Negotiated Differences, 2019–20. Hand-carved wood, 3D prints with wood, metal, and plastic filament, dimensions variable. Photo: Collection of M+, Hong Kong

Through Negotiation: A Conversation with Shirley Tse

Recipient of the International Sculpture Center’s 2023 Educator Award

For more than three decades, Shirley Tse—longtime CalArts faculty member, Guggenheim Fellow, and Hong Kong representative to the 58th Venice Biennale—has created sculptural interventions that interrogate notions of place, politics, and ecology. Defined by research and adaptation, Tse’s work responds to how our world changes, advocating for “world-making” as a poetics of survival versus “world-changing” as a force of inequality and dispossession, and a symptom of climate collapse. In her early work (1995–2006), she focused on plastics, and her Power Towers project (2004) led her to Iceland to study non-fossil fuel energy generation and mental health. In 2009, Tse launched her “Quantum Shirley Series” to prototype the plasticity of narratives, and her recent work underscores what is at stake in terms of our fragile democracy and climate.

In this conversation, which includes artist, educator, and collaborator Jinseok Choi, we explore issues of pedagogy, care and regeneration in daily and artistic practice, AAPI racialization and resistance, and questions of agency, hope, and uncertainty. We spoke in late summer 2023, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted was the planet’s warmest to date, surpassing 174 years of records.

Quantum Shirley Series: Squaring the Circle, 2010. Foam core, polystyrene, and highly reflective fabric, 96 x 45 x 30 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

Steven Lam: I would like to start our conversation with climate chaos and anthropogenic harm. The philosopher Rosi Braidotti mentions that we are at the turbulent crossroads of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where the promise of digital technologies such as AI and digital fabrication intersects with the sixth great extinction in which entire species are lost due to unsustainable uses of land. One would think that these times, particularly with the rise of the far right, would result in cynicism or a sense of despair, but if anything, they fuel the need to reimagine our agency. How do we create ecologically sustainable compositions? How do we make communion between non-human and human agents? What does it mean “to make,” especially now?
Shirley Tse: These questions lie at the very heart of my current thinking and practice. “Lompoc Stories” (my 2022 exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles), the Arctic Circle Residency, “Sustainability” (a new sculpture seminar that I’m teaching at CalArts), and my new work on well-being for “Portal, Virus, Arctic,” a recent solo show at Pasadena City College, are all ways of trying to figure out what a sculptural practice looks like when it is sustainable for our ecosystem, finances, and mental health. I have no simple answer. In terms of materials (with their extraction and production), fabrication, transport, and real estate, sculpture-making particularly forces me to examine various injustices inherent in the art infrastructure today.

SL: Jin, can I ask that same question of you? What does it mean “to make” now?
Jinseok Choi:
I’m always drawn to making and experiencing something physical. A podcast about the political decision-making process in Sweden caught my attention. The speaker discussed their approach
to tackling social issues—gathering individuals from diverse departments and backgrounds to ensure comprehensive input. While this method might seem slow due to extensive discussions, it dawned on me that this deliberate approach holds value. Through physical interactions with those vastly different from oneself, a deeper understanding of multifaceted issues emerges. This concept brought to mind sculpture and its inherent interactions. For me, making and experiencing sculpture is a way to create a moment in which complex physical interactions arise.
ST: This slow decision-making process that you describe reminds me of “Stakeholders” (2019), the project we made for the Venice Biennale. I was drawn to the idea of how differences might come together in an unprogrammed way that upholds individual agency and foregrounds the uneven stakes we hold.

Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019–20. Hand-carved wood, 3D prints with wood, metal, and plastic filament, dimensions variable. Photo: Collection of M+, Hong Kong

SL: That’s also the drive behind Negotiated Differences (2019–20). Through assemblage or how things are made, as well as the making of an assembly, one participates in a system that allows differences to be negotiated. It is both metaphor and how assembly is enacted.
ST: Negotiated Differences consists of more than 400 hand-carved wooden spindles and more than 400 3D-printed joints, combining old and new technology, subtractive and additive forms. There is no fixed configuration of how it should be connected; it is like a game and non-predetermined. For the carvings, I wanted to encompass as many kinds of difference as possible—wood species, color, implied function, representation/abstraction, and cultural origins. I wanted to see how differences come together to join the fight against gravity and how they do it through negotiation. It is quite precarious, because the whole thing is linked in one massive body using pressed fit only—no glue or nails. It is a pure balance of weight and angles. I want to visualize holding uneven stakes—some holding more weight.

