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kinetic sculpture

Playful Robotic Sculpture Imitates Traditional Chinese Dragon Dancing

The wave-like motion of the traditional Chinese dragon dance comes alive with the help of Arduino, algorithms, and robotic arms.
Images courtesy of the artist.

The Chinese dragon dance is the source of inspiration behind this kinetic sculpture by artist Fengyi Franklin Zhu. The traditional dance, familiar to anyone who's experienced a Chinese New Year celebration, features a team of performers choreographing the movements and puppeteering the dragon using poles to carefully coordinate and control its head, serpentine body, and tail.

The undulating movement of the dance is what Zhu replicates in his sculpture, called A Ritual That Lasts Forever. Except his dragon is given movement thanks to the puppeteering of robotic arms, Arduino, algorithms, and servo shields.


"I found out that the dragon dance is traditionally performed in a serious manner, like a ritual in which people worship the dragon for its fictional power over the sea and the sky," Zhu tells Creators. "By making the dragon dance, worshippers symbolically wish that the dragon will protect them from drought and bless them with sufficient water for their crops."

Zhu wanted to use modern materials to recreate the custom, and began by creating an aluminum structure that could hold and suspend his mechanized version. For the design of the dragon itself, Zhu notes that actually in Chinese culture the form is a hybrid of nine different animals, including an ox for the head that feature the horns, or antlers, of a deer. So Zhu used these two animals to base the head on, making it low-poly, too, as a nod to the aesthetic of 3D computer modeling. Before the sculpture was built, Zhu explains, he modeled it in Cinema4D to get the movement exact, then recorded this animation on a data sheet.

"I used Python to read the data and send the data to Arduino via serial communication, and the Arduino passes down to two servo shields and those shields eventually pass down the rotation degree to each servos accordingly," he explains. "With a customized algorithm, the team of nine robotic arms move the dragon form suspended below to perform the dragon dance endlessly. In this way, the dragon is back again, aided by the very thing that has been taking the dragon away. When people approach the piece from a close distance, it appears very fierce. [While] at a distance, the piece begins to appear soft and beautiful."


Check out a video of the sculpture below.

You can find out more about how Zhu created the sculpture, along with see more of his work, at his website.


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