Before she was a MacArthur Fellow, before she took the world by storm with sublime multimedia installations, before she had her work shown and her performances installed at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Museum and the Tate Modern — before any of that — Wu Tsang was simply a young artist from chilly Worcester, Massachusetts. The child of a white mother and a Chinese father, she remembers looking for her place, for where she fit in the world. “I was doing all the things that I still do today, but I didnt have a label or an identity attached to it,” she says. “I knew what I was excited about, but I didn’t really know where I belonged.”

On this road to discovering herself — both in her gender identity and in her identity as an artist with a vision — Tsang had one goal: to study with famed conceptual artist Mary Kelly. A professor emerita in art and critical theory, Kelly runs a very small, very select graduate program at UCLA called Interdisciplinary Studio, which Tsang was accepted into in 2008. “I still feel very connected to that legacy and that lineage of artists,” Tsang says. “And UCLA was amazing. It was this rare gem of a place that had all of this amazing opportunity, in terms of faculty to study with — Catherine Opie, Andrea Fraser, Lari Pittman. I had an advisor on my thesis committee who was in the law school, because I was also studying legal issues around trans stuff. It was really special.”

Lauren Fleishman
She has an extraordinary sense of timing,” Mary Kelly says of Tsang, in the way she is able to link personal experiences to the most urgent collective issues of the moment.”

Tsang developed her identity as an artist long before coming to UCLA. (Tsang identifies as transgender and uses she/her pronouns.) She’d studied opera, worked as a party planner and spent time as a trans activist. But she was always, first and foremost, a creator. Her first art, in 2008, was a short video called Shape of a Right Statement, inspired by Amanda Baggs, an autism-rights activist. Soon she was performing. As she told Jeni Fulton for Art Basel Stories, her emerging art became “the hinge for how I negotiate the politics of representation.”

It is somehow fitting that so much of Tsang’s personal journey revolved around finding out who she was in the world, since her work — arresting, bold, innovative — also defies neat categorization. Based now largely in Zurich, Berlin and New York, Tsang is a filmmaker, artist, actor and all-around provocateur, mixing art with narrative film, documentary with photography. Her collaboration with her fellow performance artist boychild has morphed into an ensemble that includes a cellist, a dancer and an electronic musician; she also makes text-inspired stained glass. All of it explores the idea of “in-betweenness,” the world beyond the binary. 

Photo: Pierre Antoine. Courtesy of Wu Tsang and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
Tsangs 2019 work Sustained Glass featured three panels of acid-etched Lamberts flashed glass, silicone and a steel frame.

When Tsang became one of 25 recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship — also known as the “genius grant” — in 2018, the foundation cited her work in creating “new conceptual and visual vocabularies for exploring hidden histories and marginalized narratives in works that collapse the boundaries between documentary and fiction.” Since then, Tsang has continued to challenge our ideas of traditional filmmaking and theater — most notably by upending the classics, including putting a queer spin on Melville’s Moby-Dick

She loved picking at the bones of Melville’s whale, starting with “Extracts,” which, like the opening chapter of the 1851 novel, works as a primer about the mighty marine mammal. For Tsang, it’s the real-world detail that lays the foundation for the art. “I was inspired by collecting all this research as something in itself, like an artwork of its own,” she says. “This is how I always work.”

Watch the Official Trailer for Moby-Dick:

The Student Becomes the Master

When she arrived in Westwood, Tsang knew she wanted her work to cross disciplines, rather than being limited to labels like filmmaker or video artist. “Mary’s program gave us a free space to be, to ask, ‘What do you want to do?’” Tsang recalls. “Her whole formulation was more about this idea of ‘The Project,’ which is what she called it. It’s what your instincts are, what you’re inclined to do, but then also how that instinct intersects with your social moment. And so her role as a teacher was about trying to help us identify our projects. For some of us, it was more creative; for some it was more intellectual, or pedagogical. Even as an artist today, I work very interdisciplinarily. I’m not even fully in the art world; I’m more in between the art worlds, the theater and film. I do lots of different things. I think if I felt like I had to choose one, I would go crazy, because I actually love being in between.”

Courtesy of Wu Tsang, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
Still from Wu Tsang, WILDNESS, 2012. Single-channel HD video with stereo sound

Kelly herself remains a massively influential pioneer in conceptual art; her latest book, Mary Kelly’s Concentric Pedagogy, has just been published by Bloomsbury. And she knows talent when she sees it, which is why she continues to steadfastly follow Tsang’s career. “As a project-based practice, I find Wu’s work exemplary,” she says. “She has an extraordinary sense of timing, not just formally but conceptionally — the way she is able to link personal experiences to the most urgent collective issues of the moment.”

Tsang, now 42, earned her M.F.A. from UCLA in 2010; two years later, she produced Wildness, her acclaimed documentary that in 74 minutes captures the soul of the Latino trans space The Silver Platter, in Silver Lake. UCLA assistant English professor Summer Kim Lee shows Wildness to students who have never seen an experimental art film before to expose them to the form at its best. “Some are surprised, but it generates lively conversations about gentrification and appropriation — who can make such works — and the strengths and limits of such safe spaces as the Platter,” she says. “Wu Tsang’s works speak to so many diverse communities.” 

