Stakes and Holders: Negotiations In Situ
Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders presents a renewed, site-responsive configuration of the two installations commissioned for Hong Kong’s presence at the Venice Biennale in 2019. In the earlier exhibition, titled Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice, Shirley Tse continued her two-decade-long exploration of the manufacture, consumption, and circulation of mass-produced objects, from her use of consumer plastics and polymers in the 1990s and early 2000s to her most recent work with other generic materials and ready-mades. The evolving exhibition in Hong Kong reframes and responds to the Venice presentation, offering a new perspective on Tse’s use of sculpture as a means to understand our shared experience. Tse synthesises her rigorous enquiry into plastic as a substance, a prime signifier of globalisation, and an adjective denoting heterogeneity in the contemporary world. For the first time, in addition to plastics and studio equipment, she incorporates elements such as wood and sporting goods into her installations and introduces ancient and recent technologies in craft, manufacture, and communications. She contrasts the embedded histories, imaginations, and uses of these techniques and materials in order to unpack the inherent differences and subjectivities of a pluralistic world of flows, movements, and connections. The juxtapositions in her work make multiplicity evident, emphasising ‘a form of materialism which calls for the ability to think fluidly, to understand complexity and to negotiate conflict’.1
Negotiation, improvisation, and agency are key to Tse’s approach to visualising heterogeneity. This is clearly articulated in the way the two installations—Negotiated Differences and Playcourt—are assembled in each exhibition, in Venice and now in Hong Kong. The configuration in Venice responded to the features of the exhibition site, which consists of a space formerly used for the storage of wood and a courtyard with laundry lines strung overhead. Negotiated Differences, an assemblage of hundreds of wooden forms turned on a lathe and connected by 3D-printed and hand-carved metal and plastic joints, traipsed uninterrupted through the three rooms of the interior. The courtyard was occupied by Playcourt, a congregation of anthropomorphic sculptures on stands with portable antennas and repurposed colonial-era badminton rackets, arranged in two converging lines that evoke nets. Including a set of bleachers, the work recast the courtyard as a potential field of play in an informal game of badminton, reminiscent of the makeshift matches in public space that Tse played while growing up in Hong Kong. Without predetermined plans or a fixed configuration, the installations are now, one year later, mounted at the M+ Pavilion in two new formations and with additional components over the course of the exhibition period. This installation activates the protean nature of the works, in dialogue with the context of Hong Kong. Unlike the clearly defined arrangement in Venice, here both works unfold within the interior open-plan space, and parts of Playcourt are installed on walls and railings on the outdoor deck. Two iterations of Negotiated Differences, assembled on-site by the installation team, and by the artist and curator—when travel conditions permit—in an exercise in improvisation, reveal how form and composition undergo a process of remaking and negotiation, with old and new actors.
Craft is foregrounded as a mode of thinking in the creation and composition of Negotiated Differences. Proposing an antithesis to the industrial and standardised technologies she has engaged with in the past, in 2014 Tse began to work with a lathe—an archaic apparatus considered to be an origin of machine tools—creating individually turned items that draw from an index of musical instruments, sports equipment, prosthetic limbs, architectural elements, abstract forms, and furniture. This collection of artefacts, referring to various cultures and histories, is connected and counterbalanced by multidirectional wooden and synthetic articular joints to form a body of lines and nodes defined by gravity. As in Venice, where Tse drew inspiration from the fabrication of gondola oars and pier pilings, she produced additional elements for the Hong Kong display that refer to the city, including soy-sauce bottles and umbrella handles. Tse plays with form and production by using deliberately erratic 3D-printed articulations based on open-source designs. Like the wooden reproductions sourced from material culture, they can be seen as ready-mades—in this case from the digital sphere.
