home.

Part of the experience of watching Girl Talk is contemplating the questions it raises: Where does Tsang’s authorship end and Moten’s begin? To what extent is Serpentwithfeet an author of the work? How about Betty Carter? What happens to a song about women written by men when it’s reconstituted by a woman, re-recorded by a man, and then sung by a man dressed as a woman?

When Girl Talk was shown in the New Museum exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” in 2017, New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, who “highly recommended” the piece, characterized Tsang as Moten’s “longtime female collaborator.” Tsang and Moten took issue with the phrasing and co-authored a short letter to the editor: “Wu Tsang is not Fred Moten’s female collaborator. It would be more accurate to say that he is her intermittent familiar and would-be Divine. Finally, while ‘her’ is Wu’s personal possessive pronoun of choice, she is not female. The video Girl Talk is part of an ongoing refusal of the imposition of such choices and every other mode of (self-)determination.”

Fred Moten in Wu Tsang, Girl Talk (still), 2015, on view at the New Museum’s show “Trigger: Gender As a Tool and A Weapon.”

COURTESY CLIFTON BENEVENTO, NEW YORK

Tsang’s largest solo exhibition to date will open at the Gropius Bau, a museum in Berlin, this September. When I met her in New York in December, Tsang had just flown in the night before after a yearlong residency at the museum. The airline had lost her luggage, so she’d thrown on what she had handy—a sleek white button-down shirt and black jeans that complemented her long, black hair, which was secured in a neat bun—in the East Village apartment that she calls home when she isn’t somewhere else. The sides of her head were meticulously shaved. As artist Alexandro Segade, who frequently collaborates with Tsang, told me, “Wu is very stylish, inside and out.” She chooses her words carefully and tends to speak in full sentences. Both her hands bear tattoos—WILDNESS is spelled out between the first and second knuckles, written in one direction, while HONESTY appears closer to her fingertips, upside down. “It’s actually more for me,” she explained of the latter, which she can more easily read herself. “I see it when I’m typing.”

Over the past ten years, through films, videos, and performances, Tsang has been exploring what she has called “in-betweenness,” a state in which people and ideas cannot be described in binary terms. Her films tend to be hybrids of narrative and documentary; they don’t fully commit to one form or the other. In her work, she portrays a world centered on queer culture while questioning identity and revealing it to be elusive. The arc of Tsang’s career tracks with the increased visibility of queer and trans culture in America. But for Tsang, thinking of visibility in this way is “a trap.” Celebrating symbolic achievements “doesn’t really address the underlying systems,” she said. “Trans people are put daily in vulnerable situations.”

It’s a subject she has mulled with Moten. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with Fred about this,” she said. “The relationship between visible and invisible and impossible is an interesting productive tension for me. Why do I make films? There’s obviously this urge I have to make something visible, but I think it’s not about being seen. I’m thinking of image-making as a kind of ritual practice that will reflect something back.”

For Tsang, collaboration isn’t a means to making art. It’s the other way around. “Making art is an excuse to collaborate,” she said. “That’s what I want to be doing: working with people and making things together. Fred and I talk about ‘the band,’ this idea of a group of people doing things with each other, always together. There’s always this idea that when we get together, different people participate. The band has grown a lot over the years, and it now includes a lot of people. People are in and out, depending on what’s going with their life.”

Such collaborative work has won Tsang accolades. In October, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a Genius Grant. In January, she was named a fellow by the Chicago nonprofit United States Artists. She premiered a video in March at the 14th Sharjah Biennial, in the United Arab Emirates, and in April, the Whitney Museum in New York will premiere Sudden Rise, a new work by Moved by the Motion, a performance ensemble of which she’s a member. This year also brings the release of a documentary Tsang made about the singer Kelela, with whom Tsang did a screen test in 2012, before Kelela became a pop star. Describing the film to MTV News, Kelela said of Tsang, “She’s been around me, she’s seen my process, and there’s a lot of stuff [in it] that has to do with my experience in the world.”

[Read more from the Spring 2019 edition of ARTnews: “The Name of This Issue Is Not Queer Art Now.”]

Tsang greets wider exposure with a degree of apprehension, partly because it sometimes puts pressure on her to identify herself in conventional terms. “I always feel hesitant to identify as anything,” she told me. She has been dissatisfied with the ways in which these labels have been applied to her work, and she finds terms like “trans artist” and “trans activist” “super problematic.”

“We now have so many different associations with what that could mean that, for me, it’s not precise,” she told me. She worries about “the mainstream-atizing of trans cultural production and political positions.” Often her subjects do too. In one of her recent videos, a drag queen, speaking directly to the camera, says, “Gays aren’t even gay anymore, girl. Things are so different. . . . You have to stay modern.”

