WU TSANGDuilian, 2016, HD video with color and sound: 30 min. Installation view at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo by MC. Courtesy Spring Workshop. 


Wu Tsang

Spring Workshop
Hong Kong USA

Duilian (2016), the aftermath of artist-filmmaker Wu Tsang’s six-month residency at Hong Kong contemporary art platform Spring Workshop, is simultaneously theatrical and intimate. Dim lighting and lush, floor-length velvet curtains invite a reverential hush, prepping viewers for the surreal 27-minute film revolving around legendary Qing Dynasty-era female revolutionary Qiu Jin (1875–1907). The revered mystique surrounding this historical hero from the East is amplified by the fact that Qiu was a woman; transgender artist Wu Tsang plays on this idea, literally and metaphorically, achieving uncannily enthralling results. While the film has been accused by some of orientalization and speculative queering of the ‘other’, Tsang’s defense for Duilian might be that it does so consciously and unapologetically. 

The Chinese word “duilian,” as written in pinyin, denotes both a form of traditional Chinese couplet poetry (對聯) and the practice of wushu sword fighting (對練). Both connotations involve dueling: while the reference is more evident in martial arts, it is just as relevant in couplet poetry, where each word rhymes in tonal opposition to its corresponding “sister” and are, thus, engaged in charged, spirited and often flirtatious dances of meaning. Such antagonistic yet paradoxically intimate undertones set the scene for the film. While Qiu was a feminist martyr executed for leading a historical insurgency against the Qing government, she was also a poet and writer, whose surviving body of work heaves with political passion and a just-as-fierce longing for her female bosom friend, the noted calligrapher and publisher Wu Zhiying (1868–1934).

WU TSANGDuilian, 2016, HD video with color and sound: 30 min. Installation view at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo by MC. Courtesy Spring Workshop. 

In the film Wu Zhiying is played by the artist herself. The project was a chance for Tsang, born in Massachusetts and based in Los Angeles, to reconnect with her Chinese heritage. The role of Qiu is taken on by boychild, a gender-blurring performance artist who is also Tsang’s (self-identifying as “transfeminine” and “transguy”) real-life partner and longtime collaborator. Their chemistry is powerful, resonating through the film’s incongruence of time and narrative. In a particularly evocative scene, boychild floats topless in translucent waters in present-day Hong Kong, while a nipple drifts conspicuously in and out of view. Splicing together contemporary choreography, martial arts sequences, dreamy period scenes and intimate conversations on a colonial-style junk boat, Duilian makes no effort to unify its discordances. Just as German artist-filmmaker Hito Steyerl’s deliberate use of poor images provokes translation and mistranslation while simultaneously “constructing anonymous global networks” by alluding to shared histories and alliances, Tsang’s homely freckles, boychild’s iconic style and the film’s kitsch sets and costumes construct a bizarre and timeless economy that intrigues even as it jars, opening up fresh narratives and developing new truths.

WU TSANGDuilian, 2016, HD video with color and sound: 30 min. Installation view at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, 2016. Photo by MC. Courtesy Spring Workshop. 

Indeed, the real star of the film is perhaps not the protagonists but the deliberate mistranslations of their poetry. Through a series of unique collaborations, Tsang invited artists and people from the queer community to freely translate the poems as they saw fit. Even after the poems were translated professionally, Tsang decided to retain the amateur versions, overlaying the film with voices of Hong Kong’s LGBT community in Cantonese, Malay and Tagalog. For Tsang, mistranslation became a method of “queering” the official narrative: a means to set free a language from its time period, to approximate, re-write and make visible the invisible. In this sense, truth and historical accuracy is at once challenged and rendered inconsequential. As the artist told Artsy, in reference to the narrative of Duilian, “[The relationship] could have a queer interpretation. I’m […] not trying to prove that they were lesbians, but I am interested in that angle. Translation can be a process through which we discover ourselves.”

Wu Tsang is at her best when she maneuvers the waters between truth and fiction and magical realism and real-time interpersonal intimacy, which itself straddles and complicates the margins of performance and authenticity. Duilian allows the artist to infiltrate another dimension—that of the “untouchable” history of China, a mighty country long closed off to the world. While the accusation of orientalization is not an unfound one, perhaps the real focus should be on its irreverence: Duilian defiantly shakes off its anchors to truth and permanence, drifting bravely and waywardly towards uncharted territories and complex depths. Recalling that both connotations of the word duilian imply dueling, Tsang fittingly engages in a teasing yet compelling duel with history itself, reinvigorating it by challenging and transcending its borders. The film speaks as much to its historical references as to the present moment, inviting us to explore queer identity in China and the rest of the world.

Wu Tsang: “Duilian” is on view at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, until May 22, 2016.