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.

There’s a limited supply: Arthur No. 3 (pub’d Feb 2003) aka THE JOE STRUMMER WAKE ISSUE


We’ve got 50 copies left of Arthur No. 3 (cover date March 2003, pub’d February, 2003). This one’s from the original incarnation (read: best) of Arthur—the pages are gigantic (11×17) and the paper is reasonably high-quality newsprint. Some color, some b/w. We’re selling our remaining stock for $5 each over at the Arthur Store.

Notes on this issue…

Joe Strummer died on December 22, 2002. His death received some notice, of course, but since he’d left us in the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year—when glossy music and culture magazines are basically shut down—real coverage of his passing, and the life that he lived, didn’t happen in the pop culture magazines of record. Big-budget American publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and Blender had already finished their January 2003 issues, so major features couldn’t fit in there without major expense (pulled features, pulped magazines, etc.); and by the time their February 2003 issues rolled around, the news of Joe’s passing would be (to their market-minds) “stale,” and thus to be deserving of only an obligatory page or two. Which is absurd for someone of Joe’s stature, his body of work, and commitment to The Cause.

At Arthur, we decided to pull the cover feature that we had in progress. Working together, with no editorial budget, the budding Arthur gang was able to put together something of substance very quickly, and get it out to the people, for free, in mass quantities (50,000 copies), within weeks of Joe’s passing.

Our wake for Joe Strummer would not have happened without journalist/archivist Kristine McKenna. She had a recent, lengthy (3800 words), and yes, poignant conversation with Joe on tape—a really great conversation, of course (this IS Kristine McKenna, after all) that the LAWeekly had used just a bit from in a feature earlier in the year. Kristine had witnessed The Clash at the top of their game, so she could offer some real historical perspective. And, crucially, Kristine knew that her friend, the L.A. photographer Ann Summa, had a trove of gorgeous photographs of Joe, few of which had ever been published. And Kristine got us permission to reprint a Clash-related page from Slash, the crucial late-’70s underground L.A. magazine. Meanwhile, my old colleague Carter Van Pelt, a reggae enthusiast, offered a new interview about Joe that he conducted with Mikey Dread.

Soon we had reports from all over. People were picking up multiple copies of the magazine and redistributing it. The golden centerfold of Ann Summa photo of Joe (worked on with a great deal of care and attention by Arthur’s brilliant art director, W.T. Nelson) was being torn out of the magazine and posted on record store walls, in dorm rooms, in clubs. There are other strong pieces in this issue—the John Coltrane book excerpt, especially—but it’s Joe’s issue. As it should be.

Here’s how the contents page read:

JOE STRUMMER, 1952-2002

Arthur holds a wake in print for a man who mattered. In addition to stunning photographs by Ann Summa and excerpts of back-in-the-day Clash coverage from Slash magazine, we present reflections on Joe by Kristine McKenna; a lengthy, poignant interview with Joe from 2001 by McKenna; a consideration by Carter Van Pelt of the Clash’s embrace of reggae, featuring insights from Clash collaborator Mikey Dread; and a brief on Joe’s legacy: a forest in the Isle of Skye.

At the height of both his popularity and his artistic powers, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper. An exclusive, chapter-length excerpt from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn.

The intrepid Gabe Soria connects with every single member of THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, the cheeriest 24-person pop symphony on the planet, in addition to chatting at length with Spree leader Tim DeLaughter about the “c” word, the Spree’s next move, and the sadness that remains. Portrait by Paul Pope.

“ASK JOHN LURIE”: He may be in self-described “hermit mode” but this longtime Lounge Lizard is eager to lend a helping hand to his fellow man. And woman too.

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

COMICS by Sammy Harkham, Jordan Crane, Johnny Ryan, Sam Henderson, Marc Bell and Ron Rege Jr.

Byron Coley & Thurston Moore review underground music, film and texts.

And more more more

Arthur No. 3 is available from the Arthur Store.