Claudia Malfitano: Your sculpture, installation and photography explore the mutability of material, in particular plastics and their relationship to contemporary artistic, political and environmental concerns. Where does it all start? How do you develop a piece? Can you walk us through your creative process?
Shirley Tse: It started with Styrofoam packaging in dumpsters over 20 years ago- to a young artist’s eyes surveying the daily landscape of the late 20th century, it was brand-new trash, the forgotten place-in-between that was full of paradoxes: temporal in use and permanent in substance, ubiquitous but otherworldly, utopian and dystopian at the same time. It was the prime signifier of 20th century’s movement- both goods and people, as in trading and migration. I started researching plastic, or synthetic polymer, and I discovered that it is a portal to American industrial history, military history, modern medicine, synthetic garments, industrial design, material science, aerospace technology, environmental pollution, waste management, geopolitics and a myriad of other things. It is quite amazing that a single substance can span such heterogeneous fields and forms so many connections. One day it dawned on me that plastic is not even a substance – it’s a formula, a code or a syntax. Chemists were able to coax small organic molecules, mostly carbon, to form enormous chains. What makes “plastic” plastic is its structure and organisation. In recent years I have been moving away from using plastics themselves to explore the concept of “plasticity” and the “synthetic” using a combination of materials.
CM: How do you approach environmental issues and ecology? What do you mean when you talk about “negotiation”?
ST: Environmental issues often arise when people are only able to see one side of things. The study of ecosystems is a practice of multi-dimensional thinking, which is the guiding principle of my sculptural practice. While “negotiation” is a term we often hear used in business and politics, I use it in a more general sense. It applies to everyday actions. It is a philosophical understanding of how differences come together as a dynamic event, where actions bear consequences upon each other. Ecology is indeed a good example of seeing the interdependence of what seems to be separate entities and how they are in constant negotiation with each other. In terms of materials, a wide range of biodegradable synthetic materials are available now. However, I believe the true
culprit to pollution is our mode of consumption – single use, disposability, our culture of convenience. This kind of usage is clearly not sustainable, natural or synthetic.
CM: As a sculptor and a teacher, which artists do you look to for inspiration?
ST: There are just too many to list, past and present. I learn different things from different artists. I might not be fond of an artist’s work but I might learn something by hearing how they reason it for themselves.
CM: You will represent Hong Kong at the upcoming Venice Art Biennale; what does this mean to you?
ST: It is an honor to represent Hong Kong, especially being the first woman artist mounting a solo show at the Hong Kong venue. I have been developing a new body of work utilising a lathe (old-school tool) and a 3D printer (latest technology). I feel very fortunate to receive the funds to support my experiment and venture into new grounds.
CM: Where do you live and work and what is your relationship with Hong Kong like?
ST: I live in Southern California and I often fly to Hong Kong to visit my four siblings and their families. I have sought out opportunities to exhibit in Hong Kong whenever possible. ParaSite, Osage and Fotan Gatherings are some of the places where my work has been seen. The logistics of shipping large- scale sculptures is often a hurdle though.
CM: What are your favourite spots and places you would recommend to our readers?
ST: The Kwai Chung Container Terminal! There you can contemplate the sublime and horror of our contemporary lives. If that is too much, I would take a ferry to any of the outlying islands, or check out any of the hiking trails in Sai Kung. Chi- Lin Nunnery or the Victoria Peak (the actual peak, not the Peak Tram Terminal) are nice too.
Shirley Tse will be the artist representing Hong Kong at the 58th Venice Biennale with the Official Collateral Event “Stakeholders” promoted by M+ and Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Tse is the first female artist to take on this prestigious role and her project will run in Venice in Campo della Tana from 11 May to 24 November, 2019.
- Shirley Tse © Image Courtesy WKCDA
- Shirley Tse, Plastic Brain, 2012