Photo: Greg Amgwerd. Courtesy of Wu Tsang and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
A production still from “Extracts,” Tsangs 2022 collaboration with Moved by the Motion in Zurich

Tsang is about to wrap up a five-year residency as guest director at the Schauspielhaus Zurich, one of the most storied theaters in Europe. In tandem with her perennial collaborators, a collective of singers and dancers called Moved by the Motion, Tsang has produced wildly inventive updates to classic crowd-pleasers such as Orpheus and Pinocchio — as well as that stunning version of Moby-Dick, which spawned several cross-platform interactions (including a film installation on a 16-meter LED screen positioned over a Venice canal). Tsang was not a fan of Melville’s work, but after a friend helped her explore the famed novel’s rich themes of capitalism, colonialism and religious zeal, she became hooked on the idea of doing something with it. She created two large-scale video pieces — a digital work titled Of Whales, depicting undersea life, and a feature-length film adaptation accompanied by a live orchestra, featuring Ishmael and Queequeg as lovers and the ship’s crew as one big queer community.

“There are these passages where they are squeezing the whale blubber that are so perverse,” Tsang told The New York Times last year. “It was so juicy.” 

Neither Here Nor There

If Tsang’s work has one constancy, it’s her love of the idea of the “in-between” spaces: between life and death, heaven and hell, wood and flesh, earth and sea. Her 2024 Tempest, staged in Zurich, is a tale of entrapment by ambition and magic, of lost memories and the bonds of enslavement. Revisiting canonical pieces in explosive new visual languages not only suits Tsang’s aesthetic, but also — as Kelly observes — provides Wu the opportunity in confronting this history to engage more deeply in a critique of modern society, particularly in and around how it sees, treats and often suppresses queer culture.

Tsang’s work from the Venice Biennale was later shown at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, while the film-and-orchestra version played in Chicago, Los Angeles, London and Helsinki. Of Whales has just been installed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, in a setting that, while not boasting the grand arched waterways of Venice, does include epic ephemera and production materials, along with expanded and excerpted elements from the operatic video’s inspiration and making.

Photo: Matteo De Fina. Courtesy of Wu Tsang, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin; Antenna Space, Shanghai; Cabinet, London
Wu Tsang, Of Whales, 2022. Real-time video, multi-channel audio installation. Installation view, La Biennale di Venezia 2022, Arsenale, Gaggiandre, Venice

“That body of work was a very extensive project,” Tsang says, with a slight laugh. The piece in Venice, she says, was a site-specific installation made for that location, done as she was also working on the corresponding feature film. It’s all part of finding avenues for expressing ideas and continuing to challenge herself. “It’s a different mandate than in the visual arts, because in the visual arts, you can sort of do what you want,” she says. “And also, you're not necessarily needing to have something that’s appealing to a broad audience. But it’s been interesting, I think, coming from a more experimental background, to take on some of these canonical things.” 

And to also pass the torch to those coming behind. 

“As a deeply collaborative artist, [Tsang] is known for her generosity in mentoring many other people working in performance art, advising how they can get their message out in new ways, says Anuradha Vikram, curator at UCLA’s Art | Sci Center, which brings together the worlds of the arts and science. “I wanted to work with her years ago, when her work was foreshadowing what would be in the TV series Pose, but then she blew up across the world. She is a brilliant talent.”

Reinventing Canon

Offstage, out of the public gaze, friends say Tsang is a bit of a paradox: careful and observational, but also empathetic, warm and funny. When she’s not making art, Tsang is exploring Zurich’s underground club life, which seethes beneath the seemingly straight-laced facade of the banking city. “You have to look for it,” she says of the energy of the club universe, “but it’s there — and it’s amazing.” 

Photo: David Heald. Courtesy of Wu Tsang and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
Wu Tsang, Anthem, 2021. Video with sound, fabric and carpet. Installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

It also balances her work, a yin to the often grave yang that shows up in the messaging of her artistry. 

In Tsang’s eco-apocalyptic reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, sea levels have risen to the top of the European Alps; Prospero, here the CEO of an ersatz artificial intelligence corporation, hides in a Swiss retreat that’s actually a bunker occupying one of the few remaining lands above the flood. Tsang went into the production seeking to create a satire about the future of the 1%, infused with issues of both class and climate change.

“One of the things that I love about adaptation is that when you have something as canonical as The Tempest, everything has been done that could possibly be done,” she says. “So there’s not really pressure to tell the story or to even make sense. You have a very textured palette to work with.”

Her other final production in Zurich this spring is equally steeped in lore: a new spin on the legendary opera Carmen. “We’re actually re-composing the music and making a whole new framing that brings a lot of references together,” Tsang says, “both from the original story and the Bizet opera. But there’s thousands of other adaptations of Carmen. A flamenco version, [and] Charlie Chaplin did one. There’s so much material, so Carmen becomes like a prism to look at the world.”

And that right there — looking, really looking at the world — is the heart of Wu Tsang’s work, mixing classics and collaborative invention and a whole lot of other things in a big, messy, loud creative blender to help us understand ourselves at the deepest possible level. Her work remains consistently unexpected, sometimes mysterious and always necessary. And always driven by curiosity and an ebullient exploration of life by a child of New England, ever exploring her place in the world.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.