THE STUFF THAT SURROUNDS YOU: Mimi Zeiger talks with artist SHIRLEY TSE (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March 2003)


In the work of artist SHIRLEY TSE, plastic aspires to more than Pop. Mimi Zeiger reports. 

Uber glossy, chicer-than-thou, magazine Wallpaper subtitles itself “the stuff that surrounds you.” The lifestyle porn peddler advocates a world filled with things: Palms, Karim Rashid baubles and Prada shoes. Anything. Any high-end object from the precious to the perverse to fill the vacuum of consumer culture. 

But what is all that stuff that surrounds you? Embraces you? Suffocates you? Artist Shirley Tse looks around and sees plastic. She sees that injected-molded form used to shape your iBook or Oral B, the packaging that surrounds the products: it’s the miracle of plastic that fills the vacuum surrounding us these days. In the translucent, bubble-pack Styrofoam between the box and the object lies the impetus for her artistic vision. 

“It is symbolic of our culture,” says Tse of packaging. “When you see a computer, you don’t even think about the box. You don’t think about what it takes to move that product from its origin to your house. Looking at the box makes you think about the process.” 

Rather than aspiring to package lifestyle, Tse’s most recent sculpture, Shelf Life, 2002, is life-sized packaging. Strangely beautiful, it is a 20-foot wide synthetic iceberg lodged in the second floor galleries of the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in San Francisco, seemingly filling the room to eye level with white polystyrene. There’s so much Styrofoam that prior to the show’s opening, Tse–the Capp Street Project Visiting Artist at the CCAC Wattis Institute–is jokingly apprehensive about how people will react to the piece. 

“It is a lot of Styrofoam,” she laughs. “Being here in San Francisco, with the tradition of radicalism, I have this nightmare that people are going to picket outside the gallery. They’ll boycott my show because of the amount of Styrofoam used.”

Like a three-chord pop song, Tse’s work seems simple enough for anyone to put together (given enough packaging material from stereo components), but its artistry comes in the handling of the few elements. Her earlier work is on a slightly smaller scale: sculptures made of polystyrene sheets, hand-routed into elaborate topographies. The scale of the artwork invites the viewer to make comparisons to things out in the world of culture, pop and plain. 

“I’ve been told it looks like a model for something bigger; it looks like a spaceship; it looks like a city,” explains Tse. “Which is fine, but I don’t want this piece to stop as a representation of something else. At some point I want my viewer to stop and look at the piece and go, “Oh, it’s just foam, it’s not a city.””

Complexity-in-simplicity is a truism in modern and contemporary art discourse: it’s why paint dribbled by Jackson Pollock is an artwork and paint dribbled by a two-year-old is a mess. In Pop Art, it’s why a Campbell’s soup can gets elevated to artistic status. For Tse, this duality is inherent in plastic: the simplicity spells out all sorts of arty questions. 

“I love how plastic embraces the paradox of a lot of things,” she explains “It’s soft, but hard; it’s surface and structure. It is something so ubiquitous and at the same time so alien. We live with it, but say things like ‘that’s phony.’ Plastic asks all these questions about originality.” 

In Tse’s hands, plastic aspires to more than pop. Despite its alien material, the work Shelf Life is desirously physical. The claustrophobic entry, where Styrofoam surrounds you on three sides, is relieved by a small set of steps. The short flight finishes on a foam plateau. From this vantage point, with your head nearly touching the gallery air conditioning vents and track lighting, what had seemed so stifling now stretches out into a landscape. The block is carved into organic shapes and marked with surface totems. 

“Is landscape really that natural anymore? It’s not,” Tse asks and then emphatically answers. “Even the landscape that we do see these days, like national parks, are totally manipulated. I can’t tell you when the packaging begins and when the landscape ends. The two things are going on at the same time.” 

Walking across the polymer landscape, Calvin Klein-minimalism gives way to something weirder. Seamier. The material properties come to life. White Styrofoam gets dirty. It gives under the weight of heels and toes, leaving small divots behind. The edges crumble and Shelf Life makes noises, high feedback squeaks and lower-toned groans as it adjusts to pressure.

Nestled in the foam terrain are three fiberglass tubs – fleshy peach with lip-gloss sheen. A fourth tub is set in the end of Styrofoam jetty that juts out into the empty area of the gallery space. They are decidedly unnatural and they seem to mimic beauty products. It’s appropriate that the vacuum-formed tubs were fabricated at Warner Brothers Studio Facilities, the heart of the Hollywood culture industry

Two of the tubs are lined in “memory foam.” The material akin to the sponges used to apply make-up is used in the piece because it holds an impression–place a foot on it and the print remains in the foam for a several seconds. Other tubs bring to mind the hedonistic high times of Jacuzzi baths. Sensuous curves fit the body. Climbing all the way into the tub, there is something sinister in the way that the plastic supports your spine and provides cubbyholes for arms and feet. This is vacuum-packed, human-sized packaging. Hot tub luxury is transformed into a disposable womb or tomb.

As frightening as it is to find yourself ensconced in plastic like a GI Joe or Barbie, Tse sees the work as liberating rather than confining. 

“At the end of the day, when I ask myself why my interest in plastic is sustained, it has a lot to do with plastic itself and its history and all that, but it is also an entry to the world for me. It has allowed me to slice through the layers and see what is going on the world. It’s a navigational tool: a way to open up.”

Without evoking fist-raising slogans, Tse’s work asks the uneasy question: Are we packaging our own existence? The confines of the shiny fiberglass sarcophagus make clear what really is the stuff that surrounds us: “brand new trash” as Tse likes to call it. The artist wrestles with her own position as a consumer and producer in the world of plastic. 

“The whole issue of recycling and the environmental aspects of the work is a complicated one for me. On the one hand, I do recycle material, but on the other hand I buy new material,” she says. “It’s a moral issue. When I ask myself these hard questions, I ask “Is it necessary?” And yes, I think it is necessary precisely because I want to use this material that makes up so much of our culture. Part of the environmental issue is that the plastic is used once and then thrown away, but as artwork, hopefully it won’t get thrown away, so it isn’t consumed in the way we usually use Styrofoam.”

Tse grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Los Angeles. The artwork she makes fills the gap between these two polar existences: supply and demand. 

“Sometimes you see artwork from someone from outside the United States, and you can tell that that’s a Latin or Korean artist because the work references something in their cultural heritage. I don’t think that there is anything that jumps out from my work and says that I’m Chinese or from Hong Kong, necessarily,” she reflects. “It is all about it, just not directly. There is the whole issue of commodity, artificially, synthetic exchange and movement–all coming from the place I grew up in.”

For Tse, the stuff that surrounds her and her cultural heritage are one and the same. It is plastic: malleable and rigid, beautiful and artificial.

Categories: Arthur No. 3 (March 2003), Mimi Zeiger | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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