At Andrew Thomas Huang's first-ever solo exhibition, Interstice, a multisensory installation and series of digital prints born out of a surrealist experimental short film that incorporates dance, sound, and religious spectacle, the artist and filmmaker does his best to avoid attaching things to any singular sort of religious metaphor—he feels he's making a political/spiritual statement more than anything else, an anthropological study of sorts. Growing up gay and an ethnic minority, Huang couldn't help but be more curious about the certain psychological habits that human beings have developed to try and control, or at least make sense of the chaos in the universe. “Whether it's tarot cards or reading turtle bones, I feel like there's a reason why there are magical practices in so many parts of the world,” he explains. But at the Milk Gallery show, which opened last week, the spirituality is undeniable.
The young artist has made a career for himself directing music videos and commercials, nourishing collaborative relationships with a number of renowned artists along the way, not least Björk, for whom he's directed two music videos and the nine-minute short film, Black Lake, that premiered at the Icelandic artist's MoMA retrospective. In between jobs, Huang has always made his own experimental short films. However, rather than put the original Interstice film up on Vimeo and go on about his day, Huang decided to turn it into something a little more special. The Creators Project had the unique opportunity to sit down with Huang and for our own personal tour of the show.
I walked through the doors of the Milk Gallery in Chelsea and am immediately hit with a strong smell, something I can't exactly put my finger on, but that smells like it's burning. Ambient and abrasive music blares from the speakers and large flashing projections cover the gallery walls. It feels like I'm walking onto the set of a horror film, or an esoteric amusement park. The show’s layout is organized with painstaking precision—the film is broken up into different segments and positioned to be viewed chronologically. To the far left of the show’s entrance, a lantern, attached to a long string, swings back and forth in perfect time. A portion of the space is sectioned off by long, black drapes, where the final scene of the film is on display. On the floor, just in front of this projection, Huang lays out the fabric and canopy seen throughout the film. The final room leads into a traditional gallery display of Huang’s series of prints.
Then, I sit down with Huang to discuss Interstice.
The Creators Project: What does the name of the show mean to you?
Andrew Thomas Huang: I’m Chinese, third-generation removed, so I don't really know my heritage all that well. And so in a way I feel like by making something that feels Chinese and feels futuristic I could show this gap between me and my heritage, which is kind of why the piece is called Interstice. It's about the interstitial space between me and a culture I don't know really, even though it's a part of me. And that's kind of the impetus for the colors and everything as well.
What does the veil symbolize to you? How did it impact the organization of the installation if at all?
The whole concept of Interstice is about veils, and I wanted to make a piece about people traversing through a metaphorical veil, but also literally represent it with this fabric. Veils are articles that reveal and conceal things simultaneously, so I wanted it to be about psychological disassociation. This particular piece is very much about space, traversing through space, and crossing boundaries through space; so I wanted to make a literal installation about that. It's basically a film that I spatialize into an installation. It’s like a giant pop song you’re walking through here, there is an intro, different choruses, a section for the bridge. And then it ends with a finale.
How did lion dancing influence the show?
I used to have to go to these family reunions every year, we would all get dinner together. They would always have traditional Chinese lion dancing at these dinners, and everything was red and gold. I was really interested in the puppetry aspect of the dance, but was also drawn to the fabric that was trailing behind them. So with this film I almost wanted to create my own kind of lion dance. The whole purpose of lion dancing is not only to bring good luck, but also to ward off evil. And I feel like every culture has their own superstitious way of doing this, whether it's fireworks or gargoyles in front of a cathedral. You take on the face of evil to scare off evil. I wanted to create a film that made you feel that same sense of spectacle, but also establish a feeling of transformation, that you’re reaching into some metaphysical space, and contacting evil spirits. But I mean the idea came from this family tradition.
What is flex dancing? Why did you choose this form of dance for your film? How did you instruct them?
Flex dancing is this bone-breaking street style that developed out of the black community in Brooklyn. Bones The Machine is a fairly seasoned dancer, he’s sort of like the protagonist we follow, and then there is Brixx and Slicc who are the other two dancers in the movie. We ended up casting them because I thought they were really great and really understood the character that I was going for. I told the dancers, ‘Here’s a piece of fabric, I want you to reappear and disappear behind it as many ways as you can.’ So that's the direction they kind of riffed off of. Everything you’re watching in the film is improve. I worked with our choreographer, Jason Akira Somma, he's more of an artist, but he comes from a dance background. He knew these guys. To be honest, in the beginning, I was afraid of casting flex dancers because I felt like it was its own artform, and I was afraid to meld the two. But because this piece is about bridging cultural gaps I thought it would be interesting to use them. We did a large casting call, and New York is obviously saturated with dancers. We had so many people come in and I would always tell them I want something kind of mysterious and spooky, I want this dance to feel haunting, almost like you're watching a horror movie and no one really understood the mood I was after as well as these guys. Not to mention the fact that because they can move their limbs in a certain way it made the fabric almost look like it had its own life.
What is the significance behind the swinging lantern? Why did you paint it blue?
Yeah so I open every film with this lantern. I was really into those swinging incense holders you see in Eastern Orthodox church rituals. Again I've been really interested in religious spectacles that set the tone or ward off evil. So the lantern is like the metronome for the whole film. Again, the whole piece is called Interstice, and I wanted to make a piece that was literally about intervals. The lantern swinging in the installation is the actual lantern we used. I didn't want to bring a prop from the film into this space without transforming it somehow, because I feel like if you didn't it would feel really cheesy. This character we are watching is getting sucked into this vortex of veils, as this blue flashes. And everything been red up until this point so I sort of just dipped the lantern in blue paint.
