Tishan Hsu, Breath 7, 2022

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In the 1970s, while studying architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tishan Hsu began to feel that the world was changing. He felt that we were about to live through unprecedented times, and to be confronted by something bigger than we can understand. Technology was about to change everything.

The following decade, having moved to New York City, Tishan tried to channel and express a sense of that change by making art. Today, aged 71, he continues to attempt what few other artists do: to describe how it feels to be alive now, in this strange, new technological world. He has been doing so for decades, but reality has finally caught up with him and the metamorphoses he was sensing have become plain for all to see. Humans, machines, and software are bound closer and closer together. We are sinking into our screens, and so is the world.

These past four years, Tishan’s career has flourished. He’s in this year’s Venice Biennale, until November 27, and the 58th Carnegie International, which opens in Pittsburgh on September 24, as well as the group shows “The Painter’s New Tools” (which I helped organize with my friend Eleanor Cayre) at Nahmad Contemporary, New York, until September 24; “Cloud Walkers” at Leeum Museum of Art, Seoul, until January 8, 2023; and “Future Bodies From a Recent Past” at Museum Brandhorst, Munich, until January 15.

Tishan Hsu, Watching 1, 2021

2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.

Tishan Hsu, Watching 2, 2021

2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.

Before 2019, Tishan hadn’t shown in a long while — assuming the work he was engaged with would have little appeal to the market. At the end of the 1980s, after exhibitions with Pat Hearn Gallery and with Leo Castelli, just as the art market was really accelerating, Tishan left the New York gallery world. He moved to Cologne for a couple of years. He came back and took a part-time teaching job at Sarah Lawrence College that allowed him to keep making his art and experimenting in his studio without having to worry about sales or pleasing anybody else. In 2018, the art world began to take interest in his ’80s work again, just at the time he was about to retire.

It was in his New York gallerist Miguel Abreu’s group exhibition, “The Poet-Engineers,” in 2021, that I saw one of Tishan’s works, Breath, for the first time. I had no idea what to make of it, or where it might have come from. It was like nothing else I’d seen: an inkjet of undulating blue cybernetic goop, with a trompe-l’œil window opening into an x-ray of a skeleton, printed on a wooden board with soft, rounded corners, which floated in front of the wall and emitted a faint, rosy glow from its back. On its surface protruded waxy silicone fingertips, or maybe nipples, and a man’s face floating there in the slime, eyes closed, his expression uneasy. I was reminded of John Everett Millais’ painting of a drowning Ophelia (1851–52) in the Tate, and also of The Matrix (1999); of figures trapped in lines of glowing code, of men asleep inside the pod dreaming of their lives.

Tishan Hsu’s compositions are disorientating. They are screens you could lose yourself in. Everything is warped, or melting into something else. Bodies are disassembled. Eyes, noses, and ears are scattered Picasso-like about the place. They might seem cold and impersonal, dehumanizing even, but they come from his very personal experience of living through momentous and ongoing changes we have yet to understand. They seem to embody some of the keenest questions of the 21st century: like how has digital technology transformed our experience of reality? How has it affected our sense of selfhood? What level of agency are we able to retain as the tools we create spiral out of control, and where is art in all of this?

Tishan Hsu, grass-screen-skin / object 1, 2022

Tishan Hsu: Certainly my mother being an opera singer had a big influence, not so much because of opera, but because of her artistic passion. She had a number of ideas about how she wanted to raise her children that involved what you do with leisure time and the arts. When she observed my interest in art, she brought in private teachers right away. She had a very professional attitude toward encouraging my creativity. She never imagined my being a professional artist, she just thought, we were living in America, there was a lot of leisure time from what she could see, and she didn’t want me just wasting it. She wanted to give me something more sustaining.

So we had music, art, literature, trips to museums, concerts, and that kind of thing throughout my childhood. Both my brother and sister played multiple instruments, as did I. We had trios in the house. I competed on piano. But at a certain point in high school, she could see I was having much more fun with my social life and let me drop all of the music. She saw I had a far greater passion for visual art and gave me a private studio in the house.

