Last month, Shih Chieh Huang unleashed a plastic monster at the Worcester Art Museum: a monumental installation that slithered alongside the Roman floor mosaic in the Renaissance Court and gobbled up children near the rear entrance.
This was the latest iteration of “Organic Concept,” a series of performances by the New York–based artist in which he pumps up a continuous roll of painter’s plastic with a box fan, bringing to life a room-sized pneumatic sculpture that resembles the braided contours of human viscera. “When you see the air trying to squeeze through, it makes you think of the lower intestine,” Huang told me earlier that day. “It’s almost like there’s food in there and it’s trying to get it out through the ends.” Fifteen minutes into the performance at the Worcester Art Museum, this monumental tripe was all but destroyed by a stampede of screaming children, who gleefully vanquished the wormlike menace.
As with all of Huang’s work, this one conscripted common or everyday materials — in this case, a roll of painter’s plastic bought from the Home Depot in Worcester, 50 miles west of Boston. The performance was staged in conjunction with Reusable Universes: Shih Chieh Huang, a single-room exhibition for which the artist has assembled marine cyborgs from Tupperware, LED automotive “angel eye” headlights, polyethylene terephthalate bottles, and other materials. In a sense, Huang is a low-tech demiurge, devising a cybernetic bestiary from funky doodads and cheap merchandise, the stock and trade of dollar stores around the world.
The exhibition comes against the backdrop of a pestilence of plastics: According to a new study published in Science Advances, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been made since the 1950s, with around half of that produced after 2004. While the problem has been compounded by synthetic fibers, the main culprit is Huang’s favorite material: disposable packaging.
Yet the artist’s work is not a homily on sustainability, but rather an investigation of the formal properties of dollar-store merchandise, the “behavior and character” of whirring cooling fans, electric highlighter fluid, and pliable painter’s plastic. Huang does not wish to conceal the gadgetry of his kinetic sculptures, but to disclose the means by which he has converted common materials into bioluminescent sea monsters. His synthetic invertebrates are loud and awkward — the antithesis of the silent, compact smartphone. At the same time, they move at a lazy speed, simulating the attenuated movement of deep-sea organisms. “Everything happens in slow motion because there is so much water pressure,” he said.
Huang sees the dollar store, or night market, as a paradigm for his work, and the exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum is a kind of capitalist pleasure zone, deploying mass-produced goods to induce wonder on the part of gallery-goers. On the day of the performance, a kindergarten-age viewer lay back in a pillow on the floor, hypnotized by the periodic inflation of rosebud-shaped sculptures attached to the ceiling. “When I’m programming, it feels like I’m choreographing a large number of things happening at the same time,” Huang said. “When the plastic is deflating, it almost sounds like waves on a beach, or perhaps the wind in the forest. I’m composing, if not music, than sound order.”
At the same time, Huang is not prescriptive or dictatorial with respect to the meaning of his work. “I don’t like telling people what they should be looking it,” he said. “I am interested in what people are reminded of when they look at the work. I feel like I get to know them better.”
Reusable Universes: Shih Chieh Huang continues at the Worcester Art Museum (55 Salisbury Street, Worcester, MA) through November 12.