For the last four decades, American artist Tishan Hsu has made a mark through his focused investigation into the embodiment of technology. His multimedia work exists in a terrain both familiar and unfamiliar, sublime yet accessible. From the early stages of his career in the 1980s, he’s been interested in technology’s impact on affect and its phenomenological implications. Making art was then an opportunity to respond to the accelerated changes of biological and digital infrastructure.
“I speculated that the world I would inhabit would be a technological one, for better or for worse. As a result, I wanted to get closer to technology, as a way of understanding it as a potential inspiration for creative production”, Hsu describes.
It is this desire to trace the corporeal conditions of the then new normal that has sustained Hsu’s unique visual language. From his choice of materials like tile, alkyd, ceramic, video and sound, he continually demonstrates an awareness of the rhizomatic trajectory of contemporary life. Much of this is heavily informed by his interdisciplinary education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 70s. And while at MIT, his studies in environmental design led him to sought linkages between film and theories related to artificial intelligence and posthumanism.
For Hsu’s first museum solo show, Liquid Circuit, at the Hammer Museum which recently closed, curator Sohrab Mohebbi presented a survey of 30 key works ranging from reliefs to drawings and sculptures from 1980 to 2005. Like many of Hsu’s sculptures, the installation of the exhibition showcased a broad concern with the spatial dynamics of objects. It also focused on a prioritization of flow of concept as much as registering the technical aspect of Hsu’s elaborate and vatic body of work into a different frame. The exhibition highlights broad trajectories of Hsu’s career. This includes several drawings and works on paper that articulate a proximity to and a radical departure from the appropriation aesthetics of his contemporaries.
Hsu triangulates his interest in the formal yet idiosyncratic architectural techniques, cinematic, and spatial composition throughout the Hammer exhibition. Buoyed by the extra-dimensional sensorium of the brooding, harrowing breaths of the sound accompanying the roughly twenty-one minute video “Folds of Oil,” (2005), the physical space of the galleries were reconfigured to an almost augmented environment where visitors are characters in Hsu’s elaborate mise-en-scene. The vibrant, detailed and arresting color scheme of decadent yellow, deep red, teal blue, and blue streaks, resembling static transmission from CRT screens, resolves the palpable tension of wanting to view the installation as a constellation of grotesque forms as opposed to pleasantly fantastical and speculative objects.
Suggesting a personal and collective response to the shift in ontology engendered by introduction of a novel technopolitics, works like “Heading through,” (1984) and “Holey Cow,” (1986) voice an uncertain and acutely anxious disposition toward the velocity of progress. While “Ooze” and “Vertical Ooze” (both 1987) and similar ceramic tile platforms materialize chimeric, imaginative landscapes influenced by the fluidity and poetics of communication systems. The discrete quadrants of tile can then be viewed as units of data appropriated from the emanations of the screen’s surface. At the same time, alkyd, with its ability to hold color significantly better than other resins, now operates as a metaphorical substance for high fidelity images requiring ample processing power. Hsu obliges us to consider and imagine a world operating almost exclusively at the register of sensation.
With a background in environmental design, Hsu’s interest in biological structures is best reflected in the paintings “Cellular Automata 2,” (1989); “It’s Not the Bullet but the Hole 2,” (1991); and “Cell,” (1987). They also show the artist’s insight into just how deep our relationship to the hyper-accented networked culture permeates. Refreshingly, what Hsu excels in is his reluctance to embrace a reactionary criticality, instead opting to present the terms and conditions of a new reality through a personal, lived experience, free from contrived affects. In conversation, he admits that he “achieves meaning through the making of the work. And a lot of this is culled from an extremely personal place. It’s always about deconstructing and reconstructing the personal.”
Having studied art since the fourth grade, learning techniques of the American Realist, Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist style, the rigorous dedication to craft is excellently translated in Hsu’s paintings. The amalgamation of painterly knowledge, prophetic and interdisciplinary ideas, and use of industrial materials like steel in the titular work “Liquid Circuit,” (1987) images, we are reminded of the thresholds yet to be crossed and encountered in our digitally mediated life, even as much of his ideas unfurl in real time.
I never imagined I-Phone, I-Pad, or Instagram. I was focused on the changing nature of our relationship to the objects that surround us and that these objects would increasingly develop the affective qualities of our cognitive and haptic self. It was this transition that I wanted to capture.
With “Liquid Circuit” being your first museum survey in the United States, what was your process for the show?