Contrary to the form that traversed the ground-floor venue in Venice, Negotiated Differences here traces the pillars and exposed ceiling ducts of the pavilion, drawing attention to the architectural features and responding to the elevated exhibition site on the first floor. While maintaining the equipoise of material and form, negotiation is also expressed by the artist’s hand as an intermediary between machine and matter in the turning process. Tse works with, rather than against, the grain. Applying force to raw material, her method is a tactile manifestation of conflict negotiation and can be read as a metaphor of how to act in a volatile sociopolitical reality. Furthermore, the assemblage of items, which Tse made over three years, constitutes a chronicle of the trial and error in her pursuit of the craft, as well as a personal log. Integrated into the installation are records of negotiations on the world stage, such as a gavel symbolising the Democratic Party’s regaining of a majority of seats in the United States House of Representatives in 2018, a hockey stick referring to the historic partnership of North and South Korean teams at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and umbrella handles alluding to recent protests in Hong Kong. The first wooden piece she created is also present, alongside breakthroughs in her technique, including a group of painstakingly crafted bowling pins and other items that called for a sophisticated use of the lathe. In its conflation of narratives and methods, Tse’s approach to material and sculpture embraces the distinct properties and agency of each entity through an open-ended exchange, to constitute a delicate whole. In Playcourt, Tse addresses the malleability of form and function and the notions of agency, unpremeditated action, and exchange. In Venice, the sculptures on tripods were aligned in rows to conjure a curious game of badminton with no fixed rules. Audiences can speculate on the nature of the game in progress through their imagination and physical negotiation with the installation. Deliberately equivocal, the sculptural amalgams are both makeshift sports furniture and participants in their setting. The presentation in Stakes and Holders underscores the mobile, provisional character of Playcourt. Modified works and new sculptures are displayed on stands as well as detached, on bleachers, in various guises of action and repose. The choreography of these transformed characters and objects calls attention to volatility in the temporal and spatial frame of a given set of new circumstances.
Playcourt forms a network of references that can be read as a translation of Tse’s biography. An assortment of plastics and their by-products—including vinyl, styrofoam, and other varieties—shares space with studio equipment and precious stones, tracing her experiences in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The flesh-coloured plastic vinyl sheets she acquired in Sham Shui Po in Optic Nerves (2016), the nephrite from Yau Ma Tei’s Jade Market and the green styrofoam from Tokyo in Jade Tongue (2016), the pieces of Murano glass she inherited from a donor at California Institute of the Arts in Green Head (2016), and in An Quan (2020) the crochet hat in the shape of a safety helmet she bought in Beijing in 2008—all these components serve to juxtapose relationships of production and circulation with her personal history. Badminton itself also becomes a subject, addressed specifically through the presence of the rackets with the brands Imperial and Victoria, which gesture to the game’s colonial origins in British India. This narrative finds an echo in the shuttlecocks made from vanilla beans and rubber, which stand in for the colonial-era trajectory of Tse’s family on rubber plantations in British Malaya and vanilla farms in Tahiti. Extending an investigation begun in the Quantum Shirley series (2009– ongoing), Tse probes her identity as a product of the paths of trade and migratory labour.
The amateur radio equipment in Playcourt accentuates the work’s relationship with the site. The antennas merged into the sculptures are designed to pick up non-commercial and recreational frequencies, making nearby transmissions audible in both interior and exterior spaces. This component of the work responds to the increasingly stringent control of the public domain, in the form of both airwaves and physical space. Tse foregrounds the ability of members of the public to express themselves openly, defining the sculptures as markers and conduits for potential interactions and interlocutions in a contested field of action.
If Stakeholders emphasised the agency of each individual, Stakes and Holders draws attention to sculptural forms to construct a body of differences, each unit of which extends, contracts, and combines to propose directions and meanings. Tse works against the ideas of protocol and efficiency that are at the core of the pervasive contemporary idea of productivity. The installation espouses slowness as a response to turbulent societies that are circumscribed by individual decisions and the failure of consensus politics.
In her practice, Tse explores material things to decipher the mechanisms and forces behind them, but also to bring out the ways in which they shape societies and those who live in them. Her meticulous approach visualises dynamics and ethical codes in interactions, and it offers a careful consideration of what individuals can learn from the materials, processes, and structures that make up a shared heterogeneous world. The artist dexterously counterbalances the components of Negotiated Differences and constructs an imaginative polyphony in Playcourt, inviting audiences to consider coexistence as a way of affirming agency. Stakes and Holders shows that the strength of the collective lies not in the establishment of uniformity, but in relationships that can renew each entity in every encounter.
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.
About Christina Li
Christina Li is a curator and writer working between Hong Kong and Amsterdam. She was the Curator-at-Large at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, where she served as the Director between 2015 and 2017. At Spring, she curated, among other projects, A Collective Present (2017), Wu Tsang: Duilian (2016), and Wong Wai Yin: Without Trying (2016). Her exhibition Dismantling the Scaffold (2018) was the inaugural exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong. As a writer, she has contributed to publications including Artforum, Art Review Asia, LEAP, Parkett, Spike, and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Art. She was the curator of Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice, Hong Kong’s participation at the 58th Venice Biennale (2019). She was recently named curator of the Pavilion of Finland at the 59th Venice Biennale (2022).