TISHAN HSU, Portrait, 1982, oil stick, enamel, acrylic, vinyl cement compound on wood, 145 × 221 × 15 cm. Collection of the artist. Photo by Jeff Lane. Copyright and courtesy the artist.

Liquid Circuit

Tishan Hsu

Also available in:  Chinese

Contemporary art frequently expresses the zeitgeist, with artists taking on the role of truth-teller or even diviner. Chinese-American artist Tishan Hsu began making work that approximated present-day screen culture back in the 1980s—decades before smartphones became commonplace. His uncanny clairvoyance in picturing our current technological intertwinement was so avant-garde at the time that audiences and the art market were simply baffled by his acrylic and wood wall sculptures and expansive tiled installations. As a result, Hsu continued to work in relative obscurity in the ensuing decades. His first institutional survey, “Liquid Circuit,” organized by SculptureCenter in New York, debuted in January at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. With pieces from the ’80s to the new millennium, the show introduced a new generation of viewers to Hsu’s prescient work. 

Hanging high on the wall and evoking the all-seeing Dr. TJ Eckleburg billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Hsu’s Portrait (1982) employs a Magritte-like surrealism to picture the jumbled components of a face and body within a black contoured frame like that of an iPad—a visually apt but anachronistic comparison, since Hsu created this work 28 years before the device’s invention. Floating eyes and orifices, rendered in sketchy, fuzzy lines meant to mimic television static, gape at the viewer amid pink, fleshy, vinyl blobs. In its dissolution of the human form into the technological and vice versa, Portrait reminds us that while technology surveils us at every turn, we have become willing culprits as we adopt digital tools as mediators between us and the world. To this point, Closed Circuit II (1986) bears a strange resemblance to the Instagram logo, which in turn is based on a Polaroid camera. The surface of Hsu’s sculpture is subtly molded as in the curves of a body; the aperture evokes a Cyclopean gaze. As with a spouse or a beloved pet, technology and humanity begin to resemble one another. 

Squared Nude (1985) again shows remarkable foresight in its resemblance to a giant iPhone hanging on the wall. Protruding shapes float across the work like cellular bodies or lesions. Three decades before we started inputting our personal and medical information into our devices, before we used our gadgets as our eyes and ears, Hsu predicted this human-tech symbiosis. There is something unsettlingly human and visceral about Nessea (1984), another iPhone-shaped sculpture, this time featuring tumor-like protuberances on which the artist’s handprints are visible. Our devices are outgrowths of ourselves, Hsu implies.

Oddly modular, freestanding tiled sculptures painted in strange shades of seafoam green and pink, such as Ooze (1987), Vertical Ooze (1987), and Autopsy (1988), evoke the operating rooms of dated science-fiction movie sets. In Virtual Flow (1990–2018), a metal stand with an assortment of bodily blobs cast from fleshy silicone is plugged into a monitor encased in pink ceramic tile with sonogram-like blurs across its screen. It is unclear which is powering which; organic and synthetic are indistinguishable. A video in one room, Folds of Oil (2005), intermittently broadcasts foreboding sounds of beeping and breathing, like a medical ventilator, throughout the exhibition space. Here, the artist was prescient yet again, though in a more personal manner. A year after its creation, Hsu had a kidney transplant, an ordeal during which he felt as though his body was a machine, and his surgery the ultimate
art installation. 

In a recent interview, the artist stated: “I consider myself a cyborg. Google is my memory.” This pithy quote illustrates the manner in which Hsu himself has embraced technology as a natural component of the human body and mind. As Hsu sees it, integrating with the artificial, the technological, and the foreign is the most optimal way to be human.

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