New York-based Taiwanese photographic artist Chih-Yang Hsu 's ongoing project, "Heat Is Touch, Touch Is Love, 12021," delves into the intricacies of visual communication, perception, and human connection in a captivating and multi-layered manner. This remarkable body of work recently received the prestigious Creative Quarterly: Professional Photography award in 2023. Drawing inspiration from his personal experience as a color-blind artist, Hsu embarks on a journey to explore the enigmatic realm of human visual abilities and push the boundaries of traditional visual representations.
At the core of Hsu's work lies the concept of "seeing colors," which has intrigued him due to his color blindness. This curiosity extends beyond his own experience to encompass a broader perspective across different species. Through his research, Hsu discovers that various animals have unique visual abilities, perceiving colors and light in ways that differ from humans. Cats and dogs, for example, have a faint perception of blue and yellow, while spiders and birds can see ultraviolet light, and snakes can detect infrared. This revelation serves as a profound inspiration for his art series.
In his quest to interpret and evoke other sensory experiences through visual stimuli, Hsu utilizes infrared technology in his creative process. By employing a compact thermal camera, he captures images that incorporate heat, linking it to the sense of touch and expanding the boundaries of visual communication.
The camera allows Hsu to visualize the heat radiated by subjects, predominantly focusing on the hands of friends and creating illusions through the manipulation of objects' temperature. Through this unconventional approach, Hsu transcends traditional visual representations and challenges viewers to perceive the world in new ways.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hsu's exploration of touch and intimacy takes on added significance. With heightened awareness of the risks associated with physical contact, the thermal photos become a means to explore human connection and intimacy without intrusive interactions. The images offer a unique perspective, allowing viewers to see beyond the surface and have a visceral sense of presence. Hsu's work prompts contemplation on the changing dynamics of touch and the evolving nature of intimacy in our modern society.
One can't discuss Chihyang Hsu's work without delving into the concept of energy. Hsu incorporates two layers of energy in his body of work: a scientific aspect and an emotional characteristic. From a scientific standpoint, he considers the temperature distribution within the frame when capturing thermal photographs, using different colors to represent variations in surface temperatures. In post-production, distinctive contours randomly form around heated objects, evoking the concept of "qi" in Chinese culture, which symbolizes the energy emitted by living beings. This fusion of scientific and emotional energy infuses Hsu's artwork, creating a space where visual imagination and creativity can flourish.
(Andy Chan, 12023, Chih-Yang Hsu)
As Barthes confesses about the winter garden photograph: I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ordinary.1 The subject matter in Hsu's photographs holds personal significance, but its impact extends beyond his interpretation. When viewers engage with the photos, they instinctively connect shapes and colors, emphasizing the cognitive experience that Hsu aims to evoke. However, there is a distinction between "recognizing" and "understanding" an image. While it is natural for viewers to find meaning in the photographs, their own memories, experiences, and creativity shape how they interpret the images. Hsu's work sparks curiosity about the viewers' thought processes, as they interpret and derive meaning from the visual stimuli presented.
Ultimately, through his photographs, Chihyang Hsu aims to jointly explore the limits of visual perception and cognition with the audience. His project invites viewers to question traditional modes of seeing, challenge their preconceptions, and discover new forms of freedom and understanding. The personal stories behind two particular images add depth and meaning to the series. The first meaningful image captures a pivotal moment during an exhibition in Boston. Chihyang Hsu had been away from the city for a year, and upon his return, he was overwhelmed by the support and camaraderie of his friends. In this photograph, the central focus is on Andy Chan, the dedicated gallery owner who possesses an exceptional talent for managing various responsibilities. Over the past four years, Andy has been deeply committed to the development of cultural endeavors, consistently organizing exhibitions for talented Asian artists while also venturing into the food industry. In that particular moment, as Hsu was organizing the exhibition, Andy's unwavering dedication and meticulous attention to detail were palpable. Hsu seized the opportunity to capture Andy as he skillfully maneuvered through the exhibition setup, evoking a powerful image of collaboration, friendship, and shared passion. This photograph represents the invaluable support and collaborative spirit that fuels the art world, reminding us of the profound impact that collective efforts can have on artistic endeavors.
The second image holds a poignant story of collaboration between Chihyang Hsu and Joanna Wong. As part of his ongoing exploration of touch and human connection, Hsu embarked on a project centered around capturing images of hands. Recently, Joanna's long-term partner from Korea came to the United States to pursue his studies, presenting a unique opportunity for Hsu. Recognizing the significance of this moment, Hsu approached Joanna and requested her assistance in capturing a photograph of the couple's intertwined hands. Through this collaboration, Hsu aimed to convey the deep emotional bond and connection shared between them. The process of creating this image involved careful attention to detail and a meticulous refining of the composition. As Joanna actively engaged in the creative process, providing feedback and sharing in Hsu's artistic vision, a profound sense of gratitude and appreciation developed between the two friends. This collaborative artwork became a testament to the power of love, trust, and the inherent beauty found in human connection.
These personal stories behind the images add an intimate and emotional layer to Chihyang Hsu's series, enriching the viewer's understanding and allowing for a deeper engagement with the photographs. Through these narratives of support, collaboration, and the profound human connections that underpin the artistic process, viewers are invited to reflect on their own experiences and forge their own connections with the universal themes of touch, connection, and intimacy explored in the photographs.
Author: Ramona Jingru Wang
Ramona is a lens-based artist who holds an MFA from the Pratt Institute, NY. Her work explores how images intervene with our reality and life, creating connections among people and space, and investigating how we care for each other through image-making. Her self-published newspaper "Family Album" was exhibited in the Photography Triennial at the Museum of City of New York in March 2023.
1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (Vintage, 1993), 73.