This essay originally appeared in Reframed, the Art in America newsletter about about art that surprises us, about the works that get us worked up. Sign up here to receive it every Thursday.
“Which orifice am I looking at?” is a question you’ll likely find yourself asking as you explore Tishan Hsu’s latest show at Vienna Secession. It’s a curious query to mull as you’re unable to look away from labial-looking mouths and anus-appearing belly buttons, all recurring throughout the exhibition’s dozen sculptures and wall works.
A most intriguing orifice can be seen in a photograph that Hsu affixed to the end of an abstract, lumpy, supine sculpture, right between two leglike mounds that appear to be spread apart. There, a black hole punctures through a distended mound of flesh. The print, with its black edges and rounded corners, might be mistaken for an iPad—even a moving image. For a moment, you may expect full-on body horror in the form of a video of a prolapsed anus. (Nearby, Hsu shows an actual video work in which bodily bits lurk behind a meshy surface, moving so slowly that you’re primed to question whether the things on-screen are moving or still.) Step closer to this mysterious orifice and you’ll see an innocent picture of an ear that—shot from an unusual angle, its attendant head blurred out—Hsu has rendered utterly uncanny.
Hsu wants viewers to attend to the changing ways that technology encourages us to relate—or not—to our own bodies. He shows us how we can now see ourselves from more angles than ever before, and yet this often breeds alienation instead of intimacy.
This exhibition in Austria debuts new works by a septuagenarian artist who’s been exploring ever-weirder relationships between bodies and technology since the 1980s. He worked largely under the radar until a 2020 traveling survey at SculptureCenter in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. His next stop was the 2022 Venice Biennale; amid all this, he retired from teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. Now, he’s debuting new works that are his best yet.
Hsu’s art is sleek and clean, but leakage seeps beneath the surface. In his new work, he’s nailed the push-pull in ways that both mesmerize and disgust. Though his works are regularly described as sci-fi, you’ll be hard pressed to declare them either dystopic or utopic. Instead, Hsu evokes the twinned ways that technology both estranges and enlivens our bodies. It’s work clearly born of an era in which cyborgian devices—pacemakers, nebulizers, insulin pumps—are enabling longer lives. How miraculous, and how bizarre.
Hsu’s works are the quintessence of abjection, which, per the philosopher Julia Kristeva, refers to that which has been cast off, or to that which does not respect boundaries. In her 1980 book Powers of Horror, Kristeva memorably describes how long hair is often beautiful when attached to a woman’s head, but then disgusting once disembodied. Hsu’s abject forms include orifices isolated from bodies, and edges that seep subtly, quietly threatening to contaminate the pristine white cube in which they’re set. Some fleshy frames ooze beyond their rectangular confines—gently, as if viscous. Other paintings with neon-hued backs are mounted inches from the wall, their florescence bouncing behind.
Hsu’s isn’t art that tells you what to think but, instead, leaves you with an unsettling feeling that you can’t quite resolve, that can make you look at something ordinary like you’ve never seen it before. Something you thought you knew—like an ear.