Arthur Huang is a brilliant, American artist who lives in Tokyo, Japan. I first saw his unique photographs on Google Plus and decided that I had to chat with him. Arthur is also a molecular biologist http://arthurjhuang.com/ who uses his work to inform his art. How? Read our cool chat and find out …
“… I think that people including myself get caught up in the idea that taking a photograph of something is proof that we were witness to something and a way of not forgetting ... I am not so sure that it does stamp it into one's memory more than actually being present in the moment ...”
MICHAEL: Hello Arthur, The work you're doing right now is very intriguing. They look like blurred, abstracted photographs that are almost like paintings. What do you call this work and what's inspiring you to do it?
ARTHUR: Thank you and thanks for your interest in my current project, Michael! This series of composite digital photographs are part of my project "Commuting." Within the "Commuting" project, there are several series including "Train Commutes," "Walking Commutes," and "Rainy Commutes." I have been working with the theme of the "everyday" in my work for the last fifteen years or so. We spend so much time in our lives doing routine activities, like commuting, spending, eating, and waiting, just to name a few, but what we tend to focus on in our memories are special events and the memories of the routine get lost in the mix. I began taking these "Commuting" photographs as a way to break the monotony of my daily commute and daily routine. I have done other projects to occupy my commuting time, but I particularly like this project because it allows me to really think about the routine (or monotony) of day to day life.
MICHAEL: And so, what’s your process?
ARTHUR: These photographs are taken either on the way to or coming home from work. Sometimes I take photographs during my train ride to work, mostly capturing the urban landscape rushing past me. Sometimes, I take photographs of my walk from the train station to work, capturing what is in front of me at regular intervals. After work, I process the photographs using the multiple exposure function on my digital camera or digital photo manipulation software to layer the photographs for a particular stretch of my commute. The method of photography for "Commuting" grew out of another ongoing project called, "Interstices" where I am taking photographs of the alleyways and spaces between buildings in Tokyo and Japan and also utilizing layers of images. I like how the end result of layering images transforms these seeming routine landscapes into something new and visually enticing. It certainly makes my commute to and from work much more interesting as I am always looking forward to seeing how each new day is different from previous days.
MICHAEL: You know Arthur, I think many people don't realize the large chunk of time we spend commuting every day. I do a LOT of writing during my travel time. What have you learned during these periods of commuting and taking photos?
ARTHUR: Working full-time and maintaining a studio practice can be quite a challenge. In the past, I often waited until I had large chunks of time to get into the studio and this can be very frustrating with the demands of daily life. I decided that I needed to make more use of the time in between to move my studio work forward. Since my work explores the everyday, my commuting time seemed like the perfect opportunity to make work in that everyday context.
With the "Commuting" project and taking photographs daily, I have begun to see each day on the train and on my walks as unique. Every day, the light is different, my mood is different and what I choose to photograph is different, so this project becomes a way for me to remember each day no matter what happens. The specific memory of each day still gets blurred especially when it is the routine of getting up, going to work and coming back home from work, but these daily composite images and the archive of photographs that I take each day serve as a record of my daily life. Visually, I am amazed everyday with the variety of forms, colors and landscapes on my daily commute and the composite images give me the opportunity to see it all in a new light.
MICHAEL: I also get a strong time element from these works. Sort of the sense that even when you capture split seconds on camera, time still moves lightning fast and there's nothing that we can really do to stop it. No?
ARTHUR: Yes, time just marches forward no matter if you are standing still or on an airplane. For the "Train Commutes" series, I let the speed of the train dictate the results of the photographs. I have also used a slow shutter function to capture the landscape which often results in stripes of colors rather than anything recognizable. For the "Walking Commutes" series, I try and take photographs while I am walking. At night, I alternate between pausing briefly and walking while taking the photographs.
Most of my work has aspects of marking time whether it is through photography, archiving or documenting. It is my way of slowing down time, however futile that may be. My working process allows me to revisit each day, several times a day when I am looking at the photographs I have taken or the lists that I have made.
I will always have some memory of my high school prom, first kiss, college graduation, first exhibition and all my travels because they have an emotional quality to them. These records of the everyday are a way for me to capture the memory of events that would otherwise just disappear.
MICHAEL: Okay. Here's my big issue. What you do is different because you're an artist. However, it seems to me that everybody and their grandmother is so busy using their cellphones to take pictures of everything. Aren't we actually missing our lives in the moment because we're so busy trying to document things? What's going on?
ARTHUR: I don't have a great answer to that question, but I can tell you I see and think.
I agree that too much of our lives these days are consumed by taking photographs of everything. I first noticed this phenomenon when I would go to see bands perform. Lots of people would pull out their cellphones to capture the band on stage or capture a snippet of a song and I was puzzled because it takes you out of the performance and music. The "Commuting" project is interesting for me because if I weren’t taking photographs, I would probably be sleeping on the train, staring off into space, or surfing the internet. On the rare occasion, I can make use of that time to read a book or write, but more often than not, I am doing something that I would not be trying to document.
