Tishan Hsu’s Art Preceded Internet Aesthetics by Decades. Now, His Prescient Work Is Finally Getting Its Due
A digitally native generation has become captivated by the New York artist, who is in his 70s.
Tishan Hsu is an artist in search of his own vision of the future. His creative journey has unfolded over almost five decades as Hsu has refined and honed his visceral interrogation of the collapse between human and machine. Yet, following a handful of solo shows staged in New York during the 1980s, including one with famed dealer Leo Castelli, for over 30 years Hsu rarely exhibited his work publicly at all. Instead, he chose to privately focus on his relentless quest to capture a new kind of embodied technology that had not yet come into being.
In the end, it was the world that managed to catch up with him. In recent years Hsu, who was born in the 1950s to Chinese parents in Boston, has found his optically vivid silkscreen-printed canvases and eerie silicone sculptures suddenly at pace with the present and very much in-demand.
His prescient works have reached an audience that seems, finally, ready to understand them. In April, he will be honored at SculptureCenter’s annual gala, following showings at the 2021 Gwangju Biennale and ‘The Milk of Dreams’ at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. Hsu opened his second solo exhibition with Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery last week, in time for a revived Hong Kong Art Week and Art Basel Hong Kong.
Hsu’s unique use of pigment recreates the flickering, familiar glow of screens; the rounded corners of his paintings foreshadowed the industrial design of the iPad and iPhone and the graphic representation of mobile app icons. Closed Circuit bears an uncanny resemblance to the Instagram logo: the painting was made in 1986, 24 years before the social media app launched. “There’s a certain mystery to this whole thing,” Hsu said, speaking over a video call from his studio in New York. “The work is resonating with things I see going on in the world now. I had no awareness at the time, but looking back to that early work, it’s surprisingly synchronistic.”
The artist’s surfaces often feature parts of protuding faces, echoing our own embeddedness with technology, but, in a darker turn, it also comments on our surveillance society and its acceleration towards the use of biometrics and facial recognition technologies. “For the first time, I feel the work is able to address many of the issues that are most important to me all at once, without explanation,” said Hsu. “I don’t need any articulation. The work is speaking on its own.”
A Personal Perspective on Technology
Part of his interest in technology was informed by his academic roots as a student of architecture at MIT in the 1970s. Hsu recalled encountering “a whole way of thinking about the world that was very forward.” On campus, he encountered a community engaged not only in imagining the future but in making it a reality, through experimentation in everything from robotics to computing. He added that “it was deeply inspiring” and afforded him “a glimpse of where things might go.”
This gave him the confidence to begin his own creative exploration into how these new developments would impact modern life. “I could see the level of research going on, and it was very, very convincing,” he said. His studies in architecture merged with a new fascination in tech. This is apparent in the work: square ceramic tiles make a recurrent appearance in his sculptures over the decades, conjuring at once minimalist bathroom design and digital pixels.
Although Hsu began working on these far-reaching themes during a period of optimism about the networked virtual future, he has consistently infused his paintings and sculptures with an underlying anxiety about what this hybrid existence might look like. His skill lies not only in predicting the reality that we now live in, but in his readiness to muse at what the feelings of tech-embedded life; it’s an approach that has led many observers to liken his work to the imagined techno-landscapes of science fiction.
Yet for Hsu, he has been seeking something much closer to the real. “Science fiction never interested me, and I remember it felt like a fantasy when I was growing up,” he said. “But we are moving so quickly now that recent science fiction isn’t far off from what we’re actually living.”
In the early 1980s, Hsu worked as a word processor inputting data on an early computer. This gave him an insight into how machines might act as an extension of the human brain, and greatly informed his artistic works. While experimenting in the studio rather privately, for 22 years Hsu worked as a professor of visual art at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, a role that he retired from in 2018 at the age of 67. From that vantage point, while he had had a steady career in academia, it would have been hard to predict that from then on, his career would spiral upward as it did.
