Reading Between the Lines with Wu Tsang
Filmed on a junk boat off the coast of Hong Kong island, Wu Tsang’s Duilian (2016) reinterprets the life of Chinese poet and feminist martyr Qiu Jin (1875–1907). Qiu Jin was executed for revolting against the Qing Dynasty government in China. The film centres on her intimate relationship with the female calligrapher and publisher Wu Zhiying (1867–1936).
Duilian is an acquisition-in-progress for M+, and is one of the many works in which the artist, filmmaker, and 2018 MacArthur Fellowship recipient Wu Tsang explores hidden histories, community-building, and new possibilities for performance and translation. Below, Ulanda Blair, M+ Curator, Moving Image, chats with Wu about her multifaceted practice, the influence of Charles Atlas, and the story behind Duilian.
Wu will present both Duilian and Into a Space of Love (2018) during The Hidden Pulse. This five-day moving image programme, running from 29 May to 2 June, is co-presented by M+ and the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid LIVE, an annual contemporary music festival at the Sydney Opera House. Wu will also introduce Charles Atlas’s films From an Island Summer (1983–84) and Hail the New Puritan (1986) during the programme.
Ulanda: How do you describe your practice to those who are unfamiliar with your work?
Wu: My work is very collaborative. When I’m beginning projects, I don’t necessarily have a topic or issue in mind, it’s more about who I want to work with, and what kinds of relationships I want to explore. I usually start with a question, and then the project takes form through a process of exchange with others. My work is also very performance-oriented—I try to introduce performance as an element of ‘play’ when I’m working with people. I see my role as sort of a conductor of social circumstances, and then I translate those experiences into moving image.
Ulanda: What impact has the pioneering moving-image artist Charles Atlas had on your work?
Wu: I was first introduced to Charlie’s work through Hail the New Puritan, a fictionalised documentary about the dancer and choreographer Michael Clark. It blew my mind. The film presents a hybrid fictional reality, in which a real situation is documented using a cinematic storytelling structure. It really captures a special moment in the late ‘80s London underground club scene. Charlie once told me about how he was hanging out and partying with Michael and his friends, and how they shot the film in a very short period. It sounded so fluid with his life at the time, which really spoke to me in terms of how I also work.
I’m also deeply inspired by Charlie’s collaboration with Merce Cunningham and the many films that they made together. Their films evolved as they kept going and going, trying out different things. Charlie and Merce were wholly invested in this intense, cumulative experimentation, and they sought to find a unique language for their collaboration. I often think about those films in the context of my own ongoing collaboration with boychild.
Charlie is now a friend. I first met him when Stuart Comer, the Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), moderated a conversation with us for Frieze Talks, in 2014. Ever since then, we’ve stayed in touch. Just getting to spend time with him and hear stories about his life, I feel like I learn so much.
Ulanda: What’s the story behind Duilian, the work you made in Hong Kong?
Wu: I had been doing research about the Chinese revolutionary poet and feminist martyr Qiu Jin for around ten years. When the independent art space Spring Workshop approached me about doing a residency, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to finally make a work about her. Hong Kong became an important site for me to reflect on a set of fundamental questions—what are some of the many meanings of queerness in an Asian context, and how might I interface as an Asian-American, coming from the ‘West’? Particularly in the context of Hong Kong, how is Chinese identity complicated by the political situation? What are some of the ways to express queer desire in this context?
For me, Qiu Jin’s story is about what can be read between the lines of her letters and poems. Of course, it’s all open to interpretation, and I wasn’t interested in imposing any sort of modern framework onto her. My research was my way of learning about a hidden history, but it was also an excuse to talk to other people about their queer experiences in the present. The film is multi-layered—there’s a historical research-based dimension, but also a contemporary social one.
I should also add that Spring Workshop, which closed in late 2017, was a very special place. It wasn’t just a residency, it was a place that really generated the work and ideas. When we were shooting the film, my assistant director got very sick on the first day, so Christina Li, the director at Spring Workshop, had to jump into the role and of course, she turned out to be amazing at it. The film was a labour of love. We didn’t have a huge budget, but we were able to create something expansive, because there was such shared investment in it and so many people involved.
Ulanda: Can you speak briefly about the ‘sword sisters’ in Duilian, and their role in the film?
Wu: The Duilian story is intercut with dynamic wushu martial-arts sequences. These sequences allude to a community of radical ‘sword sisters’ known as the Mutual Love Society, who Qiu Jin met and joined in 1906.
I joked quite early on in the project that I wanted to make a 'lesbian kung fu film', which is what I eventually got to do! In film and television, Qiu Jin is often envisioned as a martial artist, and there are several iconic photographs of her posing with swords. It therefore seemed appropriate to dip into that genre on this project. I ended up working with a group of young women in Shanghai that do wushu martial arts, who came to Hong Kong for the filming. I gave them Qiu Jin’s poetry and they interpreted it with their own choreography and sword movements.
Ulanda: Finally, can you discuss your ongoing artistic interest in translation and interpretation?
Wu: I often find myself working between languages, and so many of my works involve some aspect of translation. Often there is no direct translation so we need to find the space in between, where we can understand each other.
In Duilian, I asked members of Hong Kong’s LGBTQ community to narrate ‘mistranslations’ of the two protagonists' writings in Cantonese, Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesian, Iloco, and Tagalog. I was struck by the idea that queerness has a metaphorical relationship to translation—it’s a language that you can read through the lines, or if you know the codes. Queer languages exist in so many forms, if you know what to look for. If you need it, you will find it.
The above interview has been edited for clarity.
Image at top of post: Wu Tsang, Duilian (production still), 2016. Photo by Ringo Tang. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. M+, Hong Kong. Acquisition in progress