Installation view of KA-MAN TSE’s “Narrow Distances” at Aperture Gallery, New York, 2018–19. Photo by Anja Schwarzer. Courtesy Aperture.

Narrow Distances

Ka-Man Tse

Aperture Gallery
Hong Kong USA

In an untitled photograph, two young men wearing baseball caps nap on an abandoned wooden pallet. Blue waves gently lap against the concrete jetty. Beneath a hazy, gray sky, ships dot the bay. On the right, two pylons of a cable-bridge stretch along the horizon line toward the silhouette of Hong Kong’s mountains. But the couple, whose eyes remain closed, pay no mind to the scenery. One of the figures cups his hand on the bare knee of his partner, who in turn reclines with his torso and arm cradled against his companion’s legs and chest. It’s an intimate image that easily conveys the tenderness shared between two people.

Such unguarded moments represent the essence of the photographic series “Narrow Distances” (2015–17) by Ka-Man Tse, who won Aperture’s 2018 Portfolio Prize and subsequently mounted a solo exhibition at New York’s Aperture Gallery. Born in Hong Kong, and now based in New York, Tse journeyed between both of her home cities to depict the intersections of the Asian LGBTQ communities. She opted to shoot her subjects using film rather than with a digital camera, which helps explain why the color photographs look so intentionally composed, even cinematic at times. Yet, there remains a candid quality, an openness, that invites the viewer into these vignettes.

KA-MAN TSE, Untitled, 2015, from the series “Narrow Distances” (2015–17), photographic print, 76.8 × 61 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Taken in 2015, the most striking example of this balance features an off-duty drag queen kneeling on a deserted rooftop at night. Constrained by a waist-cinching corset with crimson laces, which match the lace-up stiletto boots that she has kicked off her stockinged feet, the figure props herself up with one arm while a half-finished cigarette rests between the fingers of her free hand. Light bathes her body, casting a perfect shadow on the wall behind as if it were a stage backdrop. The subject’s eyes, accentuated by heavy make-up and false lashes, stare off into the distance, beyond the frame. The tableau draws attention to the drag queen’s construction—or, given her state of undress, deconstruction—of gender. In spite of a certain layer of artifice, the photo illuminates a truth about how identity is performed.

A later photo, from 2016, focuses on a gender-nonconforming individual as they gaze at themselves in the mirror. The reflection is refracted, so that their self appears not only doubled but also partially obscured. Each of the fragmented images reveals a particular detail, such as the religious symbol of the cross, tattooed on their chest. In this way, Tse captures the multiplicity that can be contained in one person’s complex identity.

KA-MAN TSE, Untitled, 2016, from the series “Narrow Distances” (2015–17), photographic print, 50.8 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

Through her portraits, Tse continues to explore variations of how femininity and masculinity can be presented. A group of women pass time outside a Brooklyn apartment building by posturing nonchalantly, sharing a lighter and flexing their muscles. In another instance, two men embrace intently in front of the Hong Kong skyline. Among the nine photos, only one does not include a single person: it lingers on high-rises accompanied by a tangle of cables and antennas—an urban jungle foregrounded by sparse greenery that’s out of focus—and seems merely atmospheric in purpose at first glance. However, the unremarkable setting also serves to support the quotidian nature of queer people in everyday situations.

KA-MAN TSE, Untitled, 2017, from the series “Narrow Distances” (2015–17), photographic print, 61 × 77.5 cm. Courtesy the artist.
KA-MAN TSE, Untitled, 2017, from the series “Narrow Distances” (2015–17), photographic print, 61 × 77.5 cm. Courtesy the artist.

The quietness of Tse’s images speaks volumes. They reaffirm more than just her subjects’ existence; they celebrate their rich inner lives and the diverse narratives that are unfolding in these private and public spaces. As the title suggests, “Narrow Distances” bridges the gap between two cities and cultures. But more importantly, the series centers those communities often at the margins—quite literally bringing them into the middle of the frame, so that we can’t miss them.

Mimi Wong is a New York desk editor of ArtAsiaPacific. 

Ka-Man Tse’s “Narrow Distances” is on view at the Aperture Gallery, New York, until February 2, 2019.

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