I. To speak of a declaration of war would be exaggerated, but it is already a challenge. Wu Tsang, one of the hippest performance and video artists the nervous art scene currently has to offer, is celebrating her first Zurich theater premiere this evening in the former city barracks on behalf of the Schauspielhaus’s new management duo, Nicolas Stemann and Benjamin von Blomberg. Composition I , the prelude to a trilogy, at this location: this offers explosives in two ways.
Let us begin with the location: After the traumatic experiences of the so-called Zurich putsch in 1831, the bourgeois city government had the extensive barracks area built as a demonstrative sign of their will to power and order. Strategically located, it separated the bourgeois palaces built in the second half of the 19th century around Bahnhofstrasse from the westward expanding workers‘ quarters in Aussersihl. While today the city police are still housed in the run-down main building on the banks of the Sihl, the independent cultural scene began decades ago to settle in the former armoury buildings, including a well-equipped theatre hall.
II. Wu Tsang and free scene, at first glance this seems to fit, „this matches.“ The shooting star has his artistic roots in the underground scene, the drag, queer and LGBT milieu of the West Coast of the USA, Los Angeles. The party mile Langstrasse with remaining islands for the gay and trans communities is in the immediate vicinity of the Zeughaus. What could be more natural than to accommodate Wu Tsang in the barracks arena instead of in the in-house, similarly dimensioned shipbuilding box? In choosing the performance venue, Stemann and von Blomberg cleverly use the expectations of their audience to make their concept of a theatre that transcends formats appeal to the mainstream – although the question must be allowed whether the location represents much more than an atmospheric space for marketing
But just a stone’s throw away from Wu Tsang’s performance venue on the other side of the Sihl are the former training horse and cavalry stables of the Gessnerallee, which also belong to the barracks area and are home to the Zurich Theaterhaus, which is responsible for guest performances. The Schauspielhaus, once the bourgeois hoard of the „good, true, beautiful“, with Stemann/ von Blomberg, both of whom have their roots in the independent scene, is now moving dangerously close to this, both spatially and aesthetically. The core business of the Theaterhaus in der Gessner is to provide a stage for experimental formats, hybrid performance forms and ensembles. Would it not have been their task to give Wu Tsang a home? Now it is the Schauspielhaus. Are productive synenergies emerging here? Or is a fight for displacement beginning?
Ultimately, however, it is an even more fundamental tension that becomes virulent through Wu Tsang’s work at the Schauspielhaus: the conflict between theatre and art. It is as old as the arts themselves, allowed the performing and visual arts to differentiate themselves from one another in the 18th century, and led to the institutionalization of museums on the one hand and stage houses on the other in the 19th century. Although the avant-garde of the 20th century made an offensive effort to undermine the separation of the genres Dada, agit-prop, happening and performance were established on pub stages, in galleries and in art associations or took to the streets immediately. But the persistence of museums and theatres has remained great to this day. Perhaps one day a mainstream artist such as Neo Rauch or Gerhard Richter will be hired for a stage design, but their commitment remains decoration. The theater has never really wanted to get involved in the working and reception forms of contemporary art – just as guests from this field are not familiar with the laws of the theater. Similarly helplessly, the institution of the museum usually acts with performative art.
The declaration of war of the Schauspielhaus on the Gessnerallee and the independent scene is therefore not only „what you can do, we can do better,“ but also „we succeed in dissolving the boundaries between genres, genres, institutions in the long term. The explosive charge of visual art is thus not only placed on the traditional distinction between high and low, Schauspielhaus and Gessnerallee, but also on the institution of the theatre, with its production processes, performance conventions and reception rites.
III. Who’s Wu Tsang? What does she stand for, what can we expect from her? In Zurich she is no longer an unknown. In 2014, the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, together with the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, organized a survey exhibition entitled Not in my Language, the first ever. Here a touchingly beautiful work was on display that told with empathy and wit, documentary and fictional at the same time, about lives and dreams on the fringes of US society. The viewer found himself right in the middle and outside, attracted and distanced by a migrant-dominated trans-scene, which in a conflict-laden game both sketches and acts out identity, gender and origin, as well as offensively carries them into the public eye.
With the semi-documentary film Wildness (2012), the then thirty-year-old Wu Tsang achieved an early breakthrough. She shot it in the gay club „Silver Platter“ in Los Angeles, founded in 1963, with members of the Hispanic LGBT scene and artists from her circle of acquaintances and friends. The underground club culture is the nucleus of her performative work. It ranges from party organization, casting, acting, camera and directing to being an activist for the gay community and trans women. The fact that the artist’s path there must have been arduous and conflict-laden only indirectly becomes a theme in her films when she raises the question of identity, voice, language, gaze regimes and public visibility. Even when she appears as an actress, she withdraws, and her person recedes behind the representation. For her, too, the mask is the possibility of simultaneously showing herself and concealing herself.
IV. Portrait of an Artist. Wu Tsang was born as a boy in 1982 in Worcester, Massachusetts, 50 miles from Boston, in the US-American East Coast Province. His mother, half American, half Swedish, his father, a Chinese who immigrated illegally to the USA. The question of recognition and affiliation, identity and destiny was raised with the awareness of having been born in the wrong body, once again shocking and radical. To redesign oneself in an artist’s existence may have been an existential necessity. After graduating from college, Wu Tsang went to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and continued her studies at the Interdisciplinary Studio of the University of California, Los Angeles. Founded in 1997, the studio had left behind the deadlocked paths of academic art education and offered a disciplinary cross-over from painting to performance and activist practices. The program also included an exploration of classical theater forms. Wu Tsang first tried her hand as a video filmmaker and performer. It was only with another overview show in 2019, There is no Nonvoilent Way to Look at Somebody in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, which ended two weeks ago, that she showed not only video works and photographs, but also sculptural works such as the labeled glass steles Sustained Glass (2019) or the crystal chains, Untitled (Incommunicado) (2019). Finally, the record player Sudden Rise (Dub. 1) (2019), referred to another step in her work, the step into the illusion machine of the theatre.
V. Sudden Rise is Wu Tsang’s first work that confronts the classical conditions of the theater. From her collective Moved by Motion, which had emerged over the years through her performance and video works, a theatre ensemble was formed with the performer Boychild, the chellist Patrick Belaga, the dancer Josh Johnson, the sound artist Asma Maroof and the author Fred Moten. The one-hour piece was premiered in May 2019 in Athens. It toured on to the HAU in Berlin, and then concluded with a celebrated Swiss premiere at the Pfauen in Zurich as part of the new director’s opening ceremony. „Tout Zurich“ sat in the stalls, and rarely before have the separate scenes of the theatre-goer celebrities and Art Basel VIPs met at par.
But the high expectations of the audience could only be partially fulfilled. The intended magic of the evening only shone in a few places, for example in the grace of the performers and the refusal of common beauty, which also hit the core of the performance. What remained was a somnambulistic series of images, a collage of moving, caravaggesquely lit bodies in floor-length shirts, video recordings reminiscent of the American video artist Bill Viola, underscored by a trance-like sound of cello and electronic music. The fact that theatrical presence means more than moving images plus music did not really come into play in Sudden Rise. The texts recorded live by Wu Tsang did not change this as a third moment. More than fulfilling the rules of the business grosso modo was not the case.
Will this change tonight with Composition I in the barracks? Yes. If a dramaturgy and trades and not least the entire ensemble are at her side to enable her troupe to reach the creative heights that are known from other contexts. Wu Tsang is just beginning with Moved in Motion in Zurich. A trilogy and a film are planned, which are to be created by summer 2020. There is still plenty of time to get to know each other.
Abbildungen: oben, Wu Tsang, One emerging from a point of view, 2019
Überlappende Zweikanal-Projektionen, 5.1 Surround Sound
43 Min.; unten, Wu Tsang, One emerging from a point of view, 2019 überlappende Zweikanal-Projektionen, 5.1 Surround Sound, 43 Min. Courtesy: die Künstlerin; Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi; Cabinet & Antenna Space
Text: Max Glauner