Charged: Shih Chieh Huang

A discussion with the 2014 TED Fellow and sculptor on his work that blends technology and nature

Since Marcel Duchamp and his bicycle wheel (and urinal), countless artists have included daily objects into their work. There may only be one, though, who uses them to create bioluminescent “living” organisms. Taiwanese-American artist
Shih Chieh Huang’s unique approach to sculpture stems from his fascination with the intersection of technology and the natural world. A recently minted 2014 TED Fellow best known for his large-scale public installations, Huang’s dynamic work brings the viewer into a fantastical world where trash bags, plastic toys and computer parts become “living” creatures that breathe, spin, fly and light up the darkness.


Huang’s animatronic sculptures display both his mechanical prowess as well as his ability to straddle the line between aesthetician and engineer. While working with marine biologists as an artist fellow at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in 2007, Huang was inspired by bioluminescent organisms from the deep sea—those shape-shifting beauties that illuminate the oceans’ Twilight Zone-like regions. The artist was struck by the commonalities between the animals’ mutative evolutions and his own creative process.


With his latest installation at the Amsterdam Light Festival earlier this winter, Huang traded a gallery and its white walls for a network of trees. Floating between the branches, his whimsical structures looked even more life-like; further collapsing the boundaries between nature, art and tech. Here, the artist discusses the evolution of his work, what it’s like developing brains for his sculptures and how art can seduce.


Technology plays a crucial part in creating your art. Do you see it as a tool or as a medium onto itself?

I see technology as a medium like red or blue paint a painter would use in their painting. My work focuses on taking common ordinary materials, including software and apps, and transforming them into magical experiences. I don’t view these materials as technology; they are these common things we use today, easy to access and obtain and most importantly they are personal and sometimes intimate.

When beginning a new piece, where does the inspiration come from?

Inspiration comes from many different unexpected places. Sometimes walking around on the street or in the woods. For instance, while walking in the woods one day, 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 bags breathing—inflating and deflating—as if the pile of garbage bags mutated and began to take on a life of their own in the woods. This was the starting point of many creatures I made later on. I start by thinking of the single breathing bag, like a single-cell organism. What happens when a bag grows up? [Does it] become more complex?


You often use found objects in your work. With the movement towards sustainable design, how do you see your art fitting into these larger ideas?

My work does fit into the idea of sustainable design in some ways, but it also doesn’t fit in some ways. I see my work undergoing some evolutionary selection process at this moment. The works do eliminate some negative environmental impact, and they are respectful of environmental and social differences at this moment, but what is still unknown is if the works generate long-term relationships between user and object.

What are you working on now?

I am creating a more evolved “brain” for my creatures, which is inspired by biology. Technically, this new system gives the work more functionality, and at the same time allows me to not only program sequences of movements for display, but it can also be controlled live through an iPhone, iPad or other mobile devices. These more evolved creatures will be part of a new project, an interactive visual and sound environment where seduction becomes a form of play and exploration.


Are there any innovations or new technologies that you are particularly excited about right now?

I am really excited that many technologies are becoming more affordable, abundant and accessible. More and more varieties are appearing, in mobile devices, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, apps, visual programing and probably more will pop out after this interview. That’s how exciting it is!

Lead image courtesy of Janus van den Eijnden, all other images courtesy of Shih Chieh Huang