Björk collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang threads together the symbolism of dreams
Andrew Thomas Huang is a very contemporary sort of filmmaker.
While his background is in fine art, Huang’s work now straddles the commercial and the artistic, finding platforms online and in galleries. The LA-based artist’s baroque, conceptually abstract visions are experimental – but they operate within the boundaries established by more conventional, mainstream filmmaking. At the same time, his more commercial works – including his music videos with Björk – offer a much weirder experience than the more quotidian lip-syncing-in-a-club-with-peripheral- romance narratives that often illustrate pop songs.
Huang’s first breakthrough came with a 2005 short that went viral when he put it on YouTube. Called Doll Face, it’s an angsty, surreal mini narrative, in which a disembodied robotic doll’s face (all pincers and rickety bits like the scary toys in Toy Story) makes itself up in an attempt to look like a human it sees on a TV screen. Doll Face got Huang an audience with J.J. Abrams, the sci-fi director who’s been breathing new life into genre classics: the Star Wars and Star Trek reboots.
It was in 2012, however, with Solipsist, that Huang’s ideas started to crystallise into a more experimental tone. He talks about Solipsist as a formative moment in understanding his own relationship with his work. It’s a poetic exploration of individuality and union; literal connection between lone figures and characters. Fabric takes on a life of its own; growing at terrifying speed as a kind of infestation from two human figures, seated back to back, or floating purposefully in darkness before gathering, a communion of furry jellyfish. It presents an elaborate, theatrical and crafty grotesquery, and it garnered comparisons with the work of long-time Aphex Twin collaborator Chris Cunningham.
On paper, the merging Huang presents in Solipsist is as intense as any classic body-horror. The scenes of connections, disintegration and infestation are mediated, though, through Huang’s colourful, crafty visual language. There are no tentacles and latex here, rather swathes of cloth, seams and roughness “I wanted something that felt dry instead of wet,” he tells me over Skype. “I stayed away from anything too obviously fleshy.”
His decision, to go with sand over slime, distances his work from the more familiar visceral ickyness of body-horror cinema, at the same time as his deconstruction of the human form echoes the genre’s concerns with the bodies’ mutability. For Huang, however, realistic horror is a turnoff. He cites the example of recent hit Netflix series Stranger Things, as a pole against which he defines himself.
“The use of latex historically is to represent flesh; to create something credibly fleshy, credibly real. In Stranger Things the creature is real; it’s not meant to be a symbolic creature. It literally is some kind of fleshy, gooey alien.” This, Huang argues, kind of misses the point – and potential – of film as a narrative tool. Discussing his avoidance of gore, he advocates traditional – almost folk – symbolism, as a powerful alternative to the evocation of the distorted real as played out in horror. “Throughout most of human history, [deities and demons] are presented with this symbolic, abstract logic. Chinese Dragons, for instance – they’re not representationally reptilian. They’ve got a deity logic to the design.
“I feel like if we have the ability to create other proxies of ourselves, and create other futures and stuff. Why not do it in a way that’s playful and mind-expanding?”
Huang argues for the arguably forgotten power of symbols: through foregoing credible realism he instead opens up a more fundamental and, somewhat paradoxically, more realistic arena for the exploration of monsters.
Symbols can be presented in a way that rejects of the logic of the every day in favour of the logic of the dream, the unconscious, or the folkloric, and that can alter a fiction. In doing so, questions about our own realities, be they emotional or spiritual, are more easily asked – and perhaps answered. This is where art could be seen as having real power. Rather than a cold, intellectual exercise, or a moment’s entertainment, it instead updates traditions as old as language and culture – the use, and power, of stories, as a way into complex questions about how to live.
Solipsist was the film that initiated Huang’s ongoing work with Björk. After seeing it, she got it touch, and he went on to make music videos for Vulnicura tracks Stonemilker and Black Lake, the former of which has developed as a VR project, and the latter which been enhanced in galleries an immersive film with panoramic visuals and surround sound. Are music videos, nowadays, more collaborations than anything else, I wonder, or are they simply wallpaper?
“I feel like we have the ability to create other proxies of ourselves. Why not do it in a way that’s playful and mind-expanding?”
“I think a music video feels almost more like a snippet of the world that the musician is ultimately creating,” he says, telling me that it becomes fun when “the visuals that the designer is curating directly serve the message of the content.” In this respect, Huang’s music- video-making is an opportunity to directly expand the emotional world constructed by the artist, and at the same time as further explore and develop his own.
Interstice, his most recent personal project, presents a further refined vision. Co-opting symbolism from Huang’s ethnic background, it depicts a nowhere world sparsely filled with the machinery of Chinese ritual. Chittering, jerky forms locate and dislocate themselves, interacting with themselves and one another, haunted by a veil – another bit of animated fabric that seems possessed with a life force of its own. The fractured movements of the dancers are unnatural; insectile and simultaneously fluid and glitchy, like the disintegration of datamoshed footage.
The film employs symbolism, rejecting monsters, as emphatically as Solipsist, though is further loaded by the directness of Huang’s own experience. Its name refers to a kind of space, inbuilt negative space between ceilings and floors, or behind walls; it engages with the liminal, as Huang describes it: the space between. Between what? Cultures, realities. It plays out some of his racial complexes, the experience of growing up in a new and domineering cultural environment, with a home life steeped in ancient and sophisticated and fundamentally other traditions, values, language.
“It wasn’t in the foreground of our family conversation every day or anything,” Huang says, “but the idea of being orientalised, or being marginalised, was always kind of in the back of our consciousness. I think with a lot of the work that I made in my twenties, I didn’t ever want to make anything that was political, or that referenced my own identity as a marginalised person ever. I think I was always really afraid to go there.”
These ideas are certainly present, with racial discourses and expectations further muddied through various casting decisions – the overt orientalism of the set-pieces playing out behind exclusively African-American dancers, for example, but at times they become subsumed by the richness of the imagery. The hot, red lighting is almost Lynchian, the animated veil, a lantern and a palanquin. All are loaded with meaning, but subvert the standards of more conventional video-artworks.
So how are Huang’s films to be viewed? He describes a personal uncertainty, regarding distinctions between his commercial and personal projects, “how to navigate the tightrope between the two communities.” He’s cautious of the cut-and-paste potential of the commercial, but also wary of down the- line video art – “It’s hard to watch, right?”
Ultimately, he says, “I still consider myself a filmmaker because I feel like I still want to tell people stories, and I still want to engage people in a format where they sit down and watch it beginning to end, and they’re drawn in, you know?” It’s within that conventional aspiration that Huang finds room to test, and push, the boundaries – of music videos, symbolism and an audience’s expectation. But it’s in the strength of his creative interests that he’s able to explore his own ideas, at the same time as doing justice to someone else’s.
Andrew Thomas Huang’s Björk collaborations Black Lake and Stonemilker VR appear at the Björk Digital exhibition, which runs at Somerset House until 23 October
For more on Björk head to Björk: In Focus, an exploration and celebration of our September cover star