It's funny because I rarely take photos outside of my projects with the exception of travelling because I think it does take you out of the moment especially when you are interacting with people. Sometimes, I even have to be persuaded to take my camera out to capture a moment or a scene. With travelling, especially to a new place, the photographs serve as a catalyst for me to remember specific events during my travels because each experience is new and has an emotional quality that can be recalled by seeing a photograph.
I think that people including myself get caught up in the idea that taking a photograph of something is proof that we were witness to something and a way of not forgetting. It is almost like the act of taking the photograph is a way of stamping it into one's memory. I am not so sure that it does stamp it into one's memory more than actually being present in the moment.
We take so many photographs to document things, but how often do we go back and look at those photographs to reflect on what we saw? I think of my vast collection of digital photographs as akin to having a huge library of unread books. They sit on the shelf, but unless the books are open and read, the purpose of the books is lost. With books, they are objects which sit on a shelf and remind you whether you have or have not read a particular book. With digital photographs, the images go into your computer, hard drive, and in some ways, disappear into the ether and are forgotten unless you are actively looking for them.
MICHAEL: Where are you exactly? New York? Tokyo? How does your current environment inspire you?
ARTHUR: I am currently living and working in Tokyo. I moved to Tokyo from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009 to work in a neuroscience lab that studies the role of the hippocampus in learning and memory.
Tokyo and Japan have been such an inspiring place for me. The dense urban landscape of Tokyo with its unique blend of contemporary and traditional has been a visual feast for the eyes. The craftmanship and aesthetics of Japanese arts has been a source of inspiration.
In addition, my move to Tokyo meant I no longer needed a car for commuting. Everything is easily accessible via foot and public transportation so this allows me to experience the city in a much more interactive way - sights, sounds and smells all come at me directly.
MICHAEL: I see that you're a molecular biologist? How much science do you use in your art? What's the connection for you between science and art?
ARTHUR: Yes, I have a Bachelor's degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and worked at a biotechnology company doing research to develop antibodies to treat cancer and other diseases before moving to Tokyo.
One of the reasons I moved to Tokyo was to work in a laboratory that studies memory since I have had a long standing interest in memory as part of my studio practice. It has been fantastic to have the dialogue with myself and others that includes the scientific research about memory as well as my own artistic ideas about memory. The experience over the last five years has been quite inspiring and mind expanding in the development of my work.
While my work does not have a direct connection to science, I do use the scientific methodology in my studio practice. A lot of the ideas for my project come from a "What if I try to...?" moment that can happen anytime, anywhere. After the idea is hatched, I devise a set up for the idea in terms of rules for the project, much like an experiment. For example, for the "Train Commuting" series, I am only capturing images that include the passing landscape as I am not interested as much in capturing what is going on inside the train. After each project is complete, I think about how the rules influenced the resulting work and I use what I learned to move on to another related or entirely different project. I like to think of my studio practice as an evolving, artistic research project.
MICHAEL: We are all more than one thing in life, but it sounds to me like you see yourself as more of an artist than anything else.
ARTHUR: Yes, I do see myself as an artist more than anything else. It took me until my mid-20's to really discover what my passion was. I have explored other creative forms, but ultimately I always come back to making art. I really enjoy the process of coming up with questions and ideas to come from my observations and activities and then setting about to create works that help me towards discovering some answers and more likely, new questions to ask about the world that I live in.
MICHAEL: So much of your work is great, but I really love your “Memory Walks” installation. What was the inspiration for that?
ARTHUR: Thank you so much, Michael. About two years ago, I started making drawings of my daily walks on paper. These drawings were usually made the day after the walks, but sometimes they were made two weeks or one month later. The inspiration came out of neuroscience and in particular, place cells. Place cells are neurons that fire when we are in a particular location in space. For example, let's say you are in your living room. When you stand close to the window, a particular pattern of place cells fire, but when you are standing near your couch, a different pattern of neurons fires. Since there are many place cells in the brain, the unique patterns of place cell firing serves as a fingerprint for a particular location in space. Of course, the whole process of how we remember space is much more complex, but the notion of place cells intrigued me.
With my Memory Walk drawings, I wanted to create drawings that would capture the memory of my walks at a particular moment to mimic place cells in terms of space and time. Memory is not static - as time goes by one's memory of things changes due to many factors internal and external of the brain. These drawings started out on paper, but I found myself remembering long walks and running off the edge of the paper. As a result, I would wrap around to the other side of the paper to continue the drawings. I also found that I could "cheat" my memory because I could see the route I was drawing and be tempted to alter the drawing based on what I saw.
After considering several mediums, I settled on eggshells as a medium. The eggshells are round so it allows me to continuously draw my walks as I remember. Since I need to turn the eggshell as I draw, I cannot "cheat" and see the walk in its entirety forcing me to rely on my memory of the walk. I have been making these Memory Walk drawings on eggshells for the last year and a half. The Memory Walks installations that you mention are composed of strings of eggshells that represent one day of walks. Each eggshell is one walk and going from top to bottom of the string is the element of time - the top is morning and the bottom is evening.
