Tishan Hsu: skin-screen-grass
On ViewMiguel Abreu
October 21 – December 23, 2021
New York, NY
Tishan Hsu has been exploring the messy entanglement of bodies and technology for over three decades. Spanning painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and video, his work is characterized by a slippery lexicon of biological and technological motifs—lingering on the touch in touchscreen and the face in interface—that probes the more visceral, affective, and lived aspects of our relationships to machines. A strong complement to Liquid Circuit, the artist’s first American institutional show staged at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and SculptureCenter in New York, Hsu’s first solo show at Miguel Abreu Gallery features 13 pieces made between 2019 and 2021, a pandemic period when, for many, physical isolation brought new manic intensity to our enmeshment with our devices.
A painting of a green expanse delicately incised with lines of static and partly sheathed in tactile silicone, signal.noise/membrane (2020) feels aligned with the artist’s earlier abstract portrayals of screens, initiated in the 1980s before the advent of Photoshop (of which Hsu was an early adopter). Largely, however, the works on view incorporate multiple images mutated through digital reproduction, sometimes becoming distorted and warped beyond recognition. Here, longstanding touchstones for the artist, such as television screens, computer screens, and biomedical imagery and devices, meet newer reference points: phone screens, facial recognition software, fever detection cameras, and, more obliquely, digitized family photos, a memory prosthetic that Hsu began working with after his mother’s death in 2013.
“I consider myself a cyborg. Google is my memory,” Hsu has said, relatably. “I’m not the body we think of in the premodern sense of a figurative body.” Rather than being discrete entities, the cyborg bodies that Hsu depicts are simultaneously excessive, distributed, fragmented, and riven in the space of a single work. His creations crawl with fields of gaping mouths, errant nipples and navels, and flesh enlarged to the point of abstraction. A woozy interface of porous skin and perforated metal—evoking the mesh panels that facilitate airflow for overworked hardware—reappears across works on view.
Material springs to life in Grass-Screen-Skin: New York (2021), a 19-foot-long inkjet print on Mylar that renders blades of grass pushing through a gleaming grille. By directing a cyborg eye(phone) at a QR code in the image, the viewer can play a video that portrays a slice of the same scene at exceedingly close range. In the video, the metal morphs into pale skin, and the turf into bodily orifices. The layered viewing experience unnervingly interpolates skin with screen and that vast network of which humans are only a small part, grass. The membrane that separates ontological categories is leaking. Who gets to lay claim to animacy in this scenario? Floating in the inkjet grass is a dental X-ray glitched with rainbow lines, the unruly—playful, even—imaging and printing technologies seemingly more alive than the segmented, compliant, and medicalized body they render.
In Watching 2 (2021), mechanisms of gatekeeping, surveillance, and control are the obverse of technologies of health and protection. The work incorporates another skin-screen, this time made from UV cured inkjet on wood with silicone; the wood is shaped to resemble the freestanding temperature kiosks that became commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one small inset screen, a thermal image of a person is synecdochally labeled “fever,” while in another, facial recognition software scans a portion of a visage, logging it. Beneath a layer of encrusted silicone along the bottom edge of the work is a frieze-like surveillance image of a crowd of individuals tagged with green or red boxes that indicate whether they are “stressed” or “relaxed.” Their gender and race are also noted, alluding to the violent constructs that difference skins and bodies, and are deeply entrenched in and perpetuated by our algorithms. The work’s counterpart, Watching 1 (2021), features surveillance images of Black Lives Matter protesters, who have been watched by police from the movement’s early days—and who have watched the police back. Both pieces contain depictions of anamorphic camera lenses, nodding to a technique historically used by painters to code subversive images into their work, glitching representational systems contrary to the desires of those in power. Small, fleshy silicone protrusions in a variety of skin tones poke through the two works’ sleek, flat surfaces, proclaiming the stubborn presence of the corporeal in technological territory.
Where a popular rhetoric of ease and lightness—Donna Haraway called it “sunshine”—seems to cleave machines from the realities of human bodies and human pain, Hsu’s visceral work asserts that such extrication is not true to lived experience on individual or algorithmic levels. Examining our affective, embodied relationship to technology, and taking that examination seriously, means rejecting some of the notions of neutrality and distance that serve the blinkered white imaginary. What could we build?