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Art in America

Standard Eye Level (detail), 2006-8, metal supports, bonsai plants, fluorescent lettering and line, dimensions variable

Su-Mei Tse
By Sarah Schmerler
February 23, 2010

Luxembourg-born artist Su-Mei Tse, a quiet but potent conceptualist, captured the art world’s attention when her pavilion won the Golden Lion at the 2003 Venice Biennale (she represented her native country); she has since mounted significant solo shows in institutions from Chicago (the Renaissance Society) to Japan (Art Tower Mito). In the past, Tse has used her training as a classical musician as both inspiration and subject matter, often performing in her videos: focusing on her fingers playing the piano, in Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (2001); playing the cello in La Marionette (1999) as a marionette, and in a vast mountain landscape in L’Echo (2003). Here the artist showed discrete sculptural objects, stand-alone installations and drawings from the past three years, some made in collaboration with the artist Jean-Lou Majerus.

Floating Memories (2009) is an installation that the artist developed from a 2007 residency at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where it was first shown). Entering the gallery’s darkened front room, we first saw a low wooden platform, its surface etched with a rich brocade pattern filled in with a sensuous, shiny green resin. Inset into the platform, slightly off center, is a golden ocher carpet. Above, in a video wall projection, an LP spins endlessly; the audio delivers only static.â?¯Tse etched the wood with the same pattern as the wallpaper in the Gardner’s Dutch Room, from which works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and other masters were stolen in 1990. To this day, the Gardner has left the pictures’ empty frames on display. Somehow, Tse’s silent, off-center geometries, realized in tactile materials, seem apt: she loves to play with slippages and stoppages, and with things not quite remembered.

Standard Eye Level (2006/09) is more stark. Eleven Bonsai trees (ficus, desert rose, some succulents), their rootballs sheathed in pantyhose, sit gently on tall metal tripods. On the wall behind them, and visually bisecting the trees’ bases, is a fluorescent orange line about 5 feet high, above which at one point the words “standard eye level” appear. The artist re-draws the line at a different height each time she installs the piece; just whose eye level is “standard” is difficult to say.

Works sharing the room with Standard Eye Level read more like one-note gestures, though they are carefully crafted: a large garden fountain filled with ink-like water (Many Spoken Words, 2009); a turntable without an arm on which spins, silently of course, a record dotted with pretty white Styrofoam balls; and two neon sculptures, one of them an empty birdcage with its door open, as though its bird has flown the coop.

Bird Cage (2009) lacks the frisson (and humor) of Sound for Insomniacs (2007), another work that references absent animals, which was in the next room. Insomniacs comes on rather cute at first, with five large photographic portraits of cats on the wall. Two plywood boxes provide the only seating, and a pair of headphones waits on each. Donning the headphones, we can listen to the purring of the cats in the photos via an MP3 player embedded in the box, pressing buttons with pictures of each of the cats. Ana Paula is a fast purrer, Minimo, more soothing and slow. After a short while the absence of the cats begins to feel a bit creepy; the boxes’ plain wood feels casketlike; and there we are, an audience of loners, grooving to the sounds of comfort in our heads. What keeps us there, we wonder?

Birdcages without birds, purrs without cats, records without sound . . . though the experience is oddly sensuous, Tse seems to be after the what-you-thought-you-saw, and the what-you-think-you-heard. What’s actually there does not add up in any logical way. The artist asks that you make a leap of faith, and the reward is a gentle, internal shift of perception that lingers long after you’ve gone out the door.

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