View of Wu Tsang’s video installation Duilian, 2016, at 356 Mission.

Wu Tsang’s recent exhibition at 356 Mission, “The Luscious Land of God Is Sinking,” was a mesmerizing and entirely unexpected outing for the artist. Rooted in the club culture of Los Angeles, Tsang is best known for performances and videos that evoke contemporary trans lives, most often in urban settings. Duilian (2016), the video at the heart of this show, proffers a rather different mise-en-scène, in which the two principal characters wear traditional Chinese garb and converse in a poetic manner amid deeply atmospheric seascapes.

Duilian was accessed via a long corridor lit by Spinster (2016), a hanging sculpture made from sword blades, combs, and red LED tubing. The left wall of the passageway was lined with display cabinets containing various items (paper ephemera, including a single yuan note; text-based lithographs that resemble stone rubbings, one of them reading, I IMAGINE THE BREEZE IS YOUR CARESS in both English and Chinese; stills from Duilian and other photographs; a book of Chinese poetry) that hinted at the video to come. From the corridor, visitors entered 356’s cavernous space, where Duilian was presented in dramatic fashion, with a vast screen spanning one corner of the gallery and seating in the form of a two-tier, hexagonal-shaped upholstered island.

The video centers on Tsang’s interpretation of the relationship between the radical Chinese feminist writer Qiu Jin, who was executed on charges of treason in 1907, and calligrapher Wu Zhiying as a queer romance. Played by the performance artist boychild and Tsang, respectively, Qiu and Wu are seen together in a junk boat, discussing subjects such as the importance of selflessness in a meaningful life. These sequences are interspersed with segments in which Qiu and a group of female warriors perform wushu, a dancelike style of martial arts that often employs swords. Doubling is a consistent trope in Duilian, the title of which refers to two-person wushu routines as well as to a form of Chinese poetry made up of antithetical couplets. The fast-paced motion and occasional clash of metal in the blue-tinged swordplay scenes contrast with the intimacy of the warmly lit vignettes, such as one in which Wu allows Qiu to comb her hair, all the while giggling coquettishly. 

Duilian, with its lush instrumental soundtrack, sophisticated cinematography, and elaborate costuming, signals Tsang’s increasingly ambitious approach to filmmaking. It also imagines an epoch completely different from that shown in her previous videos, like Wildness (2012) and A day in the life of bliss (2014), which throb with the urgency of contemporary life. Qiu and Wu speak in quasi-poetic meter, often to awkward effect, with utterances like, “Where in this endless world of dust can I find a true friend?” The video’s dialogue consists of quick, loose translations that Tsang commissioned of poems by Qiu, Wu, and their friend Xu Xihua. Tsang—who has described these translations as “mistranslations”—does not focus on accurately re-creating Qiu’s life or work, nor does she feign adherence to historical detail in a broader sense, allowing, for instance, the skyscrapers of contemporary Hong Kong to come into view as the boat passes through a harbor. The video itself emerged from the artist’s realization, on a visit to China to explore her roots, that such objective truths could not be found and that authentic portrayal is impossible.

The idea that every act of translation is creative is encapsulated by one of the images that was shown in the hallway, a black-and-white photograph titled Self-Inscription. It shows Tsang and boychild in traditional Chinese dress, posing stiffly in an approximation of vintage portraiture. Transcending time, space, and gender lines, these figures point to the ease with which the self can be constructed as they assume costumes and inhabit eras somehow both ancient and modern, performing multiple identities in fluid motion.