Remote Installation: Temporary Phenomenon or Persistent Theme?

Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders, installation view 2020. Commissioned by M+. Photo by Ringo Cheung. Image courtesy of the artist and M+.
Shirley Tse, Playcourt (detail), 2020, dimensions variable. Commissioned by M+. Installation view of Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders, 2020. Photo by Ringo Cheung. Image courtesy of the artist and M+.
Portrait of Shirley Tse. Image courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.
Shirley Tse, Negotiated Differences (detail), 2020, carved wood and 3D-printed filaments in wood, metal, and plastic, dimensions variable. Commissioned by M+. Installation view of Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders, 2020. Photo by Ringo Cheung. Image courtesy of the artist and M+.
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As galleries and museums present new exhibitions amid a time of COVID-19 and travel restrictions, the artist may not have been physically present during the installation of their artwork. Are the phrases “remote installation” and “site-specific” compatible? We address how artists such as Los Angeles-based Hong Kong artist Shirley Tse are dealing with social distancing from their own creations. And is this phenomenon here to stay?

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and M+

 

Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders, installation view 2020. Commissioned by M+. Photo by Ringo Cheung. Image courtesy of the artist and M+.

 

2020 is a story of separation and of distancing. Every field of human endeavour has been impacted. In September, Dominic Thiem beat Alexander Zverev in the US Open Final—but most of the top players had stayed home. On the stock market, Zoom Communications, helping us all call our friends around the world, is up 600% in 2020; airline stocks, to describe them in artistic terms, are a sea of red ink. On the human aspect, friends, families, lovers are separated. We all do what we can, and we try to move forward. For artists, moving forward means creating works and opening exhibitions.

Some artists are sanguine about the challenge of installing remotely. When we spoke to Chinese artist Zhang Huan about the installation process of his current show at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, his remarks were practical. The current situation may represent the model for the future, even when the virus recedes: “Due to the pandemic, our staff—including myself—was not able to travel to Russia to work on-site. Throughout the process, we communicated with the curators and staff from the Hermitage, as well as Pearl Lam Galleries’ Russia-based team and their international colleagues, via the internet and video calls. Throughout this pandemic, I found collaborating remotely through the internet is in fact more flexible and convenient, and it will become more common in the future.”

The art world is united in distance, or at least in tackling distance. Just in September, Lehmann Maupin in New York installed artworks by São Paulo-based street artist duo OSGEMEOS and South African Billie Zangewa’s works without the artists being there. In Hong Kong, the current example par excellence would be the current show at M+, “Stakes and Holders,” transplanting much of Los Angeles-based Shirley Tse’s “Stakeholders” exhibition from the 58th Venice Biennale to the Kowloon-side Pavilion. Tse is an artist who harnesses technology for production purposes, but whose work is resolutely physical and organic, the sensitive placement of shuttlecocks, bedposts and antennae building commentary on interconnections. As no glue or nails are involved, interconnected pieces are put together manually, individually, painstakingly. At M+, her most elaborate piece, a mazy warren of interconnected wood entitled Negotiated Differences, took three weeks to install. The artwork’s title became a prophecy of the installation process, which involved a team effort working across multiple time zones; the curatorial and installation team led by Doryun Chong in Hong Kong; the curator, Christina Li, in Amsterdam; and the artist herself in Los Angeles.

 

Shirley Tse, Playcourt (detail), 2020, dimensions variable. Commissioned by M+. Installation view of Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders, 2020. Photo by Ringo Cheung. Image courtesy of the artist and M+.

 

Echoing Zhang’s experience, Tse’s installation was a technical endeavour, involving four live cameras running 24/7, video recording, still photos, emails, texts, voice calls and video conferencing. In a conversation close to the time of the M+ show’s opening, Tse discussed her thoughts on the installation. Her answers demonstrate to what extent we have already become used to integrating technology into our lives. The current situation may be less of a stretch than it might seem: “The installation experience feels very mediated and disembodied… I am translating everything I see on the screens into mental 3D space. However, this experience also makes me realize how much of my ‘normal experience’ or ‘reality’ in the 21st century is already screen-based. In a way, this installation process is less a rift of reality than I had imagined.”

Tse has had some experience of aligning the physical and the virtual. In her “Lift Me Up So I Can See Better” exhibition in 2016, she experimented with 360° cameras and timelapse videos during the installation, harnessing photogrammetry and room-scale virtual reality in the gallery for an alternative experience. Commenting on the installation of “Stakes and Holders,” Tse points to a missing presence for the artist when communication is solely virtual: “While the virtual communication technologies make this effort possible, it does not provide a true sense of presence. This challenge is emblematic of our increasingly mixed reality worlds.”

 

Portrait of Shirley Tse. Image courtesy of M+, Hong Kong.
Shirley Tse, Negotiated Differences (detail), 2020, carved wood and 3D-printed filaments in wood, metal, and plastic, dimensions variable. Commissioned by M+. Installation view of Shirley Tse: Stakes and Holders, 2020. Photo by Ringo Cheung. Image courtesy of the artist and M+.

 

The M+ exhibition demonstrates the hybrid outcomes which reflect the compromises of today’s world: the balance of the physical and the technological, of shutdowns and restarts, distancing and collaboration. Plans are made, there is intensive communication, but what results at the end of the installation is perhaps not what would have been if the artist had been there physically. The artist isn’t present, but an installation team is—results will be different, perhaps no better or worse. Tse describes this as the “planned unplanned.” This is what happens when detailed plans and regular communication coincide with the presence and ingenuity of curators and installation teams on the ground.

It seems likely that restrictions of travel will be with us for a while, and possible that this may not be the last pandemic we experience in our lives. Emergency planning for logistics, and the anticipation of the need to install remotely will be part of sensible project management for the foreseeable future.

 

 

About the artist
Los Angeles–based Hong Kong artist Shirley Tse (born 1968) received a Master of Fine Arts degree from ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of Fine Arts. Her work has been exhibited at venues including the Pasadena Museum of California Art (2004/2017); Osage, Hong Kong (2010/2011); K11, Hong Kong (2009) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2001). Tse received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2009 and has been on the faculty at California Institute of the Arts since 2001, where she is the Robert Fitzpatrick Chair in Art. Past exhibitions include “Quantum Shirley,” Philip Feldman Gallery, PNCA, Portland (2014); “Lift Me Up So I Can See Better,” Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica (2016); “Stakeholders,” 58th Venice Biennale (2019). In 2020, “Stakes and Holders” opened at M+ in Hong Kong, continuing until 1 November.

 

 

 
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