One thing I learned from my mother is that I saw what technique does. Playing music requires a particular kind of discipline, and she did give me pointers on how to practice. I was able to stick with it, whether from parental pressure, or because I found a certain interest in it. But I could see after a year of practicing in certain ways, with techniques she learned from her Russian teacher early in her training, that you could do a lot of things with the discipline of technique, once you have it. Technique can enable a kind of freedom. That really struck me.

My mother had a great appreciation for all art and the history of art. She loved watching basketball and saw the players’ movements and plays as pure artistry. She discussed why certain composers were great and why others weren’t. She would talk about different opera singers’ voices. She talked about different periods, how when you’re in between two ages, you have two different sensibilities, and that can be very rich; rather than if you happen to be born in the middle of one age, so that you only really have one sensibility. But I never considered going to art school. I never considered being an artist. This was just a hobby. Coming from an Asian-American family, I had those kinds of pressures.

Tishan Hsu, Closed Circuit II, 1986

2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Tishan Hsu, signal.noise/membrane, 2020

2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.

Hsu: I went to college and studied architecture. I loved architecture, and it would allow me to have the kind of economic security that my parents were concerned with. But in college I still felt the nagging question of whether to be an artist. That was a much more intimidating decision. In college I did take a painting class and I was still thinking seriously about it. I was observing what was going on in contemporary art. I went to New York a number of times from Boston. This was in the mid ’70s.

There wasn’t an art department at my college. But it turned out that one professor who was an art historian was very familiar with the contemporary art world. He started this studio painting class, which was more based on a personal interest he had. After the course, he told me I should drop out, and go to New York to eat, breathe, and drink paint. That was just really wild to me — that a professor would propose this.

But it gave me a taste. And in graduate school, where I got my architecture degree, the same professor told me, “You’re never going to go back to it. You’ve stayed out too long.” And I said, “Well, I think I’m going to take the whole year off after I graduate. I’m just going to do nothing except art. So if I want to do anything else, I’ll just say, ‘No, you can’t do it. I can only do art.’”

I felt I needed to do this as a final way of making the decision before I really got started in life, and I needed to know whether I really had it in me. That’s what I did, and at the end of the year I gave up. It wasn’t working out, the work wasn’t coming. Then I took a drafting job in a small architecture firm, and after three or four months, I decided I couldn’t be an architect, that it wasn’t a choice anymore and making art was just what I needed to do by necessity. I then started producing work that I felt could sustain me and really committed myself. My lifelong partner, Alina, was a profound influence in making this commitment and in the evolution of the work throughout my life.

Tishan Hsu, Cell, 1987

Hsu: Well, first of all, I never felt like I was a star. I would never describe myself that way. Even though I was showing in major galleries, I always felt somewhat alienated from the art world. I showed at Pat Hearn and Leo Castelli because they were the only gallerists who were willing to actually give me a show. People were not understanding my work. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I felt a lot of rejection around the work, perhaps because of incomprehension, or perhaps due to my race, or both, although the reviews were positive. Everything felt confusing in terms of what I was doing in the art world and how I was being perceived. But in my mind, my work was not very resolved, and I felt the strangeness of the work. I felt people were looking at it like it was finished. And I knew it wasn’t. To me, it had a lot of problems, even though works sold. What I was showing was just what I could do then. I felt there was a much longer way to go.

So why did I withdraw so much from the art world? There were a number of factors. My son was born right around then, and raising him took a lot of psychological and emotional energy. I had experienced how much energy and effort was taken up by exhibitions. A career of exhibitions doesn’t necessarily feed into the energy needed for doing one’s work. So I did what many artists do: I found a teaching position that gave me a certain financial independence. I was still connected somewhat to galleries; but I could tell at the same time where I wanted the work to go, and I didn’t think collectors were going to buy it or galleries would show it, even though almost all of the previous shows had sold well. I wanted to make the work more extreme and I needed time to be very experimental with it.

