woman with long hair dressed in a yellow coat leans against large, dark glass windows. She looks at the camera with a half smile.

What Is at Stake? A Chat with Shirley Tse

The 58th Venice Biennale is on the horizon, and this year M+ and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council are once again working together to present Hong Kong’s contribution: a solo exhibition with sculptor Shirley Tse, who has been selected to represent the territory. Tse recently spoke to Winny Leung, associate editor at M+, about her path to becoming an artist, how she chooses her mediums, and the focus of her Biennale exhibition, Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice.

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‘Not long into his career, pianist Herbie Hancock performed with jazz giant Miles Davis. In the middle of the performance, out of sheer nerves, he hit the wrong chord. Just as he was struck with worry, he heard Davis improvise with it and play a different melody. For Davis at this moment, there was no such thing as “wrong”; he just responded to and interacted with the music.’ Shirley Tse tells the story with profound excitement.

Numerous wooden parts are connected to each other in seemingly haphazard ways through 3D-printed joints. Most of the wooden parts are approximately the length and shape of a table leg, although some are longer or shorter, but with wildly varying forms.

Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019, carved wood, 3D-printed forms in wood, metal, and plastic. Courtesy of Shirley Tse. Commissioned by M+, 2019. Photo: Joshua White.

A lover of jazz, Tse has been particularly influenced by its improvisational nature, and her own creative work shares this same ‘go with the flow’ nature. Part of her Biennale exhibition, for example, is a new large-scale installation entitled Negotiated Differences, comprised of several wooden forms fitted together with 3D-printed joints. The parts are staggered in shape, some seemingly broken, revealing printed layers—the results of printing errors. ‘Sometimes the “mistakes” actually produced very interesting shapes.’

In a way, it was also ‘by mistake’ that Tse became an artist in the first place. A graduate of the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, she had originally planned to study business management for her career prospects, but her A-levels didn’t go as planned and she decided to use Fine Arts to get in and then transfer. ‘Who could have known that after studying art for a year and learning a bit about art history I would do a full 180° and just completely lose interest in business?’ She went on to continue studying art in Hong Kong, and then in the United States, eventually becoming the sculptor and representative of Hong Kong she is today.

The Impermanence of Working with Plastics

Two images side by side. The left image shows a close-up of a sculpture consisting of a green glass and cast resin rounded shape sitting on top of an aluminium stand. The right image shows a sculpture consisting of a cream-coloured, rectangular plastic sheet curved inwards sitting on the top of a metal stand that is adjustable and bent in the middle. The plastic sheet has multiple bunches of plastic chords strung through it.

Left: Green Head (detail) , 2016. Glass, cast resin, and aluminium stand, height adjustable × 37 × 37 cm. Courtesy of Shirley Tse. Photo: j.schwartz. Right: Optic Nerves, 2016. Plastic sheet and metal stand, 203 x 61 cm. Courtesy of Shirley Tse and Shoshana Wayne Gallery. Photo: Gene Ogami.

For years now, Tse has primarily worked with plastics, but this was not the original plan. ‘In the beginning, I wanted to play around with standardisation and industrialisation more than with plastics’, she explains. As a child, she lived in Kwai Chung, and watching the constant flow of containers at the port led her to think about logistics, industrialisation, and global issues. Later, she realised that plastic, a modern product, is something that has permeated virtually every corner of our lives and that is rich with possibilities for reinterpretation.

But all the most famous sculptures, like Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s The Thinker, are made from sturdy materials such as marble and bronze. While plastic may not biodegrade, it is extremely susceptible to ageing, becoming fragile and even falling apart. Could sculptures made of this material really be passed down for posterity? ‘Traditionally, art has attached importance to permanence, but as a contemporary sculptor and installation artist, I have my doubts about that idea. Why does a sculpture need to be eternal?’ Plastics can last for a long time, but they aren’t very durable, and this paradox has fascinated Tse.

Multiple sculptures set up in a white-walled gallery space. In the foreground, a set of grey shelves hold small rounded objects of different colours and materials, while a cluster of abstract sculptures constructed out of a variety of different materials stands opposite.

Installation view of the exhibition Lift Me Up So I Can See Better, 2016. Courtesy of Shirley Tse and Shoshana Wayne Gallery. Photo: Gene Ogami.

The malleability of plastics has given Tse ample space for interpretation, while at the same time placing some limits on her identity as an artist. ‘After a while, both audiences and critics started to focus too much on the material, and I realised I needed to use other materials to bring out the plasticity behind things.’ She began to make use of various other materials, such as in the 2016 exhibition Lift Me Up So I Can See Better, which took Oscar Wilde’s 1888 story The Happy Prince as its point of departure. In this body of work, she used glass, nephrite, bamboo, brackets, and found objects, bringing out the distinctive colours of each material.

