James Tsui He intuitively creates from the intimate awareness he has of his surroundings.
By Mary Truong August 20th, 2020
Talking with James Tsui about his artistic practice is an exercise in archaeology; he tends to unearth stories about places through artifacts. For example, when he talks about a project in which he installed street signs with enigmatic messages throughout his college town, he contextualizes it through his time abroad in Johannesburg. Tsui describes the city as being abundantly papered with handmade advertisements of shamanism and posters marketing goods, and he recounts wanting to bring that energy into a meticulously curated suburban city. At first glance, his artwork appears to be a disruption that provokes the environment through unfamiliarity, but perhaps it is more accurate to describe his work as an overlay, like setting two maps on top of each other and holding them to a light to understand the newly created space.
Tsui readily acknowledges the significance of his surroundings by incorporating places from his migratory life (born in Sydney, raised in Hong Kong, and familiar with different parts of the United States) into his artworks. Moreover, his work extends beyond specific places by recognizing ambient surroundings: during his adolescence in rural Connecticut, he recalls drawing in the woods and reading transcendentalist literature to find spirituality in nature. He cites poetry of birds, waterfalls, war, and friendship from Tang scholar-officials Du Fu and Wang Wei as another artistic influence. Mentioning grandiose works from American transcendentalism or China's Golden Age of Poetry would normally indicate rendering the sublime within art, but Tsui resists this idea.
“The connection my work has to my surroundings is not an idealized, untouched nature, but more the connection we have to the ecosystem we live in.”
This connection often manifests through Tsui's art-making process. In an installation of rosy silicone wonton sculptures, Tsui relates how the folding the dough-like material recalls memories of him sitting at the table with his aunts and uncles, pressing wrappers into imperfect dumplings. In a current project, he gathers and binds Hong Kong street dust into pastels for drawing. Through material and process, he draws attention to connections that we may have with our environment. Thus, underlying the surface of his artworks is a map with markers indicating stories of spaces.
“I am interested in moments of impact.”
Historically, process-oriented art uses immediacy in motion to instantaneously capture moments (think Richard Serra), but Tsui's art belies this notion by elaborately planning his projects; he notes some works are formulated a year or two in advance. Although Tsui often claims interest in "moments of impact," his prolonged process reveals more than singular moments: his description of "life as a series of images" more accurately characterizes his work. In Tsui's wonton sculptures, the silicone dough embeds both his current artist hands and the memories of his family's hands, overlapping the two images. Rather than moments, Tsui's art reveals contexts from his surroundings.
“I think of art as an intersection of making, thinking, and something bigger than you and me.”
Tsui does not aim to capture the vastness of the outside world in his art; instead, he intuitively creates from the intimate awareness that he has of his surroundings. He says he admires the Tang poets’ ability to "tease out significance in the surface of the everyday." He should reserve the same admiration for himself: Tsui skillfully distills “cosmic experiences” based on how we exist in spaces into art objects. In this manner, Tsui's practice moves from the realm of the sublime into the personal and intimate.
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