Wu Tsang in her Shape of a Right Statement, 2008.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALERIE ISABELLA BORTOLOZZI

Fifty miles west of Boston, the city of Worcester is home to what people tend to think of as the archetypal Boston accent. (Think of a thick pronunciation of “Hahvad Yahd.”) Growing up in Worcester, Tsang was taught by her mother, a high school English teacher, to “speak well,” as the artist has said. The result is elegant elocution in a voice that is smooth and mellifluous, and an accent that is unplaceable.Her father is an immigrant who was born in China. During the Communist Revolution, when her father was a child, his family fled Chongqing, where he was born, for Hawaii. “My dad has this very particular way of not narrativizing his story,” Tsang once said. “His relationship to English is as a second language. His story about coming from China is a very painful one that, when I was growing up, he never talked about. It’s an experience I’ve shared with other children of immigrants: There’s a sadness and inability to articulate what that struggle is. A lot of my work in some ways tries to deal with that.”

When she was a teenager, Tsang made her first film, a riff on Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). “It was so dumb!” she told me. “It was about a boy who has a dream, and there was a girl in it wearing a mask. It was very high-school surrealism. I remember presenting it at school with a live band, and people were like, ‘Whoa.’ There was no form for expanded cinema in general [at my high school], and I don’t know where I got the idea. It’s just funny, the things you do before you’re conscious.”

Worcester was not especially hospitable. “When I was old enough, I left,” she told ArtAsiaPacific magazine in 2014. “It was not because of my transgender identity necessarily, but more about being brown, and being queer.” She earned her B.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which she found to be “a great place to be really young and really poor, to really have nothing.” Tsang and 24 collaborators—academics, artists, and activists—formed PILOT TV: Experimental Media for Feminist Trespass!!!, which billed itself as “a hybrid activist convergence taking the form of a do-it-yourself TV studio.” In the mold of activist video collectives like DIVA-TV and Videofreex, PILOT TV explored what its founders called “transfeminism.” They weren’t short on ambition. For a four-day event, they recruited New York artists like Gregg Bordowitz and K8 Hardy. “We used all this equipment from the school, and we made a television production studio,” Tsang said. “It was a very idealistic thing that failed in so many ways.”

After Chicago, Tsang completed her M.F.A. at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied in an interdisciplinary program administered by the conceptual artist Mary Kelly. “She wasn’t even interested in whether or not we made something,” Tsang said of Kelly. “She was more interested in what our political questions were. She wanted me to think about the trans political movement in relation to my work.”

The tattoo on Tsang’s knuckles that reads WILDNESS—you can’t avoid seeing it when she places her hands on a table—refers to a party she and musicians Ashland Mines and Daniel Pineda, and Asma Maroof, started in 2008 at the Silver Platter, a gay bar in L.A.’s historically Latinx and Asian MacArthur Park neighborhood. “Wildness” brought a new clientele of punks and artists to the Silver Platter. Raquel Gutiérrez, who went on to write a film with Tsang and was a regular at “Wildness,” likened it to “being at someone’s quinceañera” and said it was sometimes so packed, a security guard would have to work crowd control. Tsang played the role of host. “Wu would be the kind to put a flute of champagne in your hand and lead you to the patio if you wanted to smoke, or sit you in front of someone she thought you should talk to. She was the ideal host, always super stoked to see you.”

Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art, and Tsang’s longtime friend, remembers the motivation behind “Wildness” as being “as much about generating a community as it was about having a place to release.”

“It was like a family,” Maroof said. “And also a breeding ground for amazing creation.”

Watching weekly drag shows there brought Tsang to a new understanding of film’s limits and possibilities. “I would have revelatory experiences watching the performers,” she said. “How do you make a film stand up to that liveness? How do you make a film do justice to that liveness? I don’t think it actually can. That’s maybe where it got more interesting and fun for me, when I realized that the image and the live performance are forever in pursuit of each other.”

Wu Tsang, Wildness, 2012.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALERIE ISABELLA BORTOLOZZI

In 2008, the year after “Wildness” began, Tsang completed Shape of a Right Statement, a video in which she appears in front of a shimmering curtain at the Silver Platter, wearing a tight cap over her hair and reading a monologue that includes lines like “we are viewed as noncommunicative if we don’t speak the standard language, but other people are considered noncommunicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe they don’t exist.”  The monologue came from Amanda Baggs’s YouTube video In My Language, a manifesto of sorts about how Baggs and others with autism have been viewed by society. After Tsang reads it, a single tear rolls down her cheek.