Curator Sohrab Mohebbi wanted to focus on the earlier periods of my work ending around the mid-1990s. Because I had not shown for a long period, where many people have never seen the work of the 80s and 90s, there would be a tendency to assume the show to be a retrospective. In contrast, the approach was to present the work as a process of exploration that is still ongoing where the focus is on the beginning. There is no culminating statement. He felt it was important to bring together several earlier bodies of work that had never been shown together and that I, myself, had never seen together.
Interesting. There certainly was a sense of each room being its own conversation, a snapshot of ideas in time.
The work at each step felt like a deviation from the previous work when I was doing it, a tangent to what I thought I was doing. I had always felt there were multiple tangents and singular explorations over the years and often felt frustrated, if not discouraged, by the lack of coherence or understanding that I could refer to, in generating newer work. Everything felt partial and in need of further clarification, and still does. If there are any concepts or themes that deviate, I feel it is that the work actually comes together or coheres in a way I hadn’t imagined. It was not about any one work or group of works, as I had thought or even intended, but rather the affective sense coming from seeing all of the work together.
The affective “sense” of the exhibition is something I could never have articulated in interviews like this and is only experienced by seeing the work, and particularly all together. The coherence has been the deviation from what I felt was a rather motley practice.
At what point did you begin to take an interest in the relationship between art and technology?
While applying to college, I speculated that the world I would inhabit would be a technological one, for better or for worse. As a result, I wanted to get closer to technology, as a way of understanding it as a potential inspiration for creative production, in whatever discipline that might be, in contrast to seeing it as alien, and opposed to a so-called humanistic position for cultural practice.
I thought the way in which technology was driving the world was new and would be unprecedented in its breadth and depth. This desire strongly influenced my decision to place myself in an environment that was involved in creating this technological future.
The sculptures make use of non-traditional materials (at least during its time). What marked this choice? Primarily, I’m interested in how these materials articulate your larger thematic ideas.
The choice of materials in much of the work derived from a desire for something organic and material-based, while simultaneously evoking, if not actually being of, the technological, including affects of the virtual, illusionary realm and the formal qualities of technology and the manufactured. I felt the affective quality of my experience was not going to be the end of the human and the dominance of the technological, but rather some kind of hybrid synthesis.
Part of the choice and handling of materials was finding a way of working that could seamlessly move between different realms of meaning and ontology. There was the object-filled, material world as one realm, the virtual, digital world as another realm and the bodily, organic realm as another. All of these seemed to be increasingly intertwined and inextricable, partly due to the digital nature of technology itself and how it was permeating and transforming everything. I could go into each material decision specifically, but that is a much longer discussion.
I’m sure! Also interesting is the hanging method. Some of the works seemed as though they were floating screen icons. Was this your intention? To reproduce the experience of the screen into physical space?
Yes, this was intentional. In the earliest work, I did not have “screen” in mind, but rather the media generated world of early computers, televisions and telephones. I never imagined I-Phone, I-Pad, or Instagram. I was focused on the changing nature of our relationship to the objects that surround us and that these objects would increasingly develop the affective qualities of our cognitive and haptic self. It was this transition that I wanted to capture.
From that, I wanted to emphasize in the installation that I do not see these works as “paintings and sculpture” but as objects that can be anywhere, and that arbitrarily occupy architectural space. A sense of floating contingency and ephemerality are affective qualities that I wanted to evoke.
These all come together to draw in all parts of the senses, arresting and obliging a dive into the represented voids.
The reflective color in the early works, the evolution of wheels in the sculptures, the large continuous flat surfaces of the silkscreens, and the ephemeral quality of the media work, were all part of a sense of something continuous, fleeting and in motion. The continuousness of the “Interface” wall at the entrance, which is an image of an organic surface that is continuous and only arbitrarily bound by the four edges of the entrance wall, is affectively similar to the hanging of the earlier works where there is a sense of their floating in any space, in any format.
When I am in an airplane, I am continually amazed standing at the back, by the spectacle of the multitude of small, screens floating in this aluminum fuselage floating, and simultaneously speeding, above the planet and these human creatures cognitively immersed in a distinctly different illusionary realm within the screens. It strikes me as stranger than science fiction.
In a New York Times profile published last year, you described your works as “personal”. Have you always viewed your work in this way?
The “personal” can have many meanings, much dependent on the particular critical or academic discourse that one happens to be in. In much of the time that the work developed, there was a lot of discussion about the personal and the political, and the personal being political. There was also discussion about the commodity and the subjective, that in a commodified world, we were losing subjectivity completely, and that the power of media and the corporate was literally determining our subjectivity. In that context, my work evolved out of my own “personal” experience, if you will, of what was in front of me at the time – my body and the technological apparatus I was engaging with, sometimes to support my practice. In that sense, I was not compelled to use media images, or adopt direct political and historical positions as a driver of the work. This was not to diminish the importance and relevance of these other discourses, but rather that being who I was, the questions I addressed were the most compelling for me and ones I felt could sustain my practice regardless of whether they had currency in the market or the critical art discourse.
