On a recent Sunday, artist-filmmaker Wu Tsang leaves the Hollywood Farmers Market with a single avocado, a coveted snack for the flight to London later that day. "They're never the same there," she says of that familiar longing for the Hass. After a decade or so in L.A., Tsang has been spending more time in Europe, but she returns to finish each film with the same team that made her 2012 feature debut, Wildness, about the historic immigrant gay bar the Silver Platter in MacArthur Park.
This time, she was wrapping up a project that follows a refugee and a photojournalist on the Greek island of Lesbos, for an experimental art installation at the Sharjah Biennial. Other recent work includes Duilian, a breathtaking historical narrative about the 19th-century poet Qiu Jin (which appeared in 2016 as part of a solo exhibition at the now-defunct 356 Mission Road), and a collaboration with Gucci for the Frieze art fair exploring the history of house music in New York.
When news came, late last year, that Tsang would be a 2018 MacArthur Foundation "genius," it was on the tail of her residency at a Berlin museum — and shortly before she started a three-year directing stint at a national theater in Zurich. (She also is a 2019 United States Artists Fellow.)
Such cosmopolitanism can seem effortless. But for an artist who has so elegantly occupied the fringes — making experimental film and video art, intently focused on queer and trans subjectivities and communities — the grant came as profound affirmation.
"It feels like a mandate to do the work I've been doing and not hold back. I didn't come from money, and I've had to support myself always in my art practice, and that has never been easy," Tsang tells the Weekly. "It's like a time I can go inward. There's usually so much pressure on artists to generate output, make stuff, be showing, be visible. It's kind of nice to feel like I can hide for a minute."
In conversation with a journalist she just met, Tsang is carefully generous. Occasionally, her deep-gold eyes transmit something more candid. Eloquently gender-ambiguous and austerely graceful, she wears the kind of full-length winter coat Angelenos rarely own. We walk briskly to a cafe on Sunset, discussing the slow-burn of realizing you've won the MacArthur — this year a $625,000, no-strings award that relies on a notoriously secretive selection process, and the strength of peer referrals.
Topical interests vary but Tsang is most committed to exploring them in the fertile ground between documentary and fiction. In particular, an ongoing dialogue with performance — how it elucidates and amplifies that formal space — has helped define a unique style. A years-long collaboration with the performance artist Boychild, initially inspired by Charles Atlas' work with Merce Cunningham, has given her a keen, empathetic eye for movement.
"I really love working with performers, especially musicians, singers, dancers. When there are these forms of affective expression, when it's not about language necessarily but about other forms of communication, I feel particularly inspired to collaborate in that realm," Tsang says. "What I'm most interested in is when you introduce performance into a documentary, it kind of points to the constructedness of it. There's a sense that it's real and reality is unfolding, and there's something unpredictable about that that I love, but at the same time we're sort of acknowledging that we are play-acting, and that there is a camera, and this total fabrication of all these people behind a camera that are trying to make something look natural."
An activist background informs her work, although not always in ways that propelled Wildness — which toured the festival circuit, won awards and had a sales agent. "The whole purpose of all of that engaging with the machine was [to] make something that goes out as far and wide as it can, spreads a message and impacts or touches consciousness." She now questions that assumption of accessibility but is hardly seduced by newer, faster ways in which we encounter media. "What does it mean to reach someone or have them think about something? Is it just something that you post, or they repost? That you have a message and the message goes viral for two days?" Tsang wonders.
"Even when I was doing Wildness, my goals have always been about bringing people together in a physical space. I think film can be a way to do that, because you can capture that moment and translate it into a medium that is more shareable. One thing I like about making installation work is that it is something you have to experience in person. It's not something you can just see on Instagram and know what it means. So it kind of slows down the process."
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Years of thinking about the existential parameters of filmmaking versus visual arts have ultimately freed up the space to disregard both. "At this point I really don't feel constrained by either," Tsang says. She's flirting with Hollywood, and knows how to navigate an artist-brand collaboration, but remains realistic. "Whenever there's a lot of money, it's always going to be dirty on some level. So you always have to draw your own line. I'm only going to work that way if it's worth it — if it's about redistributing resources and getting to say something I want to say."
Not even MacArthur geniuses are spared the merciless undertow of the creative process. "There's generally always a certain point of feeling there is no way forward, I can't do this, I don't know what I'm doing, there is no idea, this is stupid — there's all that doubt," Tsang admits. "It happens every time. It never goes away no matter how many people seem to be empowering me. It's an internal struggle. That is a big part of, for me, the discovery about being an artist, is almost just the stubbornness of continuing.
"So I kind of just push through. And I think that's actually really liberating to realize that I'm always going to be trying to make the exact same film — and I'm never going to make that film. The film that exists inside of me that I want to make, I think it will always come out in these different ways but it's like a lifelong process. So everything I do is incomplete."