MICHAEL: Wow. Fantastic. Do you see any differences in how the Japanese view contemporary art as compared to Americans? I mean, as you know, most Americans don't buy art. They barely visit art galleries. Are the Japanese different when it comes to art?
ARTHUR: In terms of contemporary art, I don't think Japanese are much different than Americans. In some ways, I think contemporary Japanese art is even more obscure than contemporary art in the United States. The blockbuster exhibitions from Japanese, American or European masters seem to have the largest crowds.
In general, most Japanese do not buy contemporary art or visit contemporary art galleries. Outside of museums and major contemporary art galleries, most exhibitions run between a weekend and two weeks, so there is not much time to catch a show. In addition, there are no gallery districts similar to what we have in various cities in the United States. Over the last several years, this is slowly changing with more and more art gallery complexes popping up in Tokyo and increasing cooperation between galleries that are relatively near each other. You often have to hop on the train to go from one gallery to another and seeing a handful of shows can take an entire day.
In terms of how contemporary art is presented in Japan, I think that the presence of the artist is almost as important as the work itself especially in emerging Japanese contemporary art. There are so many opportunities to go to galleries and art fairs where the artists are present to talk about their work. Often emerging artists will make sure that they are present during as much of their exhibition time as possible.
A big difference that I have noticed is the prevalence of contemporary art festivals (biennales/triennales) that are put on by various cities and areas throughout Japan. These art festivals are quite different from what I had seen in the United States. They are not art fairs in the sense that we know them.
The goal of these art festivals is to use contemporary art as a way to revitalize and speak to the people and areas in Japan outside of Tokyo. Two of the more well-known festivals are the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale and the Setouchi Triennale. I was fortunate enough to participate in the Setouchi Triennale 2013 through a screening process and the experience was amazing and unforgettable. What I really like about the idea of these two and other art festivals in Japan is that the work created for these festivals tends to be site-specific, not only in terms of the location, but also in terms of the area's history, culture and people. It is not a matter of just putting a piece of work that has already been created and plopping it down in a rural location. In fact, a good portion of the work is often created with participation from and dialogue with members of the community. These festivals tend to be more popular than going to contemporary art galleries likely because of the tourism aspect of discovering another part of Japan for both Japanese and international visitors.
MICHAEL: Aren't you American? Do you miss America? How are you doing in Japan? I would love to visit Japan, but I don't speak Japanese.
Yes, I am American, but I don't get homesick too much these days. The first two years living in Tokyo were quite a challenge for me culturally, linguistically, and artistically. Over the last several years, I have been able to find a place for myself in this bustling metropolis that is a good balance of research work and studio work. Despite the dense population, it seems like it is never hard to find a place in the city which allows me to clear my head of all the hustle and bustle. I have always wanted to live in New York City for much the same reasons that Tokyo attracted me and I imagine the adjustment to New York City would be similar except for the language.
Despite living in Tokyo for the last five years, I have managed to get back to the United States about two to three times a year to visit friends, family, and keep connected with the artist communities that I had while living in the U.S. Also, the vast array of technology and social media available to keep in touch with people has made Tokyo seem not so far away from home.
I highly recommend coming to Japan for a visit, Michael! My first visit was absolutely unforgettable. Friends who have come to visit Japan for the first time have a similar experience of awe and amazement. I get envious of the looks in their eyes when they see things in Tokyo and Japan for the first time! And you don't need to speak Japanese to enjoy Japan!
MICHAEL: Finally Arthur, What's the point of art? Why should people care about art? Shouldn't we have been talking about fighting hunger or world peace instead?
ARTHUR: Yes, the $64,000 question. Not an easy final question, Michael!
I think the point of art and artists are to provide people with ways to see the world from new perspectives. The creative arts give artists the chance to express their ideas in ways that may not easily fit into other categories like business or science. People should care about art because it gives them an opportunity to see how another individual sees the world in a way that does not necessarily need words or explanation. It also gives people a chance to see things from a perspective that they would not necessarily come across in their daily lives.
For a long time, the creative arts have been seen as separate from other disciplines. However, there is more and more crosstalk between the arts and other disciplines. New concepts are born from contemporary artists and some of these ideas resonate with other disciplines and then get incorporated into those fields. The intersection of science and art has become more prevalent in recent years with artists collaborating with scientists and engineers. You also see articles about how to harness your creativity in the business world based on ideas from the creative arts. If an artist chooses to do so, the creative arts can address hunger, world peace, and other social issues. For example, Rick Lowe recently received a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant and his work with the Project Row Houses have served to revitalize and preserve the Third Ward in Houston. The impact may not necessarily be as direct, but I believe that the creative arts can foster discussions and move us in the right direction in regards to these issues.
MICHAEL: Thanks Arthur. Very cool chat.
ARTHUR: Thank you, Michael. And thank you for such insightful questions. It was great chatting with you.
Check out Arthur Huang and his work at http://arthurjhuang.com/.