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Where and how did you know about revolutionary, feminist and poet Qiu Jin? What is your new project based on this Chinese heroine?
Ten years ago, I went to China on a youthful quest to discover my ethnic roots (my father is from Chongqing). I first read about Qiu Jin in a western travel guide called China for Women, and was surprised to encounter rumors on the Internet that she was a lesbian. Regardless of how we label her, she was truly a compelling figure—so ahead of her time and still relevant today. But the more I researched and talked to people about her, the more I realized how vague her legacy is, and how messy and mortal she was: a human being with complex beliefs and desires, clouded by all these heroic mythologies. She is known as the “Joan of Arc of China” but what does that mean? One can trace a history of modern China through her nine burials (most recently in 1989), as competing interests laid claim to her body. Today her portrait sits in the Communist museum in Shanghai, framed within a grand narrative of men and martyrs. As an artist, I realized that my own interests in telling her story were no more important—nor less relevant—than everyone else, so I decided to make a film about my personal journey with her, which ultimately transformed me.
You have said performance is like research, I interpret it as an investigation into corporeality via one’s body. Physical strength of individuals of a country is always linked with the power of a country, that’s why there are a lot of images of world leaders exercising. Qiu Jin was a figure of a strong woman in the turbulent time of China, how do you explore her via your research and performance?
Performance creates possibilities for working outside of language, for example using body movement to tell a story or express desires that are unnameable. I have an ongoing collaboration with the American performer Boychild, and we use performance to develop our relationship to this material. Recently at Spring Workshop in Hong Kong, we performed some of Qiu Jin’s poems using ad-hoc translation and simple theatrical elements of a stage, lighting, costume and paint. The idea was to explore an emotional arc that will be central to my film: the relationship between personal/physical desire and a more abstract desire, such as desire for a cause or one’s country. As Qiu Jin’s oeuvre is well documented and still latent in popular consciousness, I find this material to be incredibly rich, and open to interpretation and re-contextualization.
A lot of your works, like Silver Platter and Wildness, are related to a bar situation, which is a modern setting with a public quality and also open to corporeal intimacy. How is your new project related to this mindset as China has a very interesting idea on public space (like people going out in the pajamas)?
WT: Rather than think in terms of public space, I’m actually more interested in “underground” spaces, meaning spaces that people create to resist the dominant society, or even just to survive where the conditions are oppressive. Sometimes this can occur in public space. For example, in Hong Kong, I’m working with a group of lesbian Filipino domestic helpers, who organize events and provide services to their community—and they do this in public space out of necessity, because no one has access to private property. In activist terms we could also talk about “safe spaces,” but the terms are not as important to me as the intangible feeling of accessing it, which is totally centered around intimacy and belonging. I am working on a parallel film project called Hospitality that addresses these questions.
Wu Tsang (Chinese-American, b. 1982) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. He is represented by Clifton Benevento, New York, and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Upcoming projects include a solo exhibition opening in September at Clifton Benevento; an installation presented at the Grand Palais in Paris during FIAC as part of the “Swarovski Series”; and a residency at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, culminating in a solo exhibition in March 2016.
Venus Lau is Editor-at-Large of Kaleidoscope Asia. She is consulting curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing.
All images courtesy of the artist