In “Delete,” his first exhibition at Empty Gallery staged in 2019, Hsu reflected on data as a carrier of memory, a subject that he introduced from a personal perspective. There, he traced his own history, including the rediscovery of family photographs following his mother’s death while he was living in Shanghai in the early 2010s. The exhibition was the first time that Hsu directly confronted his own identity within his work.
The artist does not speak Chinese, and explained that his parents did not emphasize their heritage while he was growing up. “There was a drive towards assimilation, like many immigrants in America,” he said. He considered how this early experience may have shaped his work: “I grew up in a culture where I was a racial other, and then I chose to explore the ‘otherness’ of technology, which itself was perceived as alien at the time.”
It was only in 2020 that Hsu had his first survey exhibition, “Liquid Circuit,” which was organized by curator Sohrab Mohebbi of SculptureCenter, New York, and first staged at UCLA’s Hammer Museum; it then traveled to SculptureCenter in 2021. The shows were a tipping point: “Liquid Circuit” introduced a generation of digital natives Hsu’s early 1980s work, created primarily during a decade in which most of them were born. Even later works like the painting Interface Remix (2001), where disembodied mouths, eyes, and limbs collapse together within a fleshy vortex, can readily resonate with digitally native millennial and Zoomers’ lingering sense of unease about the digital realm.
A Lifetime of Work Finds New Resonance Today
Hsu admitted that the newfound recognition has been a welcome surprise, if a little overwhelming. “I have always felt that the work will reveal itself,” he reflected. “But that emergence is a very long process.”
In an age of rapid gratification and fast fame, Hsu’s slow approach to his own artistic voice does not feel simply anomalous—it feels like a radical act of resistance. “I withdrew from exhibiting because I was involved in a lot of experimentation and exploration, and I never really felt that the work clicked, even though it sold,” he said. “Although people now see the work differently than I did at the time, for me, I was always in laboratory mode.”
Over the years, Hsu’s way of working has been intuitive—like feeling blindly towards another realm that hovers just out of reach. He described this process as “trying to capture some sense of a shift in this integration of technology into our organic life.” The challenge, he explained, has been introducing this paradox into the work over the years. The results are full of glitches and imperfections integrated into his pieces—the dot matrix of the silkscreen process within many of his paintings left deliberately visible.
When we met, Hsu was about to fly out from New York for the opening of his latest exhibition, “Screen-Skins,” at Empty Gallery in Hong Kong. The solo show continues his work begun during the 1980s, while responding directly to the new technologies available today. “I used to have to photograph a model in the studio and then process those photos. Now, because of the evolution of digital imaging, I can go online and have an infinite source of images,” he said.
His wavering ambiguity about technology has struck such a chord with today’s disillusioned audiences, and this mood courses through the show. In the darkened spaces of Empty Gallery is one artwork that displays an image that reads, “Erase All Data.” Hsu debated at first about including it in the context of the political shift currently taking place in Hong Kong, as mainland China continues to assert control of the territory. “Data can be both dangerous and a way of maintaining a presence in the digital age,” he said.
His wariness also extends to machine learning, but not for the reasons one might expect. “With A.I. emerging, people now talk about the ‘singularity’, where we literally are going to be taken over by the technology, but that is a very long way off,” he estimated. “I think the question of human agency is the question of our age. The problem is how will our organic bodies continue to exist? What will be the quality of that existence?”
Hsu continues to speculate on what may still be to come. He remains acutely aware of the limitations of the tools that have become so integrated in our lives, even as he unravels the existential implications of their rapid advancement. “Our technology is taking us into worlds we never imagined, but it is forcing us to also realize how we remain very organic,” he said as our call came towards its end. It is the tension between the two that sits at the heart of Hsu’s work. It is like the sudden sight of your own indistinct reflection upon a darkened digital screen, the body revealed in the afterglow when it is finally switched off.
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