How did you decide what outfits to use?
I feel like when you think of veiled dances, you always think of a belly dancer, cheesy exotic looking girls, and I think I'm referencing that in a way. But I wanted there to be a warrior quality to these guys, almost more like we’re watching them go through the motions of some royal procession. I was looking a lot at Turkish armor and samurai helmets. This girl named Savannah constructed the helmets. I think we hacked some Halloween Spartan Helmets. Its just plastic, we just fucked with it. And the pants and the clothing were made by threeASFOUR. I chose them because, for one thing, they're all from the Middle East, and they also all incorporate sacred geometry into their designs, and I wanted their to be an oriental aesthetic. I wanted to it to feel like a Roman bath house or something. And I feel like when you think of that, you think of beautiful Moroccan or Arabic Mathematical Geometric design and stuff. So the design on their pants is actually sacred geometry patterns.
Sound seems to be an important element of the show’s overall presentation. What were you going for?
The music is done by CFCF from Montreal. He does really new age electronic music, his stuff sort of sounds like Tangerine Dream. It feels like a 1970s Peter Weir movie. He's a DJ but he's very academic in the way he thinks about music and sound. With the music I wanted to reference medieval Japanese court music, which has this kind of abrasive bagpipe high pitched sound.
It's eerily slow. Are the characters really moving that speed, or did you slow the film down during the editing process?
We shot it at 48 frames per second, so everything is a bit slow, which I think contributed to the feeling of the fabric more than the actual movement of the characters. When I thought about veils, I thought of Victorian photographs of widows. I wanted to have a woman unveiling herself over and over again. I was originally gonna use a lot of visual effects to do that but I found that just pulling the fabric and reversing it was the best way of showing someone being revealed constantly over and over again.
Why the long blue nails?
I think a big theme of this is all about power. When you talk about veils, you're talking about power, because the institutions that govern us are ultimately invisible, or at least invisible to us. And I think when you think about 19th century Chinese aristocracy, you see a lot of women wearing nail guards, and they look like these beautiful gilded like claws. They are purely out of vanity, to protect their nails in the same way Asian women wear white gloves so that they don't tan their hands. I also think it's just a great dance element. I think that when you dance it's all about your hands. Also I wanted this piece to feel kind of aggressive and I wanted it to feel seductive but monstrous at the same time. We were gonna paint them gold. Again, red and gold are the foundation of the film, but I felt like blue made it feel more futuristic.
Can you tell me more about the dark ominous whispering voices being played throughout the exhibition?
It's actually poetry being read by my uncle, who I honestly barely know. I've always been afraid to engage my relatives because I just don't know them very well. But I found out that he knows the Tao Te Ching really well so I asked him to read it, which is what you are hearing in the first stages of the show. But there are two sets of poetry being read in this exhibition, the Tao Te Ching read by my uncle, and then there’s a Chinese pop song that's being read by my friend in the last section of the film. Again, I have no connection to my heritage and I wanted there to be a vocal element in the show and I thought it would be cool to incorporate something ancient and something contemporary.
What am I smelling in this installation? Why did you find it important to incorporate smell into the installation?
I feel like smell is the one sense that you can use almost in like a sculptural way, where you feel like you’re stepping into a thick space. My grandmother was an herbalist, so I asked this guy, Stephen, who was our special effects guy, to design a scent that smelled like Chinese herbs, like Chinese medicine. And he crafted this particular scent that fills the room and we burn it in the two bowls here next to the canopy.
What programs did you design these prints? How do they fit in with the rest of the installation?
I did the prints a year later, when I was broke working on some films and waiting for Interstice to come out. My background is in animation and I do a lot of CG work. I tried to follow the same narrative from Interstice. I was kind of inspired by Chinese scroll painting, and Hindu mythology, and the way they rendered landscapes and stuff. I did them by hand in the computer via Wacom and Maya. The figures in the prints I sculpted in ZBrush and then assembled the whole thing in Photoshop. I explored medieval themes and these religious institutional practices but rendered them in this really futuristic CG way. I kind of intentionally did some shitty rigging so that the figures’ limbs looked noodly and loose. I wanted that look. I was inspired by those flagellant processions during the bubonic plague. I kind of like those apocalyptic practices.
How are three panels in The Ninth Level piece connected?
This was the first of the paintings that I did. I was inspired by this book I'm reading called The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett. It's all about the deep web, the history of the internet, and the history of trolling and stuff. I thought it was amazing how when you look at the levels of the deep web you can’t help but think of Dante’s Inferno. So I wanted to make a digital Inferno. Each print is the same image rendered three different ways. That's the thing, I think versioning is like a big part of all these prints, when you have a CG sculpture you can have so many iterations of that same object, and its all about changing the surfaces. And again I think of the Inferno and this idea of different levels of existence in the afterlife or in this other space. I've been really interested in amphibians lately, because I feel like amphibians are these creatures that live half way in one world and half way in another. And that's like our lives right now, like we're always on our phones, like my head is in another place, all the time, I'm thinking about my emails right now as I'm talking to you. That’s why I wanted to create these amphibian creatures that inhabit this mythological digital space.
Interstice: An Installation by Andrew Thomas Huang will be on display at Milk Gallery through April 3, 2016.
The film will be for sale in its entirety when the exhibition ends in April. Visit Andrew Thomas Huang's website to learn more about the artist. Purchase the featured prints here, and for more shows at Milk Gallery head over to their website, here.