Long Island City, New York
“Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit,” on view at the SculptureCenter through January 25, 2021, makes a compelling and timely statement about our technologically driven age. Hsu trained as an architect in the 1970s at MIT, where the program emphasized a combination of traditional and late 20th-century approaches to building materials. During his studies, he became interested in film and video, which prompted him to question a society determined by media and information. These concerns led Hsu to invent a visual language capable of manifesting ideas about what he calls “a presence life.”
Hsu’s work is not a theater of science fiction but an interpretation of the present imbued with thoughts about the future. It is also a realization of his efforts to come to terms with a new biological and technical paradigm. Though his work is deeply rooted in questions of how technology affects us as human beings, there is no denying its debt to the dematerializing strategies of Minimalism and conceptualism. And yet his two- and three-dimensional objects transcend Modernist formal values to reveal the eerie eccentricity of life in a post-industrial age. Multiplicity rather than singularity is paramount: pared-down forms meld with eccentric, brightly colored rhomboids and ovoids, assorted illusionistic gashes, holes, and glazed, scratched black surfaces reminiscent of silent electronic screens. Intended to evoke many things, these divergent elements coexist within carefully calculated, unconventional constructions that blend the sculptural and the painterly through clashing textures, high-tech materials, and bombastic surfaces. The metaphorical layering is at times disturbing, yet its bewitching novelty demands further examination. Wood, metal, acrylic, rubber, and aluminum seem to offer material familiarity, but their unusual juxtaposition within strange color planes, protrusions, and haunting light dissolves any sense of comfort.
The SculptureCenter, with its cracked concrete floors, industrial-height ceilings, and steel beams, provides the perfect setting for Hsu’s work. Rather than the polished milieu of the Hammer Art Museum, where the exhibition debuted last year, the SculptureCenter expresses the DIY, garage aesthetic of 1980s tech start-ups. Many of the key sculptures, wall reliefs, drawings, and media works in “Liquid Circuit” were produced between 1980 and 1988 and thus predate Wi-Fi, iPhones, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Netflix; yet they demonstrate Hsu’s acute prescience about how technology was quickly becoming an extension of the human body—a foresight he shared with Tony Oursler. Both artists anticipated rapid advances in the production and transmission of signals, emanations, images, and codes—electronic, magnetic, mimetic, virtual. When asked about showing this work during Covid-19, Hsu said, “It has been uncanny how the pandemic and the reliance on the Internet for remote ‘presence’ have crystallized what the work was always about: the embodiment of the technological.”
Walking Gray (1980), a seminal work, twists a bizarre sculptural form into a functional bench. An organic oozing compound interrupts the linear tile surface, suggesting some type of meltdown. In Holey Cow (1986), a dwarfish form with bright yellow and black spots scattered over a flowing, contoured surface, an isolated geometric grid of tiles ruptures the implied rhythm. This discordant architectural reference raises questions about its presence while stabilizing the organic shape. Hsu often takes a small element like this and uses it as a primary focus in subsequent pieces. This becomes clear in Ooze, Reflective Oooze, and Vertical Ooze (all 1987), which all magnify and transform the tile grid in Holey Cow into a dominant structural presence.
The wall construction Liquid Circuit (1987) consists of a large horizontal panel in vivid yellow with three chrome bars in the center, framed by two blue-black screens resembling ultrasound imagery. Its high-tech veneer asserts a commanding dignity in which the human and the mechanical collide. Other startling pieces include Closed Circuit II (1986), which eerily resembles an Instagram icon; Squared Nude (1984), evocative of an iPhone (first released in 2007); and Outer Banks of Memory (1984), in which wood, concrete, and Styrofoam recall unhealthy tissue observed under a microscope. Though these are wall-hung works, their unusual compositions depict deep, illusionistic space not unlike an electronic screen, imparting the impression that they are floating in space, perhaps portals to another reality.
The multi-sectional, freestanding Autopsy (1988), tiled in shades of rustic rose and brown, calls to mind operating rooms from old science-fiction and horror films. An enormous phantasmagoric inkjet print on PVC, Interface Wall 2.0 – NY, was created for this show from Hsu’s ongoing Interface Remix, which has been evolving for more than 17 years. As installed here, Interface Wall 2.0 – NY, with its skin-like surface punctuated with distorted compositions of lips, mouths, and eyes, supplies a perfect backdrop to Autopsy. Using a Lego board as a mold, Hsu made a cast with skin-toned urethane rubber: “Using the tools of Photoshop, [I] ‘cloned’ skin images between all of the nodules, producing an image of actual skin in a continuous surface filled with emerging nodules. For me, it was a conceptual image of bio-technology.” The piece is both compelling and disturbing, with echoes of Dante’s Inferno. It’s a radical distillation of Hsu’s earlier work, harkening back to the core of his focus on the consumption of the body by technology.
Folds of Oil (2005), a video spanning 21 minutes, is filled with ominous, animal twittering synchronized with the sound of human breathing through a ventilator. Set to images of an eerie landscape, this very personal work was made one year after Hsu had a kidney transplant. Though it provides insight into his understanding of the relation between body and machine, it also serves as a foundation for newer works that grapple with the climate crisis.
There is only one difficulty with this exhibition—curator Sohrab Mohebbi’s claim that “Liquid Circuit’ is the “New York–based artist’s first museum survey exhibition in the United States.” This is incorrect. A survey of Hsu’s work, which I curated, was presented at the Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery in 1987. Nonetheless, a second survey of Hsu’s exceptional work has been long overdue, and this show, which brings his output up to the present, introduces a new generation of viewers to a unique and visionary artist.