Hsini Des

Current Research and Artist Statement

My sculptural works often involve site-specific investigations and the gathering of found materials for recontextualization and manipulation. I am particularly interested in repurposing waste materials that negatively impact the environment, especially single-use plastics, as they are practically “archival”—both in the sense that they refuse to degrade and provide a record (or archive) of human activity.

During the summer of 2018, I was in residence on Governors Island and given several rooms of an abandoned house to use as a studio and exhibition space. The worn walls had built-in cabinets and shelves, marble mantles, and peeling paint. I walked the island’s perimeter and found an area where trash washes up on the wavebreakers. Much of it consisted of polystyrene foam, each chunk deformed to varying degree by the motion of the water. Many pieces resembled organic or mineral forms such as coral, turquoise, or shell. I spent afternoons collecting polystyrene specimens with a homemade spear, not only as an attempt to clear floating debris from the water and shoreline, but also with the intent to find new uses for these everlasting objects. Since the derelict nature of the house mirrored that of these cast-off items, I decided to display my findings by filling in absences, spots where paint peeled away and where books and the implements of everyday life once lined the shelves.

As this residency came to an end, I was faced with the problem of responsibly dealing with this massive collection of artifacts. Packing it all off to the landfill seemed as bad as returning it to the waterways, and storing it all seemed impractical. After much research and testing, I began to chemically melt the foam. This process expels all the air inside the polystyrene and turns its solids into a liquid plastic that eventually hardens. This drastically reduced the overall volume of material, and I was able to contain this big problem into small glass vessels, for safekeeping as souvenirs.

All my projects, like the one described above, encourage looking critically at what surrounds us in everyday life and creating an alternate means for valuation and appreciation. This extends to my social practice works, which involve novel modes of audience engagement in the distribution of photo- and sculpture-based artist multiples. My leading questions are: How can the experience of viewing further the reception of an image or object? How can art function in private or public spaces apart from the gallery? How can I get such work into the homes (or within the line of sight) of people from all walks of life, not just the wealthy, the aesthetes, and the gallery-going set? What can an artwork do beyond my intention, in the hands of another, on their terms, in their space, alongside their other possessions? How might an artwork change with the viewer over time?

In addressing these questions, I devised interactive social games, often modeled loosely on familiar games of chance and midway amusements. Significantly, in addition to acting as a platform for the multiples, I’ve found that I can connect individuals and create safe and enjoyable public spaces to talk about our ideas and ourselves. I’ve recently employed the structure of a bingo game to host events centered on topics like fake news, gender equality, and water. These games use bingo cards stocked not with numbers but with various “icebreaker” conversation prompts. Incentivised by artist-made prizes, players are able to interpret and freely elaborate upon the phrases on the cards, and each conversation gets them closer to winning. The prizes themselves act both as a souvenirs of participation and cues for continued dialogue after the game has ended.

I am driven to create opportunities for real-world conversation and connection because we live in a world that is increasingly mediated by virtual interactions that can impede essential human contact. We have all at one time or another felt social anxiety, so I want to create inclusive environments that breakdown the traditional, often exclusive social hierarchies prevalent in the art world—even if just for a couple of hours. Because we learn the most from our weak ties (like strangers with different values and backgrounds) rather than from our strong ties (like family and friends), my creative activities are tacitly intended for broader appeal.

I regard the whole experience of playing, winning, and then owning prizes (the ostensible art objects) as part of the overarching artwork itself—even if these objects end up given or thrown away. I acknowledge that I have no control over how these works are later handled or regarded, but I’m more excited about what unknown life and significance they might go on to have—especially as it might differ from the somewhat rote experience of market-driven gallery-bound work. Presenting my work directly to the public allows me to distribute it on my own terms—that is, to who I want, at a price I deem fair, and with affection.

This spring I will be staging another bingo game in Alfred, NY, with the generous support of the Rema Hort Mann Artist Community Engagement Grant. My social game will take place during the annual Alfred community fundraiser and celebration, Hot Dog Day. In this village of one square mile, three distinct populations exist but rarely interact—those affiliated with Alfred University, Alfred State College, and locals. I hope to initiate interaction among these groups through conversation prompts distributed on bingo cards and incentivized by locally made prizes. The goal is to create an opportunity for individuals to break down the barriers that keep them separate and highlight the many skills and talents of the community itself. (Additionally, also this spring in Alfred, I will be participating in three group shows, one of which will feature my ongoing sexual harassment awareness project, Don’t Honk if You’re Horny.)

I believe art can be both egalitarian and fun, while also conceptually rigorous and engaged with issues of consequence for artist and audience alike.