Throwing not just his heart, but his whole body, into his work
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, July 18, 2024

Throwing not just his heart, but his whole body, into his work
Liang Gallery. Courtesy Art Basel.

by David Belcher

NEW YORK, NY.- For his debut at Art Basel Hong Kong, Taiwanese artist Hsu Yunghsu — and the Taipei gallery representing him — decided to go big. Really big.

The centerpiece of his six works on view at the art fair will be “2021-3,” a stoneware sculpture with swirling, cocoonlike sections that Hsu molded and squeezed together with the power of not just his fingers, but his entire body. Standing about 10 feet high and 8 feet wide, the work is made up of two 650-pound pieces stacked vertically, making it far from a typical piece of art to make a journey of any length to a global art fair.

Yet “2021-3” is typical of the unconventional art Hsu (pronounced SHOO), 67, is known for, and his ambitious way of molding, coiling and pinching it together. Liang Gallery in Taipei, which will also feature seven other artists in its section, including the video artist Ting Tong Chang, will display two other clay and three porcelain sculptures by Hsu, ranging in length or height from less than 1 foot to nearly 5 feet. Each has a similar motif: swirling masses of what could be seen as a group of cells, with light and shadow dancing off dozens of angles.

The sculpture “2021-3,” whose title simply signifies that it is the third piece of art Hsu produced in 2021, resembles a giant, undulating sponge crossed with a chunk of coral reef. Featuring his technique writ large, it has thousands of his fingerprints covering the flowing surface, kneaded into the clay. The cascading ovals and curves are stacked, but the thickness of some segments is only about 1 centimeter, or approximately one-third of an inch, creating a delicacy that seems to defy gravity.

“I always want to use my body to express my ideas, and through repeating and stacking, my ambition is to identify how far I can push myself and the material,” Hsu said through an interpreter in a phone conversation from his studio in Tainan City, in southern Taiwan. “I’m creating holes in the structure over and over again with my bare hands. This work documents my relationship with the clay and my devotion to creating a visual ‘wow’ moment for the viewer.”

It is a daring approach in a 40-year career that has entailed taking more than one risk. Born in 1955 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Hsu graduated from a teachers’ college in the 1970s and worked as a schoolteacher and a professional musician, becoming a master of the guzheng, the classical Chinese zither. After 22 years of teaching elementary school and just short of qualifying for retirement, he left teaching in 1998, and in 2003 began studying ceramics at the Tainan National University of the Arts.

Since changing professions, Hsu has had artistic residencies in Taiwan, South Korea, China, Japan and the United States, and his works have been exhibited internationally. He has earned accolades, including the grand prix at the 2008 International Ceramics Competition in Mino, Japan, where his work triumphed over more than 3,200 pieces by artists from more than 50 countries and territories. Last year, he was also a major winner at the Taiwan Ceramic Awards, which honor the nation’s artists.

“What makes Hsu different from other artists is how he uses his body, and the repeating and stacking shows his willpower and the sheer physicality it takes to create his works, but also there is a lightness to all of it,” said Weng Shu-Ying, an independent curator who will organize “Ingenuity in Minimalism,” a year-end exhibition at Liang Gallery that will include Hsu’s sculptures. “Anyone who stands in front of any of Hsu’s works will be overwhelmed by the size and detail of what ceramic art can be. This is why he has been awarded inside and outside of Taiwan.”

Adeline Ooi, the Asia director for Art Basel, also finds Hsu’s sculpture distinctive. “It looks deceptively simple, but the process of creating it with clay is painstaking and demanding,” she said.

Hsu’s techniques range from flattening a clay surface by throwing the entire weight of his body into it to pinching dozens — or even hundreds — of pieces together delicately. Like “2021-3,” many of his works from the past several years have swirling, empty pods that feel safe and inviting. They have become his central imagery.

The size of “2021-3” makes it difficult to show outside Taiwan, said Claudia Chen, the director of Liang Gallery, which is marking its eighth visit to Art Basel Hong Kong, “and we have wanted to share not only Hsu’s reputation as a ceramic artist, but also the scale of work he produces. We really wanted to show this to the world, and this art fair is a great way for people to learn about Hsu and Taiwanese art in general. As a gallery, Liang wants to show what great artists we have in Taiwan and celebrate the great deal of freedom they have in their creative process.”

For Hsu, his Art Basel Hong Kong debut is both an honor and a chance to be exposed to visitors from around the world, some of whom might at first be taken aback by “2021-3.”

“People might find the size intimidating and will be afraid that it will collapse, but the sheer volume of the piece and the delicacy of all the angles allow the viewer to feel its energy,” said Hsu, who will not attend the art fair because of Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules during the coronavirus pandemic. “But I see it all as portraying not only the limitations of myself and the material but also the strengths in both of us that can sometimes be surprising.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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