SL: Since the sculpture is not permanently affixed, there is a sense of the informal and how behind
this idea of informality is a desire for mutual cooperation. The two are somewhat constitutive: difference requires cooperation. For instance, we have
diasporic communities in which informal relations determine a social reality of interdependence. There is something really beautiful about this promise behind informal construction or how informal situations can activate participation. When you create a work, do you think about creating a composition?
ST: I consider Negotiated Differences a siteresponsive installation—each time it’s installed, we will have
a different composition. Sometimes the process starts with some mapping out, and then we improvise.
Let me ask you this: Do you see composition as purely visual, or is it a coming together of relations?

Playcourt: Quantum Shirley Series: Shuttlepods, 2019. Cast synthetic rubber and dried vanilla bean pods, edition of 6, 1.5 x 7 x 7.5 in. each. Photo: Commissioned by M+ Hong Kong

SL: This is maybe why sculpture is interesting in 2023, because it also includes actions and situations. Object-making is more than the construction of things. I’m interested in Bruno Latour’s notion of the compositionist manifesto or Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s idea that composting is a composition. I think there’s a lot of potential when one involves the history of materials and thinks beyond the individual self.
ST: Indeed. If I take issue with buying stuff, consuming, enabling extractive business, increasing my carbon footprint through transport and travel, and being economically disadvantaged in the ability to preserve and store for perpetuity, then I might need to turn from object-making to action, performance, or social sculpture, i.e., the shaping of relations, beliefs, and perceptions instead of physical substance. And I might need to reimagine the idea of legacy.

SL: I’m curious how you’ve been thinking about land in your new work. How has your move to Lompoc, California, forced you to think about land and the various kinds of wisdom that came before, whether natural wisdoms or Indigenous wisdoms, which are all very different from the everyday urban context?
ST: Neither Spanish nor English, “Lompoc” means “standing water” in the Purisimeño language of the Chumash people. In “Lompoc Stories,” I want to shift the attention from the stranglehold of ownership and property to human and non-human stakeholders of the “land.”

Lompoc Stories Series: Spacesuit (detail), 2021. Snake molt, fiber optics, and diatomite, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

SL: Can we talk about the snakeskin Lompoc Stories Series: Spacesuit (2021)? I love that piece because it’s a way of making kin with non-human agents. I recently came across the work of Carolyn Merchant, who talked about how nature was considered dead by the rationalists, and since it was dead and inert, that justified the idea that the machine (through the alibi of progress) should replace nature with technology, because nature seemed primitive. The story of the snakeskin, which is so poetic, so everyday, and so local, is a way to build re-enchantment with nature.
To minimize my role as a consumer, I set up a rule for the “Lompoc Stories” series: no new store-bought materials, only materials I already have in the studio or found things. Spacesuit was born out of a walk in the nature reserve near my house. I saw this shiny thing sticking out of the ground. I was stunned to recognize it as a snake molt, and it seemed to urge me to take it back to the studio. Six months later, I was researching the conversion of Vandenberg Air Force Base to Vandenberg Space Force Base, where satellite launches and reconnaissance have become the specialty. From my living room windows, I can often see the vapor trails of rockets, and they look like snakes. That was the moment when I felt the snake left its skin behind to collaborate with me to make a piece about the sky above it. Long fiber optic strands that I had kept in my studio for a number of years came to my aid. I think this unlikely coupling was made possible by the limitation that I set for myself.

Arctic Air (detail), 2023. GMCraft 60 paper and content of HotHands®, 3.5 x 42 x 38.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

SL: Can you talk about how wind is an agent in your new work?
Because I am not buying new materials, the wind brings me art supplies—for example, a torn piece of roof paper that appeared in front of my studio. It is impregnated with tar, which reminded me of the coal mining town Longyearbyen in Svalbard, where we embarked on the Arctic Circle Residency in a tall ship. I cut out a silhouette of Svalbard in the tar paper, and in this void, I placed the contents of a product called HotHands that you use to warm your hands. It is made of iron, magnesium powders, and some charcoal. I like the idea of these powders carrying Arctic air. The wind also brought me some tumble weed, which is in the work, too, wrestling with cut-outs of zeros and ones, themselves cast off from another project.

SL: It’s a beautiful and complicated collage, a meeting of different worlds, all swept up together by the wind. Isn’t there also a video?
Yes, the video narrates an account of what a “Do Nothing” proposed project looked like in the Arctic—the struggle to remain “present” and resist documentation and representation.

The Arctic Circle, 2023. Still from looped video, 14:41 min. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

SL: I keep thinking about rest, resistance, and regeneration in your new work. It’s an everyday practice. To escape the influence of extractive industries, one needs to understand how these industries inform an extractive individualism.
The subtitle of my proposal was “In Search of Zero Impact Sculpture,” which pays heed to the degrowth movement. I wanted to see Svalbard because it is a place where climate change is six times more accelerated than the rest of the world. It was certainly challenging to make sculpture onboard a ship against all the elements, which made it poignant to contemplate the question, “What does it mean to do nothing or at least put things on hold?”

Midway through the residency, I announced to the group: “Since I am doing nothing, from now on I am of service to you: I can be your personal assistant, you can borrow all my gear, we can talk theory, or I will show you yoga and meditation though I am not a certified instructor.” It was interesting to see how sculpture turned to a performative mode—the act of shaping relations—when extraction, transportation, or transformation of physical things is put on hold.
JC: Putting physical things on hold might seem like “doing nothing,” but you were actually generating social and community actions, which should be considered more valuable than they usually are.

0 and 1 Wrestling with Tumbleweed, 2023. Laser-cut mat board and tumbleweed, 26 x 32 x 30 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

SL: In an essay about your work, Shirley, Chris Chien mentions Lisa Lowe’s idea of the plasticity of the coolie. Your early work was about the story of plastic and polystyrene. That is not just a story about chemistry, but also a story about migration and racialized labor as a byproduct of globalized manufacturing. In the 1970s and ’80s, Hong Kong was a site for plastic manufacturing, producing toys, plastic flowers, and other goods that were often seen as “tainted” knock-offs of Western intellectual property. I find it fascinating that you have been engaged in these questions for decades. ST: It was Jin who introduced me to Lowe’s Intimacy of Four Continents. Early in my career, since I was an immigrant, I used Styrofoam and bubble wrap to signify the movement of goods—globalization and movement of people. I remember defining plastics as “paradoxical,” “capable of occupying multiple sites at once”—surface and structure, temporal in use and permanent in substance, a material of the bright future and a Satan destroying ecologies.

After talking with a chemist, I realized that plastic is not actually a substance. It’s just a code, a formula, a syntax—enormous chains of small organic molecules, mostly carbons, organized in a specific way that cannot be easily undone. In other words, it is the syntax that makes plastic manmade. This opened up my research into narratives as plastics and the beginning of my ongoing “Quantum Shirley Series.” Works in this series weave together personal stories—my family served as the labor force for rubber and vanilla plantations—the Chinese diaspora, my experience as child labor for assembling plastic flowers, and Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory.

Quantum Shirley Series: Platform, 2010. World maps, wood veneer, threads, and highly reflective fabric, 36 x 55 x 65 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Shoshana Wayne Gallery

SL: It’s interesting to think that we are not an “I” but a “we,” consisting of numerous molecules that flow in and out of our body sack. This “we” is a composite of various histories—histories of colonialism, the culminating influence of warfare and technology, viral and bacterial life, and plastic toxins that constitute our environment. All three of us are committed teachers. Jin, how did Shirley’s work influence your thinking?
Two years as a student and two more as her studio assistant shifted my perspective on sustaining a creative practice. I have had the privilege to observe Shirley’s trajectory up close and was really inspired by her approach to establishing autonomy and creating an environment where she sets her own rules. It taught me that, as an artist, the most important and ambitious task is to define your own notion of sustainability and live by it.

Considering this, I wonder how we can share this perspective with students as art educators. Art schools often witness students driven by competitiveness and career aspirations, which can lead to excessive use of materials, straining the environment, their well-being, and their communities. I’m intrigued by the idea of art schools fostering alternative structures that prioritize sustainability at their core. This shift would encourage students to rethink their approach and nurture a sustainable ethos within their artistic journeys.