POETRY IN MOTION.
Wu Tsang tells Christie Lee about her decade-long study of revolutionary poet Qiu Jin and the performative aspect of her art.
Despite harbouring creative tendencies, Wu Tsang wasn’t necessarily destined to become a visual artist. After all, she grew up in a “culturally desolate” part of Massachusetts, in the eastern United States. “I wasn’t exactly immersed in the arts during high school, but I made a film with still photographs, and I had a band record a live soundtrack,” recalls Wu, who is half-Chinese and half-Swedish, in the sunlit surroundings of Aberdeen’s Spring Workshop.
The hard-core punk aesthetic of Riot Grrrl, a feminist movement that originated in America’s West Coast during the 1990s, was very much a part of the 34-year-old’s youth, as were mixtapes and LTTR (Lesbians to the Rescue), a New York-based gender-queer feminist art journal. Wu entered the University of Chicago as a liberal arts student but decided soon after to pursue a degree in art. After moving to Los Angeles in 2005, she dove right into the queer scene, including joining a group that organises weekly performance nights at local trans bar Silver Platter. That eventually led to Wildness, Wu’s first feature-length film documenting the lives of the bar’s owners, hosts and patrons.
“What drew me to art was community. It was about a group of like-minded people who wanted to perform in a multidisciplinary scene. We had poets, musicians and artists,” Wu says of the California art world in the mid-2000s.
When asked if people see her as a filmmaker or a visual artist, Wu takes a moment to think. “People recognise that performance and film have always been at the centre of my art, but I guess part of the challenge of navigating the two worlds is the amount of translation you have to do for your audience,” she says. “But I think this challenge keeps me honest. I feel I can stand behind whatever I do regardless of the audience.”
Wu’s ability to move between genres also relates to her identifying as gender fluid. “I have a playful understanding of social behaviour in that I feel like people are performing all the time, be it at their jobs or when they are with friends. There is that one version of ourselves that we have to call up depending on context. I want to highlight the performative aspect of social life in my art.”
This focus on performance also allows Wu to ‘live’ gender rather than be trapped in jargon. “The book Gender Trouble was meaningful to me when I read it many years ago, and it’s definitely foundational for my understanding of the world, but I don’t want to have to call upon it on a daily basis,” says Wu when I bring up American gender theorist Judith Butler.
While opposed to theorising gender, Wu is intrigued by the idea of a female hero. Her short film A day in the life of bliss gave us the futuristic performer BLIS (the name of a character), and her latest exhibition at Spring revolves around Qiu Jin, a Qing dynasty poet turned revolutionary and later, martyr, who was executed at 31. “I’m interested in the role that personal narratives play in a social movement. We need someone we can identify with in order to believe in a cause,” Wu says. “What motivates us to feel an attachment to things outside of ourselves? When does the personal spill over into the collective responsibility? Qiu Jin saw it as her life mission to remind people of those times when we need to sacrifice our own security for the greater good. It’s a very lonely path.”
Duilian, which had its world premiere at Spring in March, is a 26-minute fictional account of the loving yet doomed relationship between China’s most famous female poet and her close female friend Wu Zhiying. While Wu plays Wu, the artist’s long-time collaborator Boychild portrays Qiu. Filmed in Hong Kong and the mainland, the film was born out of Wu’s one-year residency at Spring.
The accompanying multimedia exhibition has several art objects on display: a sword inscribed with Chinese duilian (couplets), two wooden figures that appear to be caught in an intimate act (Tears Tears Tears a paper effigy) and an ‘infinity box’ that deftly captures – pun intended – the near-impossible task of knowing the ‘real’ Qiu (One life, not preserved).
Lost in translation
While the inability to read and speak Chinese fluently inhibited Wu in the early stages of her research, she has long learnt to leverage the various layers of mistranslation for her art. After all, due to a lack of proper documentation, Qiu’s life already seemed destined for misinterpretation. Even after her death, the poet’s body was repeatedly exhumed, with scholar Hu Ying recording a total of nine burials.
Curiosity led a teenage Wu – who “grew up in a Chinese family not being able to speak the language” – to travel to China in an attempt to find her roots. “I wasn’t very successful,” she recalls, laughing. “Now I understand that this lack [of understanding] has always defined who I am. The void has been sad and painful on one hand, but also very productive, as it’s allowed me to understand art outside of language.”
Duilian centres on Qiu’s and Wu’s nurturing – yet unspeakable at the time – relationship. Why did Wu choose to focus on this particular era in the poet’s life? “That relationship was very transformative in terms of discovering a part of herself, and led to her becoming a famous revolutionary,” she says. “I’m interested in transformative relationships.”
Qiu’s much-mythologised life has been the subject of many a movie – from the blockbuster Herman Yau-directed The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake to the low-budget documentary Autumn Gem. When asked where her 26-minute short fits in, Wu says, “It’s not a straightforward narrative, nor am I trying to create a single reality, with turn-of-the-century sets intersecting with contemporary life.”
Prep work for Duilian might be over, but Wu isn’t ready to close the book on the revolutionary poet. “Qiu spent a significant period of time in Japan so I want to go there next,” she says. “There is quite a bit of writing about her in Japanese.”
Duilian, the film and exhibition, runs until May 22 at Spring Workshop.