In a lecture at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art in 1975, Marcel Duchamp made the following prediction: “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.” Then came postmodernism, which killed any inkling of subcultures by turning the avant-garde into mainstream. The myth of the subcultural icon is still alive, but the underground is no longer a destination, it’s a point of departure. Wu Tsang is a subcultural icon that has been quite a sensation in the art world after her breakthrough in 2012 with the critically acclaimed film Wildness, a magical realist docu-fiction about fluid identities starring Silver Platter, a historic nightclub that has hosted the Latinx LGBTQI community in Los Angeles since the 1960s.
When I first saw the film, I immediately thought of my first experiences of clubbing in Stockholm in the early 1990s at the mythical club Extrakt, near the T-centralen subway station. I want to ponder this briefly before I return to Tsang. The club, which was frequented by the hippest celebrities of the day as well as wannabes, had a very strict dress code. Originality was key. The result? Latex, rhinestones, and plaid Vivienne Westwood-like creations. Some women walked around with semi-nude beefcakes trailing them on leashes. A man who used to show up dressed only in a vacuum cleaner hose, would sometimes vary his outfit by walking around naked with a plastic bag around his waist. I will never forget the man who looked like a strait-laced politician in a suit from the front and was thus turned away at the door. He smiled and spun around. He had cut a large hole in his pants, revealing his naked white bottom. He was let in immediately.
Since I was at boarding school in Sigtuna (a small town just north of Stockholm) at the time, my class mate and I used to show up in our school uniforms, with black pleated skirts, neckties, blazers, and black knee-highs. This was sufficiently kinky for the bouncers. Each Thursday, when everyone had gone to bed, we jumped out of a window at our residence hall, took the bus to nearby Tensta, then the commuter train to the club, partied all night, and rushed back in the morning, trying to climb back in through the window without getting caught. We often did get caught, but the penalties – morning clean-up, going for a run in woods with our German teacher, or fly fishing with our Latin professor – were essentially enjoyable.
The point is that Extrakt was an underground paradise. A place for fluid sexual and cultural identities, where no one seemed to care if you were lesbian, trans, bi, straight, or gay. The only rule was to look as eccentric as possible. That we stood out because of our uniforms is perhaps ironic, but to this day I remember the sense of belonging there, like we were all one big family based on radical respect and mutual admiration beyond identities such as gender, class, sexuality, and so on. Sure, the world outside the walls was nothing like that, but right there and then it was as if we were in a free zone untouched by AIDS and hardened identity discourses, and out of the reach of today’s biopolitical verification machines like Facebook and Instagram, and pharma-pornographic forces trying to makes us become the panopticon.
Seeing Tsang’s exhibition a few days before France – facing a higher COVID-19 infection rate than ever – closed all museums, shops, and restaurants again, was like returning to this utopian lost time. The Chinese American performance and video artist had just opened a solo exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations. All the floors of the building are occupied by a rather sophisticated and elegant total work of art. The galleries are dimly lit and filled with huge video projections. The exhibition begins on a curved wall with the enormous three-channel video installation The Show is Over (2020), made in collaboration with Tosh Basco (aka Boychild). The camera eye moves through a palimpsest of Black people in suits, moving and dancing on a dark stage, lit by bright spotlights. Every now and then they climb a staircase shaped like the Penrose triangle – an optical illusion which inspired both the acclaimed film The Name of the Rose (1986) and Harry Potter’s impossible stairs – and then step down again, reciting verses from a poem by Fred Moten about the relationship between earth and water, mud, and myths about blackness. “The world is dry land. The world is water,” is the refrain.
After a while, the people start crawling on the floor, among rolling red apples; they drag themselves over the muddy surface, and then climb up the stairs again, in a constant movement between death and resurrection. The beginning is the end, and the end is a beginning. The rolling apples are like something out of a lost paradise, where the fall is as much punishment as a rescue. The Penrose triangle reappears throughout the exhibition, not least in the form of sculptures on plinths; illuminated by strong spotlights, they evoke a revered cult object in a cathedral.
Like many trans people, Tsang does not seek points of departure or arrival, but rather transitions, intersections, and changes with no beginnings or ends – like an endless Penrose staircase where one can descend while climbing and climb while descending. No wonder psychoanalysts tend to see transsexuality as a negation of the law – the father’s law – and the real – that is, the impossible – a benign evil that comes and breaks the spell. But Tsang’s Penrose stairs are broken. If you climb one step, you have to step down again, and the same with the next one. The two stairs never join. The gap opens onto the void, as a sign of the insurmountable deficiency, or castration, which analysts claim transsexuals negate when altering their bodies. I see Tsang’s broken Penrose staircase as an indirect critique of this discourse and sign that the inadequacies persist despite the transformation. Something always remains impossible, no matter how much you try to transcend the boundaries of the body and the psyche.
The other works in the exhibition are not as strong. The glassed-in neon sign Safe Space (2014) – a reference to the sign outside Silver Platter which said, “the fist is still up,” yet another commodified political slogan shining in the dark – looks great, but that’s about it. The huge black and blue glass triptych Sustained Glass (2020) – an inversion of medieval allegorical stained glass windows, where the images have been swapped for text and each word is seen as an allegory and “glassblowing” is a symbol of “the unspeakable” (according to the gallery text) – mainly reminds me of evangelical art, although that in itself gives an interesting surrealistic twist to the exhibition. Close by is The more we read all that beauty, the more unreadable we are (2020), in which scenes from interviews with James Baldwin and film sequences featuring a Bette Davis-like actor are interspersed with rather clichéd images of whales and other National Geographic-like footage, to the sound of dramatic statements about earth’s magnificent beauty and suffering. Sometimes, scenes with the besuited dancers from The Show is Over also appear.
Things don’t fall into place for me until I see the very last work in the exhibition. Here, in a very tight three-minute video, Tsang has crammed in so many seductive club sounds accompanied by philosophical statements and curiosities from antiquity to the present day that I rewatch it again and again. It’s like falling between a rhythmically image-pumping Eric Pauser film and a slick Benetton commercial. Yes, human beings are to be pitied. Humanity is on the verge of collapse, and the only thing we can do is enjoy the show. Because we will re-emerge, at least in our minds, as long as we live. We are all trapped in the Penrose triangle’s eternal loop; the gap, the break, the way out, is just an illusion.
I’m reminded of George Floyd, of all the Black bodies being pulled in Tsang’s scenic mud, and of all the bodies crying for recognition and a life of peace and mutual respect. I’m reminded of the necrocapitalism of the virus experts, and all the bodies dying in my city, Paris, right now. I think of those who recently lost their lives, decapitated by terrorists, the teacher who showed his students caricatures of Muhammad, and the people who had come to the cathedral in Nice to pray to God, and wonder whether we’ll ever see brighter days.
Then it occurs to me that it’s all really about perception, about the art of seeing the world in a new light. Penrose’s intention with the triangle was to train people in thinking the impossible. With the risk of sounding kitschy (but one becomes what one sees), perhaps we all should be practicing the art of the impossible. Trying to conceive of the world from a new perspective, like one big underground night club for peaceful transformation, where everything is in progress, where we all dance side by side, even tough the world is crumbling around us. It’s like in the film Zorba the Greek (1964) where Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, has just seen his life fall apart. He stretches out his hands and begins dancing. Because the beginning is the end, and the end is only the beginning.