Andrew Thomas Huang: nature, aliens and the resurrection of FKA Twigs

An interview with American-Chinese director Andrew Thomas Huang on collaborating with artists such as Björk and FKA Twigs, connecting to his heritage and finding inspiration within nature.

Andrew Thomas Huang is someone that has never been just regular, proving himself time and time again that he is a creative force within the art world and beyond. Expressing his passion and interests through a deep immersion of digitally-rendered figures, puppetry, fine prints and surreal live action performance; Andrew has cemented his mark as a truly unique and pioneering individual who is definitely worth keeping on your radar. Just ask J.J. Abrams. Seriously.

I actually reached out to Andrew a few days after a very recent and special project of his became popular, in which to my surprise he responded almost instantly with great enthusiasm!! But due to exams, planning my 3-month trip to America and other errands, I’ve had to unfortunately delay the publishing of this interview. However, we are finally here and this feature is something that I have been looking forward to getting out for such long time as I couldn’t get enough of his saturated and phantasmagoric visions; and so with that in mind, I spoke with the artist about the creative process behind Cellophane, reconnecting to his roots and finding inspiration within nature.

Image courtesy of Andrew Thomas Huang

Since graduating from the University of Southern California in Fine Art and Animation, he has become a master at intertwining futuristic elements of future folklore, ultramodern queer cyborg and mystical surrealism; ultimately creating a universe of his own. Andrew’s imagination began to run wild through elementary and middle school when he was first introduced to puppeteer Jim Henson and his iconic 80’s films such as The Muppets (duh!), The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth; which originally inspired him to begin playing with his video camcorder where he would start creating stop