Tsang called her reuse of the text “full body quotation,” what she described as an act of magnifying a person’s words by re-performing them. At the time, Tsang was studying opera. “Proper opera technique is about creating a passage for air with your body,” she said. “It’s less about having this perfect voice than it is about learning how to shape your body and move the air. That’s what produces that beautiful sound. I got excited about that idea. I was thinking about drag performances somehow being channels. People talk about the voice coming through you. Whether it’s about spirituality or not, it’s about the voice moving through you, coming inside you, passing through.” That element of one entity being a conduit for another has stayed with her. “Anything that destabilizes traditional notions of selfhood is always exciting to me,” she said. “Thinking about us all in relation to one another, a voice or a body as a channel.”

Next came Damelo Todo (Gimme Everything), Tsang’s first hybrid narrative-documentary, in 2010. It follows Teódulo Mejía, a refugee from El Salvador’s civil war who finds a new home at the Silver Platter. The work has a stylishness and polish that Shape of a Right Statement lacks, and for Tsang, creating it was a learning experience. “I didn’t do a very good job, so to speak,” she said. “I was breaking all the rules. I didn’t know how to make a good film. I like Damelo Todo because I feel like there’s a lot of innocence in it, like someone muddling through something.” She recalled a day on set when the crew asked for instructions as to how block a scene. When she asked what blocking meant, the crew responded, incredulously, “You don’t know?”

When Tsang made Damelo Todo, she had already started work on Wildness (2012), a feature-length film about her party in a form she had come to call “docufantasy.” Wildness tells the story of the party from its beginning until the Silver Platter shut down in 2010. Footage of the festivities, shot via a shaky camera, appears alongside segments in which the bar itself speaks in voiceover, its inner dialogue voiced in Spanish by actress Mariana Marroquin. “They didn’t notice,” the bar says, “but I had won them over with my nightly routine. I called them inside . . . so young, so innocent and passionate . . . they wanted to throw a party, fill my room with their energy. How could I resist being occupied by them . . . ?”

The if-the-walls-had-ears character serves as a metaphor for Tsang’s desire to provide a voice to the voiceless. “People and places and things that don’t normally get to speak,” Moten said, “get to speak in Wu’s work. When you can make a bar talk, you can do anything.”

Wu Tsang, Wildness, 2012.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALERIE ISABELLA BORTOLOZZI

Wildness features meditations on gentrification, reactions to homophobic coverage of the party by L.A. newspapers, and scenes in which Tsang runs a clinic near the bar that offered legal services to trans immigrants, many of whom were undocumented. “She works with people who are underrepresented,” Stephanie Rosenthal, director of Berlin’s Gropius Bau and the curator of Tsang’s forthcoming show there, told me. “She connects the art world and the nonart world. She is an artist who really lives between worlds.”

Wildness was a breakthrough that brought Tsang’s work to wider audiences within the art and film worlds. It screened at several film festivals, and in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, it was shown in an installation with spaces resembling dressing rooms where performances were staged. “I started having to travel a lot for art,” she said. “The more I traveled, the more I felt that I needed to revise my position as an activist. I felt that it was being instrumentalized as cultural capital, in a way.”

Her solution was to bring her activism into her art. “Lately I’m seeing more ways that I can articulate my politics through film,” she told me. “It’s now about implementing my politics, and that involves sharing them.” Wildness was the work of “more an activist than a filmmaker, in the sense that I had this message I wanted to get out,” Tsang said. “I had this idea that a feature film would be the widest qualification—more so than an art exhibition. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I see that now as a kind of idealism.”

Wildness helped Tsang gain access to bigger budgets and corporate funders. Last year, Tsang received backing from Gucci and the Frieze art fair to make her essay-film Into a Space of Love (2018), which premiered at Frieze London. “It could have been just a light corporate-funded film about house music,” Tsang said, “but I wanted to talk about how house music is like so many other movements: created by queer, brown, and black people, and always appropriated by mainstream white cultures.” The crew for the work included some of Tsang’s regular collaborators—“almost entirely queer and trans people of color,” Tsang said of an unusual scenario for a filmmaking culture still dominated by white men. “It was fun to use the money and distribute it that way. We stole the money!”

Into a Space of Love features some of  Tsang’s most accomplished filmmaking to date, with long takes in which the camera whirs around dancers as they writhe in studios and alleyways. It’s a technique she adapted from Charles Atlas, in whose films the camera has a set trajectory. “It’s an unusual way of inverting how we work with the camera,” Tsang said. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re the performer, this is your performance, we’re going to shoot from these angles, and you have to do it again and again,’ the premise is: ‘OK, this is what the camera will be doing, and you get to decide where you want to be in relation to it. You can be behind the camera. You can even attack the camera. You can run from the camera. You can do whatever you want.’ ”

Tsang has started to use her camera to contemplate the power of images in people’s lives. She is currently at work on a video installation about trans refugees, set on the Greek island of Lesbos. One of her protagonists is a photojournalist. Her subject, this time, is someone else’s camera and the subjects that appear before its lens.