Have you always considered your work as predictive or just another body produced in shifting times?
Work that in hindsight looks predictive is often not felt as predictive when created. The predictive implies the future, and I see the future as the present, where much of the world lives in the past. In doing the work, I always felt I was dealing with the present, or my present, what I was living through. I was surprised that so many in the art world found the work so strange and alien. But in “imagining” something, I suppose there is an implied future, where certain connections I saw in the present would evolve into something that I wanted the work to be able to describe and address.
Tell me a bit more about the work “Virtual Flow” (1990)? It’s one of the few works that make use of disembodied figures.
In much of my work, there is an in-between sense of the body, which is the beginning of dis-embodiment. After the initial response to the work in the 80’s, I felt a need to be clearer in my focus on the human body and moved into photographic media to evoke a clinical, recorded body that removed any ambiguity that the work is about the body. In “Virtual Flow,” the sense of body feels more literal and explicit, perhaps due to sculpture itself, that allows the work to break the body apart in physical space and to use materials that literally have the texture and form of human body parts.
“Virtual Flow,” by its title, was an attempt to convey a continuous body that moves through separate objects. At the same time, I was trying to connect this embodied movement through the electrical, which is the foundation of the digital and the virtual.
I was trying to convey through more traditional sculptural language, a conceptual sense of our bodies becoming bits and data, moving through conduit and becoming an embodied object in a wholly different format. There are the body like, organic forms embedded in glass, referencing a clinical, bio-technological sense of the body. There are multiple manifestations of an embodied object that I am experimenting with in the work. There were several works done in this format.
Do you remember some of the earliest public and or private responses to your work?
The first studio visit was in high school, which I can’t recall. The early response to the work in the 1980s was perplexed, but very positive. A few people got the sense of what I was trying to do right away. I recall being asked if I was from another planet. The work struck most as very strange if not incomprehensible for the lack of reference, not only in the world but in art history. The response contributed to doubts about my ability to capture the sense of what I wanted in the work.
The predictive implies the future, and I see the future as the present, where much of the world lives in the past.
How do you respond to critics and patrons who make the claim that the art world needs to catch up to your practice?
I never considered what I was doing as so far away as to be something needing to catch up to. I could not understand why everyone found the work so strange and alien. I don’t feel that way in my everyday interactions. Even now, many still feel the work is very strange. I have also been surprised at how much of the recent interest has come from those who are much younger.
If I step back, which I rarely did, and which has happened partly as a result of this exhibition, I see that the sense that was driving the work is now more a part of the world that we live in. There is an emerging context. At this point, I give less weight to responses in general, now that I have experienced having no response for so long. I am trying to focus on insuring the work continues to evolve on its own trajectory and not let external responses interfere, which is not always so easy to do.
The current pandemic has exposed the porosity and weakness of the structures and systems we’ve taken for granted. Interesting enough, conversations about labor, the body, and networked culture have taken mainstream prominence outside of academic and art circles. Where do you envision the entanglement of the digital and corporeal as it relates to current events?
The confluence of the digital and the body as a result of the molecular in the sudden emergence of the pandemic has been striking. Having been isolating for several weeks now, it is strange how the molecular and the digital have been running parallel, driving our bodies’ behaviours in ever more extreme ways. It is unprecedented. The 6’ distancing creates a bizarre choreography of bodies in public spaces that is haunting and strange. That a molecular virus could force the body to connect almost exclusively through the digital on the one hand, and, at the same time, attack the vulnerability of our organic existence in such a deadly way, is extraordinary.
At the same time, the essential aspect of human labor in fighting that attack, reaffirms the battle of humans against “nature” even in the 21st century. The pandemic has illuminated to an alarming level the extent to which we are still at the level of food, shelter, care, and the vulnerability of our organic existence. Paradoxically, the virtual is enabling us to maintain our human connectedness at a time when extinction seems ever closer. Imagine what this would be without the digital and the virtual. Things could so easily and quickly become “primal.”
What do you hope people take away from your show?
The work is asking a question about what is this change we are undergoing in which the technological is so deeply entering every aspect of human existence? What new affects are emerging as a result of this transformation? The work does not want to describe the external changes, but rather asks you to perhaps slow down, just to process how this change is feeling and to ask where are we in this change? How will we, as embodied humans, continue to be?