Reviews & Articles
Negotiating differences in Hong Kong: Shirley Tse at the M+ Pavilion
at 11:45am on 21st December 2020
1.-3. Installation views of the exhibition ‘Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders’ at the M+ Pavilion, West Kowloon Cultural District. All photos by David Clarke.
In Shirley Tse’s ‘s ‘Stakes and Holders’ exhibition held in 2020 at the M+ Pavilion of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District the gallery space is mostly occupied by the sculptural work Negotiated Differences (2019-20). This work is primarily made of wooden elements which have been joined together, with the joints made visible. Those joints themselves tend to be made of plastic (metal is also used in this piece), but this doesn’t prevent the work from having an overall ‘woody’ feel. Some of the wooden elements seem to just be forms, but others are recognizable objects (which of course still have form as well as their identity as specific things). Or rather than being specific things they appear to be wooden models for specific things, or objects still in the process of being formed from raw wood into functional and recognizable things, as if frozen in transition, not quite fully finished yet. The non-wooden elements may be outnumbered by the wooden ones, but they still have an importance in the overall work, indeed even a privileged role, since they are the ones which do the joining, the wooden elements being relegated to a more passive role as the joined elements not the active joiners. The plastic elements have a plumbing-like association, whereas the wooden elements seem more like joinery or carpentry items for the most part. They tend to have been produced by turning, so there is an allusion to skilled work with wood, but the overall non-functional structure of the work also brings in associations to the amateurish practice of knocking stuff together or the making do with what is available of the bricoleur. Often the association is to furniture – one thinks of table and chair legs from an era before modern industrial design and its new materials intervened – but some of the more finished items bring in completely different associations, such as sport and games: there is what looks like a hockey stick and more than one bowling pin. At one point we see what looks like a shrunken version of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column (1918), but with the vertical form of the original replaced by a horizontal. For those able to spot this art-about-art reference there is a conscious cancelling of associations of ascension and aspiration, a bringing of the modernist master down to earth.
With this work one has a sense of a larger unity created from diverse parts, in part because the predominant woodiness of it all creates a more or less homogeneous feel. The unity also comes from all the elements out of which the work has been made being arranged in a single linear structure. We are presented with a kind of basic sculptural ‘drawing’. That linearity raises the possibility of a narrative development of some kind, but none is readily discernable. The dispersed nature of the structure means that our eye can’t meaningfully take the whole thing in at one go – there is inevitably a temporal dimension to our viewing of it. But there is no development such as one might encounter in temporal artworks such as a nineteenth-century symphony, or indeed a nineteenth-century novel. The ends of the sculptural lines (there are more than just two terminal points since there is branching at various places) tend to read as petering out rather than as climactic resolutions. Sometimes the linear form turns back on itself recursively, thus creating more complex three-dimensional shapes, but these read more as accidental tangles than as something that has been carefully calibrated. One doesn’t feel the spaces between the forms are activated to become a part of the sculpture itself, as one might in say an Anthony Caro work.
Because of the simplicity of the structure and its relative homogeneity (similar elements reappear to the viewer as they move along or around it), and because of its linear sparseness, one is likely to move from a consideration of the sculpture as a self-contained sculptural form towards a consideration of it as an installation. In other words, one will begin to read it in relation to the surrounding space. But it is not like, say, a Carl Andre piece such as his Lever (1966) where the similarly minimal interest of the sculpture’s forms leads to it being read as an active ‘cut’ into the space in which it is installed. The interaction of Negotiated Differences with its surrounding space seems less intense than that – we don’t get the feeling that the sculpture was created specifically for this particular space and its physical and associational qualities. Sometimes the sculpture seems indifferent to its surrounding space, a bare and relatively characterless white cube in any case. That surrounding space can appear to fall outside of its gravitational field at certain points, yet at other moments the structure hugs its surroundings tightly. Not just the floor as almost all sculpture must, but also the space’s pillars and ceiling. It seems to have an ambivalent stance towards its surroundings, to be fickle in its attitude.
If one attempts to find a metaphorical meaning evoked by this sculpture one might look for a sense of unity being achieved out of diversity. However, given its aforementioned predominant woodiness and the recurrence of turned elements one is likely to feel that the constituent parts weren’t particularly diverse to begin with, so the unity that has been attained doesn’t feel like a great achievement. That linear structure is a fairly simply kind of unifying structure, not like (say) the compositional unity of a Cézanne painting, which does have an ‘achieved’ feel to it. No negotiation between autonomous elements of equal status is involved (remember the monopolizing of the joining work by the plastic elements, which also get to decide when the form of the sculpture shifts direction). Negotiated Differences is therefore unlike - for example - a free form jazz improvisation where the musicians attend closely to each other, accommodating fellow players in real time. No compromise is required from the individual elements to achieve the simple linear solution, since there is enough space for them all, eventually. It is a kind of ‘pastoral’ or individualist solution to incompatibility or difference – find enough space for everyone to do their own thing without upsetting someone else who is doing a different thing. Unfortunately, however, many of life’s problems aren’t susceptible to such solutions. There isn’t always enough space to go around – look at the West Bank, for instance, or Rakhine State – something has to give. Different perspectives can’t always coexist since they are competing in the same arena – the desire for democracy, for instance, can be in competition with a desire to preserve one party rule. Different rights can’t all be accommodated in full at once, and the negotiation of differences will not always be a simple straightforward matter, or one free from asymmetries of power. Your right to wave your fist around is not absolute - it ends where my nose begins. But there is no guarantee that I will be able to persuade you of that before you start swinging your arm.
This review was previously published in Asian Art News, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2020, p. 56-7.