Published  01/03/1969

The cybernetic sculpture of Tsai Wen-ying

The cybernetic sculpture of Tsai Wen-ying

Our attitude today to machinery is such a compound of dependence, admiration and fear; and the relationship between man and machine is so fundamental to the twentieth-century environment—both physical and metaphysical—that it is not surprising if many artists have begun to explore this relationship in various ways. One of the most interesting and mature is the Chinese-born American artist Tsai Wen-ying.


(This article was first published in Studio International, Vol 177, No 909, March 1969, pages 126-29.)

The failure of most contemporary artists to come to terms with technology has often been noted. I regard this as a radical failure, not one which can be easily rectified by a few symposiums, competitions and exhibitions (valuable as these may be). It is the failure of artists in particular: if the word 'artist' is to maintain both the heroic associations due to the romantic movement and the older association with technical skills, then the artist must be someone who assumes an uncommon responsibility for the uses to which the technical skills of his time are put. It is also the failure of our educational system, which being fragmented into separate disciplines has a tendency to produce fragmented human beings. An educational revolution, like other revolutions, must be sparked off by new ideas and new models of humanity. Some individuals must resolve personally the cultural tensions of their day before these tensions can be resolved in school curricula. What is called for is a new defining of artistic integrity, a new fullness of response to the complexities of the environment.

Such has been the aim, explicit or implicit, of many of the modern artists who have used machinery to make artifacts. Our attitude today to machinery is such a compound of dependence, admiration and fear; and the relationship between man and machine is so fundamental to the twentieth-century environment—both physical and metaphysical—that it is not surprising if many artists have begun to explore this relationship in various ways. One of the most interesting and mature is the Chinese-born American artist Tsai.

One of Tsai's pieces was shown at the ICA `Cybernetic Serendipity' exhibition in London last summer, but he has not yet had a one-man show outside New York. In May 1968 he exhibited some eight pieces at the Howard Wise Gallery, New York. The gallery was dimly lit, but a bluish spotlight was trained on each piece, blinking on and off faster than the eye could count. This high-frequency strobe-flashing, as it is called (each flash lasts about one-millionth of a second) is the technical device used to achieve a strange, otherworldly visual effect. Each piece consists of a number of stainless-steel rods (of a different shape and scale for each piece, and each rod bent in its own slightly different way), set in cement, vibrating at a constant and unvarying rate of twenty or thirty vibrations per second. But the flashing of the strobe makes the eye see the rods as oscillating asymmetrically—slower or faster according to the frequency of the flashes, ranging from relaxed undulation to excited palpitating.

In some of the pieces, the rods are capped with steel plates. Each of these plates then appears to be two plates merging into each other's space, making a visual reality out of a physical impossibility.
Some of the pieces incorporate a simple feedback device. One consists of antenna-like rods radiating from a small central solid, recalling some spider or squid. The rods have metal tips on the ends, some of which are sensed so as to pick up static electricity when a spectator approaches. This causes a switch to slow down the frequency of the strobe-flashes, which in turn causes the antennae to tremble excitedly. Two other sculptures may be manually controlled by a knob on the strobe. The viewer is able to modify the tempo or mood of the composition. One of them resembles a bed of some growing plant permeated by a natural element whose consistency the viewer is empowered to adjust.

The effect of organic life, as we shall see, is fundamental to Tsai's work. However, there is no question of his directly aping natural forms. When one attempts to describe in words the visual effect of his work, there is a temptation to use lyrical analogies with gardens or aquariums or Chinese dancing. (Tsai, who is very conscious of his Chinese background, has said that he chooses frequency relationships which will create a slow, delicate oriental motion: 'Other artists, working in a Western tradition, often strive for dramatic crescendos when they create a moving sculpture.') In this article I have avoided such analogies, in the hope that a plainer and accurate description will do more justice to the depth and unfamiliarity of Tsai's use of his medium.

The most impressive piece of all in the exhibition consisted of a straight line of eight sets of ten-foot-high rods, with seven rods in each set. Each set looks like a column or chute of molten glass, oscillating with its own distinctive motion. Microphones are positioned to pick up sound. Clap your hands, or raise your voice above a whisper—and the whole structure shimmers as if frozen for a few moments to a solider substance; then shudders back to normal, till discomposed again by your exclamations of awe.

The mystery of these works is hard to describe. (Still photographs of course give a very inadequate idea.) It is worth noting that most of his techniques, taken separately, are not particularly revolutionary. There is a piece by Gabo in the Tate Gallery, dated 1920, which consists of a single vibrating wire. Strobe lighting (usually of a lower frequency) has been used by Boyd Mefferd and is also familiar in psychedelic nightclubs; and the principle of feeding back the spectator's behaviour to modify the behaviour of the machine has been used by Richard Hogle and several others.

The point is that Tsai knows his sophisticated techniques so well that the ingenuity has been put behind him and become a taken-for-granted skill or medium—like handwriting for others. As can be seen from the biographical note which follows this article, a great deal of specialized experience and research has gone into these creations; yet they look effortless and spontaneous, as if the artist's co-ordination of his technical resources were indissoluble from the coordination of his own instincts and intelligence. This power to co-ordinate and organize is, of course, one traditionally associated with the artist. Where it is lacking the result seems not 'art' but a contrivance—willed by the mind, with no concurrence of the nerves and instinct. Faced by such objects, we find ourselves commenting on the technical skill that has gone into them. Faced by a Tsai, one recovers a primitive and naive wonder at its inanimate evocation of the organic.

Other artists before Tsai have used psycho-physiological optical effects—what used to be called 'optical illusions' until it was appreciated that in this context the distinction between the illusory and the real can be arbitrary. Of course, the most traditional visual art takes advantage of the known constraints of the human optical system and the psychology of the brain. But one sometimes feels that an Op artist is using his special knowledge to trick us by baffling the perception, exploiting the laziness or credulity of the human eye. Perhaps this is because one is still thinking in terms of optical illusions. Tsai does not make one suspect a conjuring-trick; but one reason for the awe his sculptures inspire may be the feeling (a rather different one) that in a specialized respect they are more perfect than the human optical system.

In his evocation of the organic, Tsai obeys the principles of cybernetics. The analogy with the organic is far more thoroughgoing and direct than in the case of an artist like Pol Bury. Bury's post-1960 work, with its slow and barely perceptible stirrings, reminds one of organic life. But in his case the motor and wiring are all hidden; what he does is cunningly transform the monotonous repetition of a simple electric motor into apparently arbitrary and unpredictable stirrings, which belie their mechanical origin. The reason why his artifacts strike us as uncannily alive is that most of us in 1969 still tend to think of machinery as being essentially repetitive, like a clockwork motor. Pol Bury plays on this preconception of machinery by disguising the motor's repetitiveness. He traps us into the admission that his artifacts, though evidently driven by machinery, have none of the characteristics of the machinery we know of.

Bury's work, however engaging (and I have introduced it here to make a necessary distinction rather than to disparage it), is a private backwater compared with the possibilities which Tsai opens up. Tsai's work demonstrates, far more tellingly than any didactic model could, how out-of-date is the idea of machinery as monotonously and inexorably repetitive. The more advanced machinery of today possesses that very characteristic—sensitivity to a changing environment—which in the past has been regarded as the antithesis of mechanical behaviour; and the theory of cybernetics suggests that the analogies between mechanical and organic behaviour are accurate and profound. Tsai's objects are self-organizing systems, like the sea-anemones or water-plants which they evoke, in that they maintain, by the control of certain variables, a stability or equilibrium necessary to their survival. They are of course less complex than natural organisms, for the simplest living creature performs far more complex transformations of energy resources than any manmade machine. But cybernetics recognizes a type of resemblance between one system and another which is less complete than one-to-one equivalence; this is called homomorphism. `Two machines' (writes Ashby in An Introduction to Cybernetics) 'are homomorphic when they become alike if one is merely simplified, i.e. observed with less than full discrimination.' A more familiar word which conveys the idea is 'abstraction', or (in the mathematical sense) 'model'.

`No living organism . . . is perfectly static' write D. and K. Stanley-Jones in The Kybernetics of Natural Systems. 'Life maintains always a dynamic and therefore fluctuating equilibrium between opposing tendencies . . . The point of equilibrium therefore is not rigidly fixed, as in a mechanical structure; it oscillates about a mean position which is regarded as the level of stability. Stability in the biological sense is that of an oscillating system. This concept is at variance with the usage of the engineer, who identifies stability with rigidity, and regards oscillation as a sign of instability.' Tsai's basic technique of vibrating rods (like Gabo's) presents the paradox that the vitalizing electric current on which the whole artefact is dependent for energy is also a disturbing force which stirs the rods from static equilibrium. The ecology of these 'organisms' demands not only electric power but also the presence in their environment of a different species—the human observer, with his curious optical system. The strobe-flashing technique used by Tsai plays on our tendency to see constant forms, and creates the effect of sinuosity peculiar to Tsai's work: an irregular, asymmetric oscillation giving a taste of the complexity of organic life. So between artefact and observer is set up a kind of mutual dependence or symbiosis. In the structures that incorporate reaction to spectators' behaviour, an additional factor of participation is introduced. The sounds of humans which the microphone picks up are like the electric current in a way: a force that disturbs the artefact's mechanical stability but is also an essential source of its artistic life or potency. This relationship between observer and artefact is, of course, true of all art (not excluding Pol Bury's). Tsai heightens by abstraction the process whereby art depends on constant refreshment or re-creation by the environment. With the current switched off, or without the participation of spectators, his objects would be as deprived of life as sea-anemones stranded in an empty pool. I would not like to get dragged in here to the old philosophical controversy about the existence of the 'external world'. However, it is of interest to recall the story of Dr Johnson kicking a stone to disprove Berkeley's contention that things only exist in the human consciousness. Tsai's works are more like biological symbiosis than they are like tangible objects; and if this is true, there are important implications for our whole idea of the nature of 'artefacts'. By kicking a stone you can maybe reassure yourself of its existence; but it would not be so reassuring to kick Tsai's steel rods, any more than the screen on which a film is being projected.

I think of Tsai as manipulating a few sources of energy with extreme economy—electric power, human sounds etc.—as a paradigm or homomorphism for all the infinitely various resources on whose co-ordination the equilibrium of life and the environment depends. Herein, surely, lies the true significance of the current movement towards reuniting the activities of artists and technicians.

Tsai is at present thinking about much larger cybernetic sculptures designed for public places. Beyond this, it cannot be predicted where his work will lead him. Which techniques he will pursue, whether he will concentrate on greater complexities with many resources, or on greater intensities with few resources— these are not questions that can be answered. His oeuvre is already impressive, and deserves to be better known. (The May 1968 show in New York received hardly any attention from the New York critics, but was widely recommended by word of mouth and its closing date was postponed by the gallery for a few weeks.) But, as he says himself, he is only scratching the surface of the possibilities that exist. If we are approaching an artistic and educational revolution, it is encouraging to be able to point to a man like Tsai, whose work is accessible to the public of today without being limited by any of its preconceptions. There are more militant ways of changing sensibility and fomenting revolution, but Tsai's way is likely to be as effective as any.


1928 Tsai Wen-Ying was born in Amoy, China. Received his first lesson in Chinese brushwork at the age of nine.
1939 Moved to Shanghai. Majored in chemical engineering at Ta Tung
University, Shanghai.
1949 Moved to Hong Kong.
1950 Came to the USA as a student. While pursuing his art studies, he
studied mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan.
1953 Graduated as an engineer; came to New York and worked as a
consulting engineer.
1956 Began to work as an Engineering Project Manager, in collaboration
with leading architects and architectural firms (such as Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, and Skidmore Owings and Merrill) in the design and construction of atomic research labs, skyscrapers, electronic data processing centres, fall-out shelters, industrial and pharmaceutical plants etc. During this period he continued his artistic training.
1957 Finished his formal art education, and began to experiment on his own.
1961 One-man show of painting at the Ruth Sherman Gallery, New York. An
example of Tsai's painting is shown in illustration no. 3.
1962 Became a US citizen.
1963 Awarded the John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship for painting.
Resigned from his engineering career to devote himself full-time to art. He was now able to integrate his engineering and artistic abilities. He soon completed three-dimensional kinetic constructions using vibrations, optical effects, radiant paints etc.
1964 One-man show at the Amel Gallery, New York.
1965 Exhibited his 'multi-kinetic wall' at the Amel Gallery, New York.
This is described by Willoughby Sharp in the catalogue as follows:
Tsai's Multi-Kinetics are dynamically integrated multiple constructions. Employing thirty-two kinetic units, each of which contains a configuration of multicoloured gyroscopic forms, Tsai has created an active environmental field that could be infinitely extended. Each motorized unit is a self-sufficient whole which, combined with similar units, produces a large-scale kinetic work of great magnitude and power.
Photo 4 shows a smaller example of Tsai's work in 1965.
1968 (May-June) One-man show of Cybernetic Sculpture, Howard Wise
Gallery, New York. The pieces shown in this exhibition are described in the preceding article.
1968 Exhibited one piece of Cybernetic Sculpture, using strobe lighting, in London at the ICA exhibition 'Cybernetic Serendipity'. This was the first group exhibition outside the USA in which Tsai has exhibited.
1968 Invited by Gyorgy Kepes to be an artist in residence at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, M.I.T.
Awarded second prize, together with Frank T. Turner who collaborated as an engineer, in the E.A.T. competition for engineers and artists: the prizewinning piece, illustrated here in illus. 1 was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 'The Machine', in New York.



Page 127

Figure 1
Photo: Product Engineering

Figure 2
Photo: Eugene Edward Weise

Figure 3
Trichromic III
Coll: Museum of Modern Art, New York


Page 128

Figure 4
Kinetic wheel 1965
Coll: Mr and Mrs Burt Stern, New York

Figure 5
Harmonic sculpture 1968
Coll: Mr and Mrs David Fox, Potomac

Figure 6
Photo: Eugene Edward Weise

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA