‘… my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment.’ So reads an excerpt from a video hosted on YouTube by autism rights activist Amanda Baggs in which she draws attention to the social barriers faced by sufferers of autism. In his video The Shape of a Right Statement (2008) Wu Tsang’s robotic mimicry of Baggs’ words, which are read by a speech programme, echoes her plea to strip any prejudices we might associate with those different from ‘us’. Not to relegate difference to a specific agenda, but rather to gain a better understanding of ourselves and our relation to those who might be ‘Other’ through a consideration of context and language.
Following on from his 2012 documentary film Wildness, a portrait of Latino and immigrant LGBT regulars at the Los Angeles trans bar Silver Platter, Wu Tsang’s first institutional solo exhibition in Europe, Not in my Language, challenged themes of language appropriation and social displacement. A minimal arrangement of three theatrical multimedia-installations across three spaces sets the stage, at the centre of which was Tsang’s attempt to give voice to a particular and underrepresented sub-culture.
The work Safe Space (2014) showed a wooden crate containing a neon sign from the Silver Platter reading ‘The Fist Is Still Up’. The sign’s inclusion here, as well as placement next to the short film DAMELO TODO // ODOT OLEMAD (2010/14), gives the exhibition a hybrid feel: quasi-documentary screenings and quasi-theatrical props. DAMELO TODO // ODOT OLEMAD, narrated and written by Raquel Gutiérrez, follows the fictional story of a young Salvadoran civil war refugee, Teódulo Mejía, who arrives in central Los Angeles and discovers the Silver Platter. For Mejía the bar provides a place of safety and refuge fom past political and personal suppressions. The partly Spanish narrative unfolds in a bilingual script (pointedly Tsang does not provide subtitles). With its first sentence, ‘The opening scene stages several realities,’ Tsang outlines exactly what’s at play here: the tension between a fixed objective reality and its many channels of interpretation. This thought is also articulated through the film’s presentation: hung inside a seductive velvet interior, three mirrors serve as the backdrop for the three-part projection. This refraction of both watching and observing oneself watch the film means the viewer is transformed into both viewer and viewed.
A day in the life of bliss (2014) is a two-channel projection reflected onto two large mirrors, which likewise prompts a voyeuristic role. The work takes us through a day in a science-fictional digital age, where dancer and performer BLIS (played by American artist boychild) and her friends strive to exist as characters of no specific gender. The 16mm projection For how we perceived a life (Take 3) (2012) re-interprets sub-cultural fragments. ‘Vogueing,’ for example, the emancipatory dance form that became popular in Harlem in the 1980s which was famously documented in the film Paris is Burning (1990). ‘Full body quotation’ is how Tsang describes his approach to language through its bodily theatrical enactment. Not in my language underlines the contexts that establish the delicacies of language and representation. With which words can one – as a viewer – articulate a cause that is not entirely one’s own? Capturing his audience and making them complicit in his films, Tsang shows that an environment only gains meaning in relation to shared, communicable concerns. A place best viewed from a space in between.