Shirley Tse’s Ecology of the Everyday

LOS ANGELES — The Hong Kong-born, California-based artist Shirley Tse left her Los Angeles home behind for the coastal town of Lompoc, California, during the course of the pandemic. The artist’s personal experiences are inextricable from her artwork: Each piece in Lompoc Stories, her solo exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, is priced at $3,360, a number that reflects the fixed monthly cost of renting her Los Angeles studio in order to sustain her visual practice. The decision to price her work this way became a conceptual element of the show, which centers on themes of sustainability, both ecological and economical. The press release includes the following note from the artist: “Lompoc Stories began as Los Angeles became unsustainable to me. I wish to shift the focus from commodity to sustaining the condition for making work.” 

Fittingly, the stakes of the sculptures and video pieces that make up Lompoc Stories are both loftier and more equitable than the whims of the commodity-driven art market. Building on Stakeholders, Tse’s body of work representing Hong Kong at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Lompoc Stories ask incisive questions about what it means to hold a stake on a planetary scale, in the context of anthropogenic climate change. In light of the societal upheaval prompted by the pandemic — and the extreme economic disparity it exacerbated — and in search of a more sustainable art practice, the artist’s relocation to Lompoc (whose name means “stagnant waters” or “lagoon” in the Chumash language of Purisemeño) reflects these broader conditions. These aspects all intimately inform the enmeshed conceptual and material choices that make up her exhibition. 

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Installation view of Shirley Tse: Lompoc Stories at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Los Angeles

The material vocabulary at play in the nine sculptures on view, gleaned from the artist’s new environs, melds the natural with the human-made at every turn: Cat fur, found snake skin, and diatomite coexist and are integrated with fiber optics, a helmet, and a basement window. “Framing Device” (2020), is a giclée print of a striped gray cat installed behind a slightly opened basement window. The cat, bathed in a pale blue light, crouches before a pile of yellow security loops that feature in the sculpture “Net Zero” (2022), where they are assembled as a net cradling a large cardboard cut-out zero. The meandering “Lompoc Stories Series: Spacesuit” (2021) is comprised of snake skin, glimmering blue fiber optics, and diatomite, a light-colored sedimentary rock composed of the skeletal remains of diatoms, a kind of single-celled alga with a silica cell wall. Together these materials weave a story that is at once particular to Lompoc — a scenic town embedded in pristine nature and home to one of the world’s largest diatomite mines but also to a state prison, a military base, and an oil field — and applicable to the hypocrisies of our larger environmental reality, in which the time to search for sustainable models is running out. 

These hypocrisies are parsed in a 2:43-minute looped video, “Lompoc Story” (2022), in which subtitles flash against a black screen, narrating Tse’s experience of wandering into the Lompoc wilderness for a hike only to get lost and later discover that she had stumbled close to an off-limits military base. Tse’s work confronts the incompatibility between sustainable living and systems of inequity, grappling with the coexistence of the living world’s natural beauty and the prison- and military-industrial complex. She wields the characters that populate her daily surroundings — animal, rock, plastic, wood, all of which, though non-human, show traces of human existence — to send an urgent message, one that holds out hope for forging a sustainable reality out of an accessible set of materials.

Shirley Tse, “Lompoc Stories Series: Flower Seed Capital of the World” (2022), wildflower seeds packet, paper, fallen tree branch, 15 x 7 x 18 1/2 inches
Shirley Tse, “Lompoc Stories Series: Spacesuit” (2021), found shed snake skin, fiber optics, diatomite, dimensions variable

Shirley Tse: Lompoc Stories continues at Shoshana Wayne Gallery (5247 West Adams Boulevard, West Adams, Los Angeles) through July 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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