Yi Hsuan Lai: Objects, Bodies, Things at Gallery 456

Yi Hsuan Lai. Something Happened, 2022. Archival pigment print mounted on dibond. 16.25 x 21.625 inches. Courtesy of Gallery 456 and the artist

I was scrolling through Instagram recently when I saw a post that read: “What’s your artspeak ick?” The word “anthropomorphism” immediately came to mind. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that a friend of mine had an art history professor who once (in)famously tweeted: “I will scream into a pillow if I see another student write the word ‘anthropomorphic’ in their paper.” Therefore, I paused before ascribing “anthropomorphic” qualities to the work of Taiwanese artist Yi Hsuan Lai.

Installation view of Yi Hsuan Lai: Ongoing Narratives – Go Left, Go Right, or Go to the Other Side. Courtesy of Gallery 456 and the artist

At Gallery 456, Yi Hsuan Lai’s solo show titled Ongoing Narratives – Go Left, Go Right, or Go to the Other Side greets the viewer with a series of assemblages made from found objects like glass marbles, foam blocks, pins, or paper clips. Some of these readymades are then photographed and presented as semi-sculptural collages. They are random, enigmatic, and, upon close looking, viscerally implicated. For instance, the two upward-facing pom poms in Sculpture #5 (2024) bear an unmistakable resemblance to a pair of breasts. The curly metal wires in Say some nice words (2024) echo the growth pattern of pubic hair, while Needless to say (2024) can be read as an O’Keeffian allusion to female anatomy.

Installation view of Yi Hsuan Lai: Ongoing Narratives – Go Left, Go Right, or Go to the Other Side. Left: One leg, two legs, three, four, five, six, seven legs, 2024. Archival pigment print mounted on dibond. 16.25 x 21.625 inches. Right: Sculpture #2, 2024. Courtesy of Gallery 456 and the artist

But for Lai, the connectivity between objecthood and the human body is more than a matter of formal imitation. In many of these configurations, the objects perfectly encapsulate the human body’s near-inevitable state of passivity. In One Leg, two legs, three, four, five, six, seven legs (2024), the artist is photographed in compression stockings, leaning against three furniture legs. The image evokes medical devices and processes such as prosthetics or physical therapy. Also, the elongated shadows in the background appear to be a subtle metaphor for phantom limbs. In the same vein, the tube in Sculpture #2 (2024) is reminiscent of silicone catheters or nasogastric tubes, eliciting in the viewer a gut feeling of discomfort. Giant’s Tickling (2023) can be read as a body’s state of mandatory stasis while undergoing acupuncture. And in Porous Skin and Water (2022), plastic tubes wrap around and penetrate a green foam board with a subtext of violence, as if a cobra or leech grasping onto human skin. In these instances, the objects that constitute the subjects of Lai’s photographs are manipulated via external tension in such uncanny ways. They are like artistic parodies of the human condition at its most vulnerable.

Yi Hsuan Lai. Needless to say, 2024. Paint and dye-sub aluminum print mounted on sintra, 24 x 32 inches. Courtesy of Gallery 456 and the artist

Other times, Lai’s vocabulary of human-object connectivity is less direct but more serendipitous. For instance, Sculpture #1 (2024) is a duck toy with two metal sensors at the bottom. When both metal sensors touch the viewer’s hand, the toy starts quacking at a characteristically high pitch. Despite being displayed on an insular platform, it bears the potential to be animated by human contact and interactions. Right across the room, in stark juxtaposition with the tennis-ball-sized Sculpture #1, Emerging (2023) stands 126.5 inches tall, occupying an entire wall in the gallery. It is, in fact, an enlarged photo of the duck toy itself. Between these two pieces, the contrast in dimension and dimensionality even strikes me as a light-hearted, humorous jab at the prevalence of image editing on social media, which makes people appear larger than life.

Yi Hsuan Lai. Porous Skin and Water, 2022. Archival pigment print mounted on dibond. 16.25 x 21.625 inches. Courtesy of Gallery 456 and the artist.

I hesitated whether to use the word “anthropomorphic” not because of its perceived triteness, but because of its complexities and evolving meanings. In her 1999 essay, Objects Beyond Objecthood, British art historian Briony Fer writes that while anthropomorphism, loosely defined, concerns “bodily projection and empathy,” the intellectual discourse around the term seems to be constantly in flux. As an example, at the height of Minimalism, anthropomorphism was cited by critics such as Michael Fried to describe the theatrical encounter with objects, which functioned like “actors on a stage.” On the other hand, a Post-Minimalist interpretation made it possible to think of anthropomorphism as an ideological negation of anthropocentrism, just like how an insect can use camouflage to “become invisible… and [lose] its distinctness.”

Yi Hsuan Lai’s work encompasses all of these definitions but is not circled in by anyone’s verdict. As writer Qingyuan Deng writes in the show’s press release, Lai’s work reflects an “encyclopedic pursuit of the ever incessant new”; in this show, found objects and memorabilia serve as portals for the viewer to not only see themselves but also feel seen. By delving into objects’ relational value to the human body, experience, and psyche, Ongoing Narratives provides the viewer with an opportunity to, once again, propose the question of what anthropomorphism means in the present context and how it will continue to change.

Yi Hsuan Lai: Ongoing Narratives—Go Left, Go Right, or Go to the Other Side is on view at Gallery 456 (Chinese American Arts Council) until May 4th, 2024.

About the Writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a Chinese writer and translator specializing in postwar and contemporary visual culture and design. Currently, she is working on a research project that focuses on mid-century interior design and mechanization. Wang has previously served as copy editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and producer of The Conversation Art Podcast. Her art criticism has been published in ArteFuseArt Spiel, and Cultbytes. She has held project-based positions at Barro, Aicon Gallery, and Cai Studio and is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in History and Theory of Architecture at Columbia University.