Wu Tsang, Duilian (still), 2016.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALERIE ISABELLA BORTOLOZZI

Since 2014, Tsang has been making art with the gender nonconforming performance artist boychild, with whom she also has a romantic relationship. Their ongoing collaboration—an arrangement for “obliterating hierarchies in general,” boychild told me—began with Tsang’s film installation A day in the life of bliss. The “lo-fi sci-fi” work, as Tsang has called it, focuses on Blis, a multihyphenate celebrity (played by boychild) whose fans access her life via social media. “At the time I started working with boychild, I was interested in how things like social media and film had shifted what the underground is—how much it changed youth culture and [young people] being able to be in spaces without their phones,” Tsang said.

Boychild is known for solo performances in which, head shaved and chest bare, she writhes around on stage, her thickly muscled arms and torso dramatically silhouetted. When performing, she often holds strobing LED lights in her mouth or hands. The net effect is alien, postapocalyptic, in the extreme. “Until working with Wu, I didn’t know I could work with other people—I always did my own thing,” boychild told me. “Working with her opened a door to what collaboration could be. After that, there was no turning back.” She was drawn to Tsang for her “vision and openness—her eyes, her sensibility, her intrigue. What brings people to her? It’s her special power.”

Tsang said their work together evolved organically into “me reading texts and her responding through movement, because she said this thing to me once: ‘If you tell me a story, I can tell it back to you through movement.’ ” One of the stories Tsang wanted to tell involved their shared present and history from a century ago. In 2005 Tsang had gone to China to try to understand her father’s past. “I thought that I would find a place where I felt culturally reflected,” she said. “It was actually the opposite—I felt like even more of a foreigner.”

In China, Tsang became interested in the late 19th-century poet and revolutionary Qiu Jin. Despite the stigma surrounding homosexuality in China—where it was illegal to be gay until 1997—it was an open secret among historians that Wu Zhiying, a calligrapher with whom Qiu collaborated, had been the poet’s lover. In the city of Shaoxing, Tsang visited a museum devoted to Qiu and spent time with her archive. She then used Qiu’s story in her 26-minute film Duilian (2016), in which Tsang plays Madame Wu and boychild plays Qiu. Lushly shot sequences featuring wushu sword fighters are interspersed with documentary-style footage of boychild walking through the streets of contemporary Hong Kong in 19th-century garb. Scenes with the two of them pouring tea for one another appear alongside more abstract imagery, such as a shot in which the two actors, wearing only underwear, press their backs together and slowly bend in unison. In a voiceover, Tsang reads lines from Qiu’s poetry: “My body will not allow me to mingle with men, but my heart is far braver than that of a man.” The work was shown at 356 Mission, an arts venue in Los Angeles, along with a museum-like display of real and imagined archival materials, including prints, money, and a lithograph that read “RAGE AKA FUCKIN ANGRY.”

Boychild performing Love Is a Rebellious Bird at the Faena Festival, December 3, 2018.

LOLÓ BONFANTI/COURTESY FAENA ART

Through boychild, Tsang further developed her interest in dance. Together, they have collaborated with professional dancers like Josh Johnson, who has performed with Alvin Ailey and is a member of the Forsythe Company. Tsang and boychild’s most recent performance, Love Is a Rebellious Bird (2018), a take on the Georges Bizet opera Carmen, initiated as a performance that was also filmed for use in further iterations of the work. Boychild squirmed and undulated topless, wearing long red gloves, a flounced dress, and a stylized tiara with tassels for hair, the signature orb flickering in her mouth. The musician Lafawndah supplied warbling vocals.

Commissioned for the Faena Art Festival in Miami, Love Is a Rebellious Bird presented an opportunity to stage a performance and shoot a film at the same time. “I had done that in the past, but it was a failure,” Tsang said. “Considerations you need to make for the camera sabotage decisions you need to make for an audience. I knew it was going to be difficult. Usually what you have to do for a camera is the opposite of what you have to do live.” At certain moments in the performance, boychild was distinctly visible, crisscrossed by beams of light; at others she was enshrouded in fog. In the middle of the performance, the hotel’s fire alarm went off. “That wasn’t planned!” Tsang said. “Too much fog.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 64 under the title “Take Me Apart.”

Correction 4/15/19, 12:40 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated details about Tsang's biography. Her mother is Swedish-American, not Swedish. Tsang completed Shape of a Right Statement the year after "Wildness" began, not during the year the party started. Additionally, Lafawndah supplied the vocals for Love Is a Rebellious Bird, not Larry B. The post has been updated to reflect this.

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