A chamber where the sole reverberating sound is your own breath; cellos played against an accentuated mountainous green backdrop; conical shells as coated headphones – these are disparate yet interlinked examples of the delicate, lyrical humour that pervades Su-Mei Tse’s (b. 1973, Luxembourg) practice, which spans video, installation and sculpture. A trained classical cellist of Chinese and British descent, Tse weaves a meditative, “visaural” tale empowering the language of music as a primary voice. Investigating associations between places, geographies, cultures, traditions, Tse’s work elicits a cross-stimulation of the senses, where time and its flow are suspended in a gentle state of contemplation.
At the heart of Tse’s practice is its relationship with musicality. Brought up by a violinist father and pianist mother, Tse initially studied at the Luxembourg and Paris conservatories before pursuing fine arts studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. From ‘Das Wohltemperiete Klavier’ (2001) to ‘Chambre Sourde’ (2003), Tse explores a range of relationships with sound, from the literal to the more abstract, each time placing music as the prime conveyor of her conceptual pulse. In the former video work, for example, Tse shows a close-up of a pianist’s bound-up hands as they voraciously and determinedly play one of JS Bach’s 48 keyboard preludes and fugues. Repeatedly missing the correct notes, Tse points to the journey towards mastery and conquering of doubt. Conversely, the latter is an installation, which as an anechoic chamber, invites a contemplation of silence. Linking to the Ancient Greek Sceptic’s concept of ‘epoché’, there is a state of suspension as the oral clutter one is accustomed to is blocked, leading to an intellectual pause and attainment of self-consciousness.
Tse contemplates a range of subjects, including the dichotomy of cultures and place. Responding to her personal Eurasian background, certain works flesh out her relationship with Asia and the West whilst simultaneously diverting from the clichés associated with each. ‘Dong Xi Nan Bei (E, W, S, N)’ (2006), for example, is an installation of four neon Chinese characters, each signifying a cardinal point. Beyond the work’s relationship with her personal origin, it equally points to Tse’s running interest in Japanese culture by being arranged according to Japan’s azimuth direction. ‘Standard Eye Level’ (2006) also exemplifies Tse’s nuanced contemplation of cultural variance; an installation work consisting of numerous bonsai plants, each is placed on a horizontal line of fluorescent orange tape stuck on the gallery walls. Originating from not only Japan and China but also Europe and Oceania, each plant is placed on a tripod adjusted to the standard eye-level of the residents in the country – a reflection on both the standards pertaining to each culture as well as a visual metaphor for how environments impact each and everyone’s development.
Amidst the musical and cultural currents in Tse’s work is additionally a strong sense of poetry and nuanced humour. From ‘SUMY’ (2001) to ‘L’Echo’ (2003) and ‘Les Balayeurs du Désert’ (2003), there is a running sense of delicate wit. ‘SUMY’, for example, made in collaboration with Tse’s partner Jean-Lou Majerus, is a pair of light-brown seashells enclosed in a transparent red cube, a cloth interconnecting the units in order to resemble a pair of headphones. Playfully combining her name with that of Sony, the sculpture evokes the aural experience of listening to the ocean via a seashell. ‘L’Echo’ further explores this sense of play: a large video projection shows Tse herself playing the cello on a lush mountainside in the Alps. The romantic setting is somewhat ridiculed, however, by the over-dramatisation of the picture composition, chiefly the sharp contrast between her red costume and the saturated green of the mountain grass. Additionally, the melody she plays echoes amidst her surroundings till it falls out of sync, the setting seemingly carrying both the music and her into the distance. ‘Les Balayeurs du Désert’ further fleshes out this relationship with the landscape by showing a group of men dressed in Parisian street cleaners’ uniforms sweeping a desert in a continuous loop, the futile motion tracked by the sound of their movements.
Overall, Tse’s work poetically draws us into contemplation of our sense of place, self and time, using the universal language of music to at once suggest trains of thought but ultimately allow us to formulate our own. Balancing Tse’s research-driven, intellectually-complex practice is a subtle sense of humour, which lends to an overall delicate dialectical sense of play as well as approachability. Tse’s practice is ultimately not just seen, it is heard and felt; a complete multi-sensory experience that plunges one into a state of suspension.
Su-Mei Tse is an internationally-celebrated artist who rose to prominence in 2003 when she represented Luxembourg at the Venice Biennale and was awarded the prestigious Leono d’Oro award for her tripartite installation ‘Air Conditioned’. Tse’s work has since been exhibited nationally and internationally including solo shows at Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei (2019); Yuz Museum, Shanghai (2018); Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau (2018); Mudam Luxembourg, Luxembourg (2017); Joan Miró Foundation, Barcelona (2011); Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (2009); Art Tower Mito, Japan (2009); Seattle Art Museum, Seattle (2008); PS1, New York (2006); Casino, Forum d’Art Contemporain, Luxembourg (2006); Renaissance Society, Chicago (2005); Moderna Museet, Sweden (2004). Group exhibitions include Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany (2009); National Gallery of Art, Poland (2009); Singapore Biennale (2008); Kunsthaus Zurich (2006); De Appel, Amsterdam (2005); Sao Paulo Biennale (2004). Tse has additionally been the recipient of multiple prizes, including the Prize for Contemporary Art by the Foundation Prince Pierre of Monaco (2009) and the Edward Steichen Award, Luxembourg (2005).