W. G. Sebald begins Rings of Saturn with a slow reflection on his experience of being bed-ridden.“[All] that could be seen of the world from my bed was the colourless patch of sky framed in the window.” As he gradually regains the ability to stand up, he leans against the window in the “tortured posture of a creature that has raised itself erect for the first time.” Here lies a male torso estranged from its surroundings – restrained, immobilized, disempowered. Hong Kong artist Tsang Tsz Yeung has been caught in a similar state, but it presents to him a different quality of experience, which sows the seed for the series of photographic works and installation Family Album.
It was three years ago, when an ankle sprain constrained Tsang to the bed for six months. He began making a series of images of his plastered leg (and the various stages of its recovery and transformation) with his I-Phone. Instead of turning the injury and the activity of photographing it into a process of therapeutic joy, Tsang applies regularity and discipline to the undertaking. Most images frame the injury from a fixed point of his reclined body. The gaze is frontal, and the distance between the eye and leg is kept as perceptually equal in each image. No resignation, fear, or pain is shown. The scenarios coming into the frame are mostly without human bodily presence. In the rare case that there are people around, their faces are either not shown, or that they are absorbed in their own business, as if apathetic or have become accustomed to Tsang’s asocial posture. The greyish tone of the indoor lighting gives an artificial quality to the scenarios. Are they suggestive of enforced idleness or freedom from social roles? The blandness in the images generates a curious ambivalence.
Tsang compares the formalist choices in his work to the water tower series by Bernd and Hilla Becher, in that their works present an impersonal and emotionless gaze that produces types. I am not as sure of the comparison. Indeed, like the Bechers’ works, the repetition and variation in the choice of subject and manner of framing may yield a way of reading the composition of Tsang’s works. However, reading Tsang’s works in the light of the Bechers’ risks sidelining the physical and symbolic embodiment in Tsang’s. Rather than rendering the seer disinterested and separate from the camera, Tsang’s object of gaze is continuous with him as the seeing subject. The camera is a prosthesis by which he embodies a certain state of limbo. As Tsang gradually regains the ability to stand up, he does not simply leave these tokens of an injured life behind. Rather, he explores them further as coordinates that map a body in space, which leads to the next stage of development of Family Album.
With IKEA do-it-yourself furniture parts, he installs a rack on a three-legged stool, on which he could place his right leg. Extended from the rack is a rectangular frame up to the height of a sitting person’s eye level, to form an L-shape with the leg rack. One might be tempted to read Tsang’s choice of making this intermediary object of inconvenience with an obscure function as motivated by fetishistic desire. I would like to propose otherwise. A photojournalist by profession, Tsang sets off to challenge the established consistency of a way of seeing he has benefited from as much as he has been limited by. Only with an understanding of this process of backward thinking, of receding into reflecting on how his seeing has been disciplined, that one may start appreciating (albeit by hindsight) that the principle of repetition in the I-Phone images produces not some typology for the purpose of accumulation, but a persistent and inexhaustible energy of self-questioning that puts the artist’s routinized way of seeing into examination.
It was two weeks into the Umbrella Movement. Tsang walked into the café with baggy eyes and a backpack from which a matt black helmet dangled. Tsang told me what he saw on the streets, how he made quick decisions of taking up or putting down his camera as circumstances of the newsworthy or safety compelled. Gradually, we moved into discussing the latest addition to Family Album – an installation of multiple variations of the camera configured as domestic furniture items that exist uncompromisingly between function and form.
In the installation, wooden stools and drawers become a twin lens reflex camera, a single lens reflex camera, a panoramic camera, and more. Pump caps of bottles become the camera shutter; convex glass bottoms of vases become the lens. By returning the camera into the basic essence of gathering, refracting and converging light, Tsang redefines his own agency from view-finding to an affective relation to the camera and the activity of photograph making. While the practice of a photojournalist is disciplined by the timely, topical, and sensational, in Family Album, Tsang takes his professional device apart, takes its authority away, and renders it transparent. With these new objects of unease and inconvenience, a development from the dysfunctional foot rack, Tsang presents the untimely, the irrelevant and off-topic. In doing so, Tsang is not interested in paralyzing the camera, but rather, in how the camera could be freed up in its low-tech, clumsy, even comical body.
Two more elements contribute vitally to Family Album as installation – blurry portrait photographs of his father and himself, and an instant photo-booth in which one could get a self-portrait with a featureless face, similar to the ones of Tsang and his father’s, displayed as part of the installation. Tsang’s father has a workshop in Fotan where he makes furniture by hand. Without consciously choosing to get closer to his father, Tsang talks about how it has been both a hassle and a delight to seek his help to make this work. There were times when the two would sit in the corridor outside the workshop, having lunch together. Their conversations were usually not exciting, moving quickly back into old topics of how the son should find a proper job, etc. Family Album alludes to the ordinariness of the father and son’s conversation, without letting the artist’s personal life totalize the work. The newly found intimacy remains literally and metaphorically blurry: mesmerizing, unassuming, suggestive.
It takes courage and composure to render what is dear yet unresolved into the open. The fragility of the male body and the indeterminateness of intimate male relations in the family is evidence of a rare sensibility.
First published in AM Post January, 2014