Things move slowly and quietly at Seattle Asian Art Museum. Every once in a while, a contemporary show with a lot to offer opens with very little fanfare, and you can easily miss it, even though it's up for half a year. I failed to direct enough attention in 2007 to the great traveling survey Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Chinese Art, but I will not make the same mistake with Su-Mei Tse: East Wind, a smaller but worthy solo show of video and sculpture by Luxembourg-based artist Tse.
Not every work has sound, but every work, in a gorgeous way, is about sound. There is accompaniment to a landscape video that scrolls by with "notes" in its treetops like a player- piano roll. The sound is the airy squeal of a cello bow dragged not quite hard enough, creating a melody with a slight edge of menace. It's a piece by Shostakovich that seems to have no home key, suffused with (justified) paranoia and futile, searching wandering, like the repetitive motion of the video scroll.
Also in the darkened video room, a pair of headphones made in collaboration with Jean-Lou Majerus sit under a spotlight. The headphones have a red-velvet band and resin- encased conch shells for earpieces. Landscape, again, is the soundtrack.
The way the art is installed is cunning; some of the pieces are blended in with the museum's terrific historical Asian collection. Around and above the headphones hang nine late-19th-century Chinese birdcages, surely some of the world's most exquisite devices of imprisonment—but unable to contain sound. The birdcages came into the museum's collection just last year, and even more recently, a pair of tiny, elflike Chinese shoes from the early 20th century arrived, bringing their own torture associations. In the historical gallery housing the malignant shoes, Tse's photograph of her own feet bound in plastic wrap hangs high on the wall, as if it's floating away, out of memory.
The most visceral of the installations is Tse's white-neon birdcage with the door open, set in a gallery drenched in natural light. It's drowned out by the weight of the history in the room. Tse shouldn't feel too bad: It's one of the best rooms in the city, containing the museum's irresistible snuff-bottle wall and a handful of objects of indescribable, painful beauty, objects silently howling with it.