Thursday, March 8, 2012

REVISED: The Compelling Work of Wu Tsang

Wu Tsang is the first artist to have work in both the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial at the same time, and this young, provocative, transgender filmmaker deserves the publicity. Yet “WILDNESS” and “Full Body Quotation,” each addressing issues of gender and sexuality, share few other similarities. At the Whitney, among the sterile whiteness of the other galleries, Tsang has created a welcoming viewing room for “WILDNESS,” his documentary-style video on drag culture. From a cramped hallway, visitors wind around a lattice wall and enter a dim, cozy nightclub dressing room decked with glittery wallpaper, mirrors, mismatched chairs, a couple of Ikea futons, and a dressing table scattered with half-empty water bottles and sneakers. Clothes racks are filled with sequined and feathered costumes. Videos projected on adjacent walls show Los Angeles drag performers telling stories of their personal lives and stage lives, sometimes humorous and sometimes disturbing, in English and in Spanish. Visitors shuffle to find space, perching on the futons and leaning against the walls. There is immediately a sense of community, that we are an exclusive group brought here to act as friends and confidants to those on the screen. Occasionally Tsang splits the interviewee and her English subtitles between the two screens, so the non-Spanish-speaking viewers must choose whether to look at a blank screen and understand, or watch the speaker’s face, hearing the words but missing the message. Our heads dart back and forth, anxious not to miss a second.

If one could be transported from this installation into the New Museum, where Tsang’s “Full Body Quotation” is being screened in the basement, the contrast would shock. The auditorium is huge and dark, mirroring the empty warehouse floor in the film, whose corners recede into shadows. In this space, Tsang and a handful of other actors in black leotards cycle through a non-linear combination of monologue, dialogue and chorus. The film loops almost seamlessly. As the actors trade fragmented tirades on race, sexuality, gender, and class, they engage in a series of body movements, one moment standing aggressively in a line, the next, collapsed in a collective heap on the floor. Occasionally, the theatricality of the performance is uncomfortable enough to break the tension; but mostly, the power of the words and the conviction of their delivery induce chills. This time, we are not confidants, but isolated audience members, powerless against the outpouring of negative emotion. Though this piece and its counterpart at the Whitney embody contrasting feelings, whether warm or pugnacious, Tsang is a master at drawing his audience deep into the lives of characters many of us might otherwise find barely relatable.


  1. I also really appreciated Wu Tsang’s instillation at the Whitney Biennial and enjoyed your review. There was a lot going on in that room and I think you did a good job describing both Tsang’s piece as well as the experience of viewer. I wonder if your description would benefit from making a connection between the Latina LGBT bar, The Silver Platter, that Tsangs video was centered on and the bar/club aspects of the installation space? Also, I don’t know if you got a chance to see it, but Tsang had a second video at The New Museum, Shape of a Right Statement (2008) – it was tucked away in a corner on the top floor. It’s a monologue delivered by Tsang, written by Amanda Baggs.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, and I like the approach that you took of focusing on the one artist with works in both shows. Tsang’s piece in the Whitney Biennial was particularly enjoyable for me, and I think you do a really great job of describing its intricacies and of rekindling the overall viewing experience. It’s great that you highlight the contrast between this piece and “Full Body Quotation” at the New Museum as warm and cold. However, I would have liked to see a little more of your analysis and to hear if you thought one work was more successful than the other.