Soothing Wood and Soul-Sucking 3D Printing

Close-up of a sculpture consisting of wooden shapes attached to a 3D printed joint with a wooden texture. The join has outlets to attach six different wooden shapes, but only three are attached.

Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019, carved wood, 3D-printed forms in wood, metal, and plastic. Courtesy of Shirley Tse. Commissioned by M+, 2019. Photo: Joshua White.

For the Biennale, Tse has tried something completely new: wooden sculpture. For Negotiated Differences, she used a lathe to create sleek wooden components, shaped like everyday objects like balusters, baseball bats, bowling pins, and water pipes, which together form a large device that weaves through the entire indoor space.

Wood has long fascinated Tse. In fact, her early plastic creations were carved with a wood router. ‘There are different kinds and textures—wood is organic—so I knew early on that wood sculpting would take a lot of time. On top of that, woodworking is a very specialist skill; it’s not just something you can pick up overnight.’ A change of perspective that came with age drove her to reconsider wood—she laughs as she remarks that now that she’s older, she finally has the time to learn woodworking.

A metal lathe set up in a studio space, with a reddish, rounded piece of wood with different rounded thicknesses along its length spinning in the lathe.

Lathe in the artist's studio, 2019. Photo: j.schwartz

In the wood workshop, she noticed that the old lathes used for turning rounded pieces had been left to one side, neglected. At the time, she was studying meditation, and she found the process of turning wood on the lathe calming. As the wood chips flew, she felt a sense of comfort, and produced a large number of wooden components.

The connecting pieces, though, were made through 3D printing, straddling traditional craftsmanship and new technology. The printing process was a challenge: ‘Printing one thing took more than ten hours, and I would be there watching over it.’ Sometimes she was a laboratory scientist, writing down the printing data in her notebook with a cramping hand; other times she was a parent, cleaning out a blocked nozzle or ‘bathing’ the connector after printing. She recalls her strong feelings: ‘The machine sucks my soul. My humanity is being robbed by this machine.’ It could not have been further from the sense of comfort the lathe brought.

Eventually, she found a way to reconcile with the printer, accepting its errors calmly, as she would mistakes that she encountered in her life and work. She also deliberately kept the traces of these errors in the final work; for the viewer, they become windows onto her creative process.

Exploring Philosophical Ideas through Art

Two women lean on a metal fence in front of a white wall. The woman on the left has a yellow coat while the woman on the right wears a beige jacket, grey shirt, black pants, and glasses. Both look at the camera with small smiles.

Shirley Tse (left) and Christina Li (right), curator of Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong and interviewees. Photo: Dan Leung

‘When I start working on a piece, all I know is the materials and the concept, and perhaps a rough image. I don’t know what the final product will be. I don’t like to decide too many things ahead of time.’ To understand Shirley Tse’s creative process is to understand how she thinks. ‘Art is a practice. I don’t want to turn out a finished product like an industrial designer. I want to think through questions via artistic practice, to hone my sense of touch, and to question presuppositions.’ Language, she believes, can be too one-way when exploring such questions, and lacks vitality. Sculpture and installations let viewers experience things on sensory, physical, spatial, and temporal levels, making ideas concrete and alive. For example, another piece in the Biennale exhibition, Playcourt, will be displayed in an outdoor courtyard space. Through the piece’s height and configuration, Tse aims to guide the audience’s eyes to clotheslines hanging in the air, echoing the residential atmosphere of the exhibition venue. ‘I like to think about the subjective relationship of lines of sight in philosophy. Who is seeing whom? Who is being seen?’

Tse is like a philosopher; as a university student, she was fascinated with sociology and philosophy and considered going on to study it. Christina Li, curator of Tse’s Venice exhibition, praises her way of thinking: ‘Realistic likenesses or technical skill aren’t what Shirley focuses on. She’s more interested in thinking, and she has a real grip on philosophical ideas instead of trying to force them into her works.’ Tse ruminates on ideas, going back and forth through the creation of dialectics of right and wrong, fleeting and eternal, and technological and traditional.

One central question that Shirley Tse has yet to resolve, though, is the role of the artist in society. ‘The biggest challenge for an artist is the fact we can’t escape this society dominated by economics. It’s painful, but also worthwhile—like trying to go against the grain when planing wood. It’s dangerous and you might cut your fingers, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. Such is the meaning of art.’

Find out more about Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice and see it in Venice from 11 May to 24 November.


Image at top of post: Sculptor Shirley Tse. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong and interviewees. Photo: Dan Leung

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