Project Series 22: Shirley Tse
For almost ten years, Shirley Tse has worked exclusively with plastics—synthetic polymers, Styrofoam, polystyrene, and vinyl—to create enigmatic sculptures and installations that explore the connections between the organic and the industrial. In this exhibition she presents a new sculptural installation, Power Towers, which extends her research into the cultural history of plastic, particularly the notion that it is the quintessential modern material. In addition to exploring plastic’s formal qualities as a substance that can be or do almost anything, Tse plays with both its sociological and cultural references as everyday consumer packing materials for transport and shipping and with its philosophical associations with fluidity, multiplicity, paradox, and contingency. Tse’s work puts plastic—a material often discarded as secondary to the object packaged—in center-stage, exploring the ways in which its blank, identity-less surface, its malleability, ubiquity, and functionality can be used to evoke worlds of possibility.
In previous work, Tse often transformed the blank synthetic surfaces of plastics, creating sculptures and paintings that disrupt the uniform flatness of the material by means of intricate patterns carved into their surfaces. By applying the hand of the artist to the mass-produced object, she adds sculptural dimension through her imaginative use of geometric shapes; cuts and folds reminiscent of scars; computer circuitry; and extra terrestrial symbols. Tse’s sculptures, however, are far more than a simple glorification of the organic at the expense of the synthetic—instead, the two are often presented as inextricably linked.
The new installation, Power Towers, adds another dimension to Tse’s endeavor. Unlike her earlier projects, Power Towers seemingly represents an overarching schema—an architectural model, almost a vision, of an enigmatic but generative system for the transmission of energy or power. Consisting of six sculptures made of high-density polyethylene linked with plastic wires and plugged with "Silly Putty," Power Towers represents a selection of types of transmission towers from around the world and a brief tour of the construction style of towers through history. The installation brings together the history of plastics, electricity, technology, and creative thought. Without plastic acting as insulators, the advent of electricity would not have been possible. Yet, constructing the entire system out of plastic alone begs the impossible—plastic is an insulator, not a conductor—the electrical revolution needed both. Power Towers may transmit more than electricity, in another kind of transmission—for a metaphysical journey, a vision of the future, or, more prosaically, a down-to-earth comment on the current energy crisis or the packaging of desire. Power Towers suggests an exercise in forming connections—creating a plasticity of relations among personal stories, histories, materials, and sculptural conventions.
Shirley Tse’s exhibition is the twenty-second in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.