I wanted to be removed from concerns over whether it was going to sell. And much of the discourse in contemporary art at the time just did not feel compelling to me. I saw other things going on in the culture, and going on in the world, and those weren’t what the art world at the time was discussing, although there were overlaps and connections. I felt compelled enough by what I was observing to sustain me in doing the work without art world validation. I tell students you have to get up every day to be able to work and you need something that’s going to motivate you. The urgency of the world around me was the driver. I knew what was motivating me and what wasn’t.

Tishan Hsu, Cellular Automata 2, 1989

Hsu: The art world’s very different than it was. I feel like there’s a wider understanding of what my work is trying to do, and that feels validating and gives me energy, time, and support. But I feel out of sync with the extent to which the market has influenced the expectations and perhaps requirements of galleries. Before, the work was more in my imagination, and now I can draw from the world explicitly. The work feels closer to the world we’re living in. That changes my relation to the work in an unexpected but liberating way. I don’t have to imagine it. Its attributes are everywhere.

The way I interact with much of the art world now is through the screen, which is ironically what the work has tried to address: the cognitive effects of taking in the world through the screen. What I was trying to imagine was a change in syntax; the way it has physically expressed itself was unimagined. I happen to live in a certain historical period here. I was born in the middle of the 20th century, and I’m living into the 21st.

Tishan Hsu, Gray Zone-4, 2020

2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.

Tishan Hsu, Gray Zone-5, 2020

2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.

Hsu: When I emerged in the ’80s, there was very much a sense of cynicism among artists, that everything had been done. I didn’t feel that way. Particularly having experienced MIT, where the entire institution is premised on the opposite. I mean, it’s not an optimistic future that we’ve ended up with, and I think that fact contributed to this cynicism, but I felt that there was still something unknown going on, and it didn’t need to be optimistic. I wanted to understand it — to be more conscious of it. It wasn’t projecting an ideal world as with Modernism, where we were going to get rid of all the ills of human existence and reach a kind of transcendence. But there was still something unprecedented emerging from technology and integrating with human life in unimagined ways. In the context of Postmodernism, I felt we had to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

I felt, at the time, much of the existing art did not address certain aspects of the change I was feeling. However, in music and literature, there was more experimentation around these questions. I asked myself, what is it I’m going through here? There’s something that needs work here, needs understanding. Whatever it is, reverting to the past wasn’t helping me to make sense of what I was experiencing.

At MIT, I had observed the research that was going on. I had a sense of the impact it was going to have on the world. It was just going to happen. It was going to create problems of its own, but it was going to be new and we would need to deal with it and find agency. I felt we still, as human beings, needed to make sure that whatever is developing is somehow in sync with what we want the world to be. And that there was a certain agency to be maintained, if not fought for, there still. At this point, the concept of agency is much more complicated by our beginning to question, what is human?

I spent a long time thinking about Postmodernism and the idea that everything is predetermined. That was part of the cynicism, and I think it’s still going on today, actually — this question of, do we have any agency left? Are we going to be able to control AI? Can we control social media for our benefit?

Tishan Hsu, Thumb-Eye-Extended 2.0, 2020

Hsu: That’s the existential position I feel we’re in. I think with the integration of technology in our lives, there’s so much happening to us in this collision that we don’t understand. And the works are helping me to realize how much we don’t understand about what’s going on and where we are. Where are we, as humans, going to end up? The work helps me to keep asking that question. And as the work evolves, it clarifies certain things and then opens up other things. There’s just so much. I see the question of what is human intersecting with questions around environmental collapse. These are incredibly powerful forces. I mean, I don’t need to even say it — just the whole political world now is at the hands of this technology. These are the arenas where this is all playing out. And basically, I think we are underestimating the magnitude and impact this is really having, and I think that’s part of the problem. Our governments, corporations, education, healthcare, law, and civil rights are barely keeping up. Technology’s moving faster than we can almost cognitively take in. That’s how I experience it. That sense of unknowing is what the work is pointing out for me. So the work to me looks very strange. I can’t describe, with words, the whole thing. I can feel it when I’m doing it, and I see it, but it’s asking for a different language. I don’t think that’s there yet.

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