31 Days 31 Trans Voices | Day 25: Wu Tsang, Beyond the Visible Frame

Wu Tsang is a filmmaker, installation artist, activist and performer currently based between New York and Berlin, whose work is concerned with hidden histories, marginalized narratives, and the act of performing itself.

Tsang re-imagines racialized, gendered representations beyond the visible frame to encompass the multiple and shifting perspectives through which we experience the social realm. She is equally interested in how movement can articulate emotional experiences that exist outside of language.

Born in 1982 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Wu Tsang makes New York her home. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2010. Tsang produces artwork that addresses issues in the transgender and LGBT community. Her work interrogates themes of gender identity, social spaces, and the tension between film and art.

In 2012, Tsang was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” At Outfest 2012 Los Angeles LGBT Film FestivalWildness won the Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary. 

In 2012, she produced the film Wildness, which focused on the weekly performance-art dance parties of the same name and featured vignettes of marginalized gay and transgender communities. Says the artist, “For me performance is like research; lived experience is fundamental. I have to do these things to understand or have any critical analysis.” Tsang was featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial, and the 2014 edition of the Hammer Museum’s biennial exhibit “Made in L.A.”

Wu Tsang

She won the 2013 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award. In 2014, she was included in the Hammer Museum‘s 2014 “Made in L.A.” biennial. 

Tsang began collaborating with poet and theorist Fred Moten in 2014. That year they made a performance together and turned it into a film titled Miss Communication and Mr:Re, in which they read voicemails they’d left each other while Tsang was on a residency in Italy.  In 2015 Tsang and Moten made another film, Girl Talk, which Tsang called “a classic example of how we work together.”

In 2015 she received a 2015 Creative Capital Award for A Day in the Life of Bliss and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program Genius grant in 2018. In September 2019 Tsang had her largest solo exhibition at the Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin.

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Over the past ten years, through films, videos, and performances, Tsang has been exploring what she has called “in-betweenness,” a state in which people and ideas cannot be described in binary terms. Her films tend to be hybrids of narrative and documentary; they don’t fully commit to one form or the other. Tsang explains to ARTnews that in her work, she portrays a world centered on queer culture while questioning identity and revealing it to be elusive. The arc of Tsang’s career tracks with the increased visibility of queer and trans culture in America. But for Tsang, thinking of visibility in this way is “a trap.” Celebrating symbolic achievements “doesn’t really address the underlying systems,” she said. “Trans people are put daily in vulnerable situations.”

“Celebrating symbolic achievements doesn’t really address the underlying systems. Trans people are put daily in vulnerable situations.” – Wu Tsang

“I always feel hesitant to identify as anything,” she told Alex Greenberger of ARTnews. She has been dissatisfied with the ways in which these labels have been applied to her work, and she finds terms like “trans artist” and “trans activist” “super problematic.”

“We now have so many different associations with what that could mean that, for me, it’s not precise,” she told me. She worries about “the mainstream-atizing of trans cultural production and political positions.” Often her subjects do too. In one of her recent videos, a drag queen, speaking directly to the camera, says, “Gays aren’t even gay anymore, girl. Things are so different…you have to stay modern.”

To keep up to date on Tsang’s projects visit her website at Wu Tsang or follow her on Instagram at @wu_tsang or Twitter at @wutsang.

Terry Willits

Trans Speak's Editor-in-Chief is an international mixed media artist, writer, LGBTQ advocate, coffee snob, dog dad, and FTM transgender - but not necessarily in that order, who practices what he posts. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; he now does the writing thing from St. Louis, Missouri. You should check out his work - it's recommended by 4 out of 5 people that recommend stuff.

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