"Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit," installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2020. Photo: Kyle Knodell

The works speak for themselves: Tishan Hsu at SculptureCenter

The rediscovery of an artist and, more importantly, their work never fails to excite the art world, prompting the reincorporation of lost narratives into the art historical canon. Recently, the artist Tishan Hsu, who had largely retreated from public view since first emerging in the New York scene during the late 1980s, resurfaced in 2020. His work was re-introduced to contemporary American audiences with his first museum survey in the United States, titled Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit. Featuring work from 1980 to 2005, the exhibition travelled from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to SculptureCenter in New York.

In the mid 1980s, when first making the work featured in this show, Hsu gradually earned recognition from renowned galleries such as Pat Hearn and Leo Castelli, participating in numerous important group shows [1]. After he moved to Cologne at the suggestion of a collector in early 1988, Hsu’s work gradually receded from view, no longer present within galleries, museums, and academia. 

The SculptureCenter exhibition brings together a group of works that defy categorization. In the case of both wall-bound panels and freestanding sculptures, Hsu’s works appear to float since their supports are nearly invisible. The tactile, undulating surfaces of these pieces evoke scars, microorganisms, or merely reflect an uneven topography with irregular lumps. Walking around the gallery, one has the sensation of being watched by many eyes. The round or ovular black holes set into many of Hsu’s works appear bottomless, yet a full view of their depths is obstructed by horizontal lines that span their openings and bar the viewer’s vision. Few artworks are as eccentric and bizarre as Hsu’s. When exhibited together, this body of work manifests a world that is alienated and daunting, rigorous and fluid, structured and turbid. 

Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit, installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2020. Photo: Kyle Knodell
Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit, installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2020. Photo: Kyle Knodell

Hsu’s personal history further illuminates his work and provides necessary context for how to approach it. Trained as an architect at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he became interested in the concept of “modularity” [2].  This is reflected in works such as Virtual Flow (1990-2018), in which two ambulatory objects are connected by a white electrical cable. Viewers will find that mechanically reproducible components, such as cases, wheels, sinks, sockets, and tiles, are embedded within the work. Similarly observable is how the artist manually crafted certain components, such as the silicone organs and eye, and applied tiles to the surface of the piece, one at a time. The left-hand component of Virtual Flow is reminiscent of both a TV and medical device. Immaculately covered with pink ceramic tiles, small mounds occasionally swell beneath the object’s surface. A tiny stainless-steel sink and vacant socket are inserted into the object’s right side. Viewed from a distance, the glass screen appears to flicker, creating a trompe l’oeil effect that is also present within other works on view. Upon closer observation, the screen is revealed to be a silkscreen print featuring countless, variably spaced, tiny dots, which create the illusion of a flickering screen. The right-hand component of Virtual Flow is an enameled steel cart with two display cases. The lower case stores silicone objects that resemble organs, while from the upper case, a huge eye stares back at the viewer. Neither case is intact: along their edges, large gaps are filled with a silicone compound. The electrical cable, connecting the two components, does not actively conduct electricity, but if one interprets the silicone compound as an internal organ and observes how the cable is attached directly to this “organ,” then it would be appropriate to conclude that the steel cart is supplying power to the flickering “screen,” or vice versa.

Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit, installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2020. Photo: Kyle Knodell

Regarding the inspiration for his work, Hsu often mentions that he previously worked the night shift as a word processor at a law firm in the early 1980s. His experience of sitting in front of a computer and striking the keyboard prompted him to contemplate the impact of digital technology on the human body, as early as forty years ago. In addition, while attending MIT in the 1970s, he observed the growing significance of technology and the acceleration towards a digital world. Another work in the exhibition, titled R.E.M. (1986), operates somewhere between painting and sculpture and comprises an outer structure with curved corners that enclose an inner space, which takes the shape of a vase. The bulging surface of the inner section appears to be flattened out and attached to the wall by the outer structure, however, the surface of the inner section simultaneously appears to emerge from the wall. To produce this effect, the artist scratched thin lines into a painted surface, creating the illusion of sagging skin hanging on, or even blending into, a “screen”—technology is here embodied within the human body.

Tishan Hsu, R.E.M., 1986, installation view, Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit, SculptureCenter, New York, 2020. Acrylic, alkyd, vinyl cement compound on wood. 60 x 60 x 4 inches (152 x 152 x 10 cm). Collection of Marian and James H. Cohen. Photo: Kyle Knodell

Several decades have passed since this group of idiosyncratic works was produced. The curatorial statement for this exhibition notes that “Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit reintroduces the work of this visionary artist to a contemporary audience that has finally caught up with the issues he began to address over thirty years ago.” This might prompt one to ask: did viewers in the 1980s really fail to resonate with his works? Given the positive reception accorded to his work at the time, this was not necessarily the case. However, the gallerist Leo Castelli did once warn the artist, saying: “Tishan, the work needs a context.” Perhaps Castelli was alluding to work by other artists that gained currency in the 1980s via the appropriation of popular culture, or he may have thought that Hsu’s work was too complex to be understood on its own terms. Today, the world is certainly more digital than ever, offering an ever more pertinent context for an artistic investigation of technology’s interaction with the body. Yet, this doesn’t just mean that the context of our time finally coheres with the ideas embedded in Hsu’s work, but rather evidences that the mode through which a work communicates with its audience always occurs bidirectionally. It requires complicity between the artwork and its audience. In other words, while lamenting the lack of attention paid to Hsu’s works in the past and celebrating their rediscovery now, one should also consider the enigmatic power of his work that enables it to connect with us today.

[1] Richard Armstrong, Mind over Matter, Concept and Object (New York, N.Y.: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990), 80–83, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/002428409?signon=swle:urn:mace:incommon:nyu.edu.

[2] Sohrab Mohebbi and Tishan Hsu, “I’m a Cyborg,” in Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit (New York: SculptureCenter, 2020), 39.

[3] Ted Loos, “The World Catches Up With Tishan Hsu,” The New York Times (New York, NY), March 27, 2019.

*This essay was written in the colloquium Readings in Contemporary Theory, taught by Professor Jonathan Hay during the Fall 2020 semester at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. I would like to thank Professor Hay for providing edits and suggestions.

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