A chamber where the sole reverberating sound is your own breath; a cello 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, photography 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 beside school, grew up with music at the Luxembourg Conservatory. For her advanced studies in Paris, her focus turned to visual arts at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris still accompanied by musical studies.
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 hands playing the JS Bach’s 48 keyboard preludes and fugues with splinted fingers. This work shows a mentally and physically harmful but determined path leading to a perfect sound. Whether in music or any other artistic pursuit, 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 to orientation and azimuth directions, it also points to Tse’s running interest in artistic expression and understanding related to one’s personal references and cultural background.
‘Standard Eye Level’ (2006) also exemplifies Tse’s nuanced contemplation of cultural rules in different societies; an installation work consisting of numerous bonsai plants, each is placed on a horizontal line of fluorescent orange tape stuck on the gallery walls. They are placed on a tripod adjusted to the standard eye-level the so-called average hight for hanging art works – a critical reflection on both the notion of standards as well as a visual metaphor for how the environments’ expectations 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 cube, a red 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 exaggerated, 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. During this musical play, the echo begins to respond with slightly different nuances and to seek some kind of independence. The dialogue between music and nature takes shape. Repetitive silent during this exchange plays a key role in the play and gives way to breathing … The recurrent importance of breath in Tse’s practice, results from her long-standing interest in Zen philosophy in both Chinese and Japanese culture. ‘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 and visual metaphors 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. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including solo shows at Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau; Mudam Luxembourg, Luxembourg; Joan Miró Foundation, Barcelona; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; Art Tower Mito, Japan; Seattle Art Museum, Seattle; PS1, New York; Casino, Forum d’Art Contemporain, Luxembourg; Renaissance Society, Chicago; Moderna Museet, Sweden. Group exhibitions include Setouchi Triennial, Japan; Zentrum Paul Klee, Switzerland; Hirschhorn Museum Washington DC; Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany; Singapore Biennale; Kunsthaus Zurich; Sao Paulo Biennale. Tse has additionally been the recipient of multiple prizes, including the Prize for Contemporary Art by the Foundation Prince Pierre of Monaco and the Edward Steichen Award, Luxembourg.