Text by Noemi Y. Molitor
Under Cinema, Wu Tsang’s show currently on view at FACT in Liverpool, derives its title from being located in the sub-structure underneath the gallery’s main cinema. Spatially, the setting corresponds to the queer subcultures and nightlife-scapes that Tsang incorporates in her films, sculptures and performances and often translates into intimate scenographies. At the same time, the title captures how Tsang’s video works transform the cinematic gaze and modes of visual and narrative representation established under the confines of cinematic tradition.
The way Tsang presents her films often invites viewers to become part of the image field, for instance by sitting in the folds of a curtain while watching Duilian (2016). During the 2016 Berlin Biennale viewers watched the film amidst an alcove of fabrics Tsang built for the occasion. At the Whitney Biennial 2012 in New York, a recreated dressing room of the Latinx club “The Silver Platter” in LA became the screening site for her film Wildness. The dressing room immersed the viewers in the surroundings they were simultaneously watching, all the while reflecting their images back at them through the mirrors lining the walls.
Tsang’s strategies of expanding the fourth wall confront the viewer with the gaze the camera casts on protagonists, but also with their own involvement in cinematic situations and the roles these usually prescribe.
Aside from such immersive settings, Tsang’s approach to film-making can be described as a kind of production-drag: narratives are developed and then turned on their heads, magical realism is woven together with documentary elements, the frame is constantly disassembled and put back together in an entirely new dress.
In the film Mishima in Mexico (2012), Tsang and Alexandro Segade are shown adapting Yukio Mishima’s novel Thirst for Love (1950). We see actors who are developing scenes who become characters who become actors again—only to switch back and forth between each other’s roles. As Tsang and Segade move freely between multiple frames, figures, identities and geographies, the viewers adapt and grow vis-à-vis these strategies of queer assemblage. They, too, are required to shift shape, realizing that they, too, move in and out of multiple selves—and not just while watching the film. The self—not as singular and identifiable, but as multiple, as constantly moving and always in connection to others.
Dance and sound as forms of interaction factor prominently in Tsang’s recent works. A long-standing collaborator is scholar and poet Fred Moten. Their sculptural performance Gravitational Feel (2016), a rope-curtain interacting with the spectator’s movement through sound, adds a tactile dimension to the encounter. Viewers find themselves inside a field of “vibrant matter” that is also a “feel.” A “feel” that is strangely familiar, generating sensations similar to watching the waves move in Duilian. In Tsang’s and Moten’s field of feelings, visuality reveals itself as a multi-sensory form of perception. Like the ropes one brushes through, the waves one sees on the screen create a sense of movement, proximity and touch. Similarly, Gravitational Feel elicits a proprioceptive response that may or may not involve direct physical touch.
The fields of vision that Tsang creates with her collaborators suggest that immersive art cannot be premised on a simplistic split between ‘immaterial seeing’ and ‘material touching.’ This goes not just for the body-human, but also for the body-camera. In the film We hold where study (2017), it joins the dancing pairs boychild and Josh Johnson, as well as Ligia Lewis and Jonathan Gonzalez, as a fifth dancer. The screen splits into two overlapping projections and, swirling through a field of grass lined with mirrors, it is the camera that is reflected back on itself.
If dance is a mode to get out from behind the confines of image-making and pre-scribed identity, Tsang takes it even a step further. Her cinematic performances allow the technological devices to leave their designated posts, breaking open the way they are supposed to be handled. Under Wu Tsang’s expanded cinema, beneath her cinematic sensibility, lies a mobile multiverse of kinaesthesia.
Under Cinema, 2017
Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
Portrait Photo: Inès Manai