Wu Tsang's Anthem Calls All Lovers
Anthem, Wu Tsang's monumental installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (23 July–6 September 2021), has been reconfigured to show at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin (Lovesong, 14 September–31 October 2021).
Wu Tsang, Anthem (2021). Colour video, with sound, fabric, and carpet. Dimensions variable. Exhibition view: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (23 July–6 September 2021). © Wu Tsang. Rendering by Lucie Rebeyrol. Courtesy © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald.
Projected onto an 84-foot curtain hanging in the Guggenheim's cavernous rotunda, Anthem is a portrait of legendary singer, composer, and transgender activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose voice fills the spiral curves of a space designed as a temple according to a Theosophist's brief.
Deep breaths begin to form the shape of the word love, the volume of Glenn-Copeland's voice expanding through all-encompassing exhales. Then, breath evolves into melody: an operatic refrain with that one lyric. Glenn-Copeland's voice is soon joined by another—musician and vocalist Kelsey Lu's—that weaves around his central call.
Easing into the composition are haunting strings, then rolling piano—Glenn-Copeland's hands on keys fills the screen—as the sonic tapestry continues to build: an arrangement involving collaboration with Glenn-Copeland, Lu, and DJ musician Asma Maroof.
Wu Tsang has collaborated with Maroof on many of her films, starting with the 2012 feature WILDNESS, which followed the lives that intersected in the downtown Los Angeles LGBT bar Silver Platter, where Tsang, Maroof, and musicians Ashland Mines and Daniel Pineda started the Wildness party night in 2008.
Irresolution encapsulates the word that features so strongly in Anthem: love.
Curtains, which often feature in her film installations, symbolise 'objects of transformation' for the artist; signals of the possibility of performance. Anthem is the second time that the artist has projected an image onto fabric, creating what she describes as an 'imperfect image that never fixes or resolves'.1
Irresolution encapsulates the word that features so strongly in Anthem: love. The theme runs through the artist's earlier works like 2016 film Duilian, inspired by the relationship between Chinese revolutionary poet Qiu Jin and calligrapher Wu Zhiying, and the 2018 documentary film Into A Space of Love, charting the history of house music in New York.
But, the artist is quick to note: 'I think love is a word and a concept that's always tricky, because it sounds romantic or simplified'. Anthem's companion film expands on this point.
Footage of Glenn-Copeland and his partner, Elizabeth, talking about love and art is intersected with beautiful captures of the couple against the shores of Nova Scotia. Their discussion moves through the intricacies of their relationship and expands into their philosophies around art-making and community.
'Glenn and Elizabeth are partners, but the way they talk about love is so much more expansive than just with each other', Wu Tsang explains. 'It's more about being receptive and being open to the possibilities of connection with others.' In fact, when researching the root of the word anthem, she discovered that it refers to a spiritual call and response.
There is one poignant moment in the interview with the Glenn-Copelands, where Elizabeth talks about visiting Glenn at his home, and asking him to hold her in a way that she had dreamed. When he did, Glenn said he exhaled and finally understood how it feels to be in sync with someone 'in the most fundamental way'.
The story adds another dimension to the deep breaths that filled the Guggenheim space; an invitation, or invocation, for release through meaningful connection.
Wu Tsang calls Glenn-Copeland's a rare voice. The first Black student in the music department at McGill University, he left before completing his studies, and eventually settled into a role as writer and on-screen performer for Canadian kids programme Mr. Dressup. All the while, he composed music that he describes as 'universal broadcasts', which are transmitted through him.
It was in 2015 when a Japanese crate-digger apparently discovered Keyboard Fantasies, Glenn-Copeland's 1986 album described as 'an ahead of its time synth exploration which somehow combines the essence of new-age minimalism, early Detroit techno and the warmth of traditional songwriting.' A growing following has delivered deserved recognition since.
For Wu, it felt appropriate to fill the Guggenheim's space with Glenn-Copeland's voice in 2021. 'It's going to sound overly simplified, but I feel like his work is an invitation for us all to be ourselves,' she says, 'but not in a self-centred way.' Rather, in the sense of being 'okay with who we are, where we are, when we are.' To be here, now, together, somehow. —[O]
1 All quotes taken from the author's conversation with the artist, an edited version of which can be listened to on Art Basel's podcast Intersections.