Sister of the sword: Wu Tsang, the trans artist retelling history with lesbian kung fu
| Language of the blade … Wu Tsang’s Duilian. Photograph: Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
By chance, I recently found myself seated beside Wu Tsang at the Venice Biennale. Willowy and gender ambiguous, with a black topknot and in the soft, draped clothing favoured by dancers, she was with her regular collaborator, Boychild, huddled together like two chicks on a branch. The Berlin-based artist met Boychild – muscular, eyebrows shaved and bearing futuristic tattoos – when the latter was performing in clubs. They’re an unmistakeable pairing.
Tsang made a sci-fi film to showcase Boychild’s extraordinary physicality soon after they met. “I remember,” says Tsang, “the first couple of times we worked together. She said, ‘You tell me the story you want to tell, I’ll tell it back to you in movement.’ And that’s how we work now. I created a whole world that was like a platform – a way to experience her performance.”
Tsang has created similar “platforms” for the two groups of performers who star in her upcoming show at Nottingham Contemporary. One is a band of skilled female practitioners of wushu martial arts, based in Hong Kong; the other, a sisterhood of trans women, mostly of Central American origin,who make up the regular clientele of an LA nightspot called the Silver Platter.
They are unconventional performers, lured by Tsang into new territory. Swords whipping through the air, the wushu artists perform routines inspired by the poetry of Qiu Jin, the female Chinese warrior and revolutionary of the early 20th century. They appear as “sword sisters” in Tsang’s film Duilian, which places Qiu Jin at the centre of a sapphic kung-fu romance. This queer retelling of the feminist hero’s life was shot around Hong Kong, melding footage of the modern waterfront with lingering exchanges between the poet (played by Boychild) and her friend, the calligrapher Wu Zhiying (Tsang).
The denizens of the Silver Platter, meanwhile, enact the story of a Salvadorian teenager who flees his country’s civil war and ends up in LA. Damelo Todo/Odot Olemad was filmed within the scruffy environs of the Silver Platter itself, and its story echoes the lives of many of its regulars. Both films contain elements of magical realism and staginess. “Each one is like a play within a film,” says Tsang. “There’s an awareness of the performance and their relationship with reality.”
Tsang discovered the hard way that you can’t just insert yourself into a tight-knit, self-protecting community and decide to make art. Moving to LA in 2005 with friends from Chicago’s queer art punk scene, Tsang was introduced to the Silver Platter, a gay bar in MacArthur Park that had served the area since 1963.
Duilian … a retelling of Chinese feminist hero Qiu Jin’s life. Photograph: Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
Shabby it may have been, but the Silver Platter was a protective environment where regulars could dress up, be beautiful, and feel loved and accepted. It was old school, with a dress code that tended to heavy lipliner, push-up bras and teased hair. Tsang and her art student friends thought it was marvellous and, in 2007, started a party night there on Tuesdays called Wildness, featuringDJs and performance art.
The parties, their cultural fallout and Tsang’s evolving understanding of the complexity of life at the Silver Platter form the basis of Wildness, the artist’s breakthrough 2012 film. The Wildness parties became victims of their own success, attracting a growing crowd of young queer bohemians, who upset the ecosystem of fantasies that sustained Silver Platter’s regulars. The night’s success also drew press attention: a local paper ran a grotesque description of the bar in which the trans women were portrayed as little more than prostitutes.
In Wildness, we see Tsang in the process of filming Damelo Todo/Odot Olemad, almost as a healing process. The resulting work, like Duilian, is performed in multiple languages, and much remains untranslated, leaving the audience to focus on the physical performances. Tsang likes working with people with whom she shares no common language. “Growing up in a multiracial family, I never learned Chinese, so I was used to having ‘conversations’ that weren’t verbal. When there’s an understanding that we can’t fully understand each other, that’s a In Wildness, we see Tsang in the process of filming Damelo Todo/Odot Olemad, almost as a healing process. The resulting work, like Duilian, is performed in multiple languages, and much remains untranslated, leaving the audience to focus on the physical performances. Tsang likes working with people with whom she shares no common language. “Growing up in a multiracial family, I never learned Chinese, so I was used to having ‘conversations’ that weren’t verbal. When there’s an understanding that we can’t fully understand each other, that’s a better space for me. It’s happening all the time, but maybe it’s more obvious when we’re speaking a different language.”
One Life, Not Preserved by Wu Tsang. Photograph: Yankov Wong Production/Courtesy of the artist and Spring Workshop, Hong Kong. Photo: MC Language –
in particular the gaps between intent and interpretation – is a frequent theme for Tsang. In The Shape of a Right Statement, also filmed at the Silver Platter, she wears a wig cap and lip-syncs to In My Language, a video posted on YouTube by autism rights activist Amanda Baggs that presents communication as a slippery and fraught process.
Tsang is herself no stranger to her work being “overly simplified” or misunderstood. It is often reduced, she says, to being solely about gender or sexuality, when it’s about so much more: adversity, fantasy, history, communication, intimacy, community. As she learnt at the Silver Platter: things tend to be much more complicated than they first appear.
Wu Tsang, Devotional Document (Part 1) is at Nottingham Contemporary, 20 May to 28 August; then at Fact, Liverpool, from October.