There's an infamous scene in American Beauty where video voyeur Ricky says the most beautiful thing he ever filmed was a plastic bag dancing in the wind. Installation artist and TED 2014 Fellow, Shih Chieh Huang, takes that logic and evolves it to the nth degree as he dissects seemingly worthless objects (plastic bags, old toys, computer parts) and rebuilds them into surreal "living" organisms with a bioluminescent flair.
Huang told The Creators Project that his work is inspired by the question, “What happens when a bag grows up?” and we may now have the answer. His immersive installations often look like a mixture between a junkyard and the deepest ocean floors, as machines resembling octopuses and angler fish swell and dance as if they were real. The evolutionary processes of oceans, single cell organisms, and land larva deeply inform his work, and the artist even completed a fellowship at the Smithsonian Museum Of Natural History to further his understanding of bioluminescent ocean life.
His interests in natural ecosystems and lifeforms eventually become large-scale, illuminated environments filled with wheezing plastic bags and animatronic creatures that would blow Jacques Cousteau’s mind. We are beyond stoked to watch his recent TED Talk in Vancouver when it goes up online.
The Creators Project was captivated with his creative repurposing of what seems like “junk,” and spoke with Huang about his frequent use of toilet water regulators (the plastic floating thing inside the toilet water tank), and why animating trash can be so beautiful.
The Creators Project: How would you describe your art to someone who’s totally unfamiliar?
Shih Chieh Huang:
Seductive illuminated creatures made form common household materials, inspired by science and biology.
I watched one interview with you where you said your work is inspired by the question, “What happens when a bag grows up?” Can you elaborate on that? I think it’s a beautiful idea but maybe you could explain it further in regards to the source of inspiration for your work?
The concept of "What happens when a bag grows up?" is inspired by looking at the developing stages of single cells organisms and developing process of ocean or land larva. While walking in the woods in a sculpture park one day looking for a site for a commissioned project, I came across an area where there was a pile of garbage bags left by a passerby. I decided to put computer cooling fans inside one of the garbage bag and set it on a timer, so when people pass by they would see one of the garbage bag breathing (inflating and deflating) as if the pile of garbage bag have mutated and begin to take on life of their own in the woods. This was the starting point of many creatures I made later on.
I started thinking that the single breathing bag was like a single cell organism, and what happens when a bag grows up? Does it become more complex? Does it start growing water bottles? Glow? Emit light? Do bags communicate with each other? Seduce each other? And how?
When you were a kid, did you make art out of found objects? What was the first project you created that reflects the type of work you’re making today? What is the most unexpected object you’ve ever used in an installation?
When I was a kid I spent most of the time taking things apart and try to put them back together. I was curious to see how things work. Sometimes I would take apart my brother's toys and try to put them back together before he came home, but there were always some mystery parts left over, and I wasn't sure where they were supposed to go, or I had to do some modification.
I made many random things growing up, but I don't quite remember the very first project I created. One thing I do remember is all the different projects I made when I first immigrated to the US. I was terrible with exams and book reports so I was always doing extra credit projects to make up points in all the classes. I didn't have many resource for the materials so I would always use things around the house to make the projects: Modifying the motor from a remote control car to make an animated atom structure for science class; funky looking floppy, moving whales for english class (Moby Dick, related), and many more…
One of the unexpected objects I've used in my project is the toilet water regulator (the plastic floating thing inside the toilet water tank). My mom always asked me to fix and adjust things when I was growing up, so it is always on my mind when I think about methods of regulating water. I used it as a water sensor to activate a water pump and pump glowing liquid (highlighter pen innk, plus water) around in an installation.
I heard you once say that the look of each piece is determined by its function and that as you keep building, the aesthetics keep growing. Does that mean you do not sketch blueprints before working? Do the final installations ever reflect your initial idea?
Yes, each work's aesthetic does grow with its functional needs, but I do make rough sketches and drawings before and during the process. The sketches often don't look anything like the final result, but they help me visualize some of the circuitry and wire connections/layout. And sometimes they are just the fantasy/inspirational thoughts behind the concept.
The drawings also help me foresee some possible technical problems I might face during the making process. But even with the drawing, many technical challenges still occur in the process. I also make drawings and sketches after the work is finished. Often this is because the work is then put together with many other works in a larger installation and modification and program arrangements are needed—especially when I'm working with other people who are helping with installation. It helps them visualize the final result.
Can you tell me about some of the technology you use to bring your work to fruition? Other than sensors and fans, what other tech do you use?
Other then the sensors and fans, the "brain" in the control systems are Basic Stamp2 [a microcontroller with a small BASIC interpreter] and more recently DMX control systems [commonly used for stage/light controllers]. The DMX control system has more channels and its program can be stored on a micro SD card, flexible in size.
This system allows me to not only program sequences of movements/functions for display and playback, it can also be controlled live through iPhone, iPad or other mobile devices (with a downloaded app) via dedicated wifi signal. This gives me flexibility on how the work can be displayed and/or with performers with live "puppeteering" of the creatures. Both could be done as individual work or combined with large scale installation.
A lot of people note that your work reminds them of deep sea life. Does this acquatic interpretation stem from any place in particular?
I did an artist research fellowship at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, working with marine biologists and looking at bioluminescent organism in the ocean. I was inspired by many of the creatures found in the deep ocean and the life forms that live around the region where light can no long reach, called the "Twilight Zone." It's a very cool place, many strange things!
I do need to clarify that I'm not trying to recreate these sea creatures. One of the concepts I learned and was fascinated by is that many of the bioluminescent creatures did not grow "new" light organs. The light organs are often modified/evolved from a pre-existing organ, like a mutated dorsal fin infected by bioluminescent bacteria (ex. lanternfish). The idea of taking existing objects, merging them and making something new and magical is wonderful.
Your installations are immersive worlds, of sorts. How did you translate this to a TED speech that was verbal focused? Did you include photos, videos, or did you actually bring parts of your installation on stage
My work is visually based and its not easy to describe with words. During the TED fellow talk I presented video of my working process, documentation and I brought one creature to the stage so audience can get a sense of the work I do.
If you could create any installation without financial or spatial restrictions, what would you like to build?
It would be a catalyst to speed up the evolutionary process of many creatures and the expansion of their environments. An environment without borders, and a diverse community with different creatures evolved in ways that they would have more developed brains, sensory perception of their environment, sound, body, and mating functions. They would interact, adapt, and integrate with human bodies both mentally and physically.
What upcoming work do you have on deck?
I'm currently working on a grant project with funding help from Creative Capital. There are few group exhibitions that just opened this week and another next week in Japan and Australia.
See more of Shih Chieh Huang's work on his website: www.messymix.com
And visit TED for more information on his recent talk in Vancouver.