Words by Lola Kramer
On view through 25 January 2021 at Sculpture Center, New York, “Liquid Circuits” is the first museum survey exhibition in the USA of artist Tishan Hsu (American, b. 1951, lives and works in New York) bringing together key works from 1980 to 2005.
To explore the influence of technology on the human condition, turn to Tishan Hsu. The New York-based artist Tishan Hsu has created work about the alienating relationship between technology and the human experience for nearly forty years. His first museum survey in the United States, “Tishan Hsu: Liquid Circuit,” has finally arrived at Sculpture Center, a bi-coastal event that follows its initial debut at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Curated by Sohrab Mohebbi with Kyle Dankewicz, the exhibition assembles significant works from 1980 to 2005. It tells the story of an artist's capacity to apprehend momentous changes and speaks to the notion that an artwork might not be meant for the time it was made. Although his radical paintings and sculptures captured the attention of the downtown East Village art scene of the ‘80s, Hsu's work has been largely overlooked by audiences until now. Without much market success through his exhibitions at galleries like Pat Hearn and Leo Castelli, Hsu ultimately withdrew from the art world to dedicate himself to teaching, echoing Duchamp's 1961 prophecy that "the artists of the future will go underground."
After completing the Environmental Design and Architecture program at M.I.T., Hsu found a position at an architectural firm. However, he quickly knew that working a conventional 9 to 5 would never suit him. In a recent conversation with Hammer curator Aram Moshayedi, the artist recalls that he “started having fantasies about walking out of the office without telling anyone where [he] was going.” Hsu decided that he would be an artist and that he needed to do this in New York—but he was also a realist, and understood that he couldn't rely solely on his artistic practice to pay the bills. During the late 1970s, the unavoidable role of technology in the workplace began to come into view. There was a new demand for this kind of work. Hsu learned to type and found himself a night job doing word processing at a blue-chip Wall Street law firm. A stealthy infiltration of the screen began to find its way into his work. Even before computers were widely available, Hsu understood that to be a body in the future is to be a body with a device. In Cell (1987), a large-scale rectangular wall-relief composed of four painted panels with sculptural forms resembling ceiling light fixtures attached, our digital divide is embodied both three-dimensionally and pictorially. Behind these floating appendages is a finely scratched, painted surface of wood, an illusionistic technique Hsu uses throughout the work to convey screen static. Organically shaped holes of black space betray the void behind the ominous picture plane of the screen. What appears are red glowing lines that are reminiscent of a music sheet before any notes have been written.
Wall-hanging works like Cell simulate the sense of the technological without being technological. While Hsu's use of static mediums like painting and sculpture may have appeared counterintuitive, they were not. He was neither attempting to rewire or reconfigure television sets as Nam June Paik had in his 1987 work Li Tai Po; nor was he merging with the flow of media through video works as Gretchen Bender had. Instead, he was transmitting the feeling of one medium through another. This is precisely what one feels when encountering the cold, sterile environment of Virtual Flow (1990-2018), a two-part modular pink tiled sculpture with a glowing screen on wheels attached to an incubator-like machine with biological forms growing inside of it. The work recalls the unlikelihood of Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” in which the machines of the future have freed people from the oppressions of labor (a fate which may or may not come to fruition any time soon). The work is yet another example of Hsu’s ability to project into the future. Even today, the fields of healthcare have become “virtual.” The technological shift is still underway, furtively transforming our lives from its fundamental elements and its bodies. Being “plugged in” is a way of life, and Tishan Hsu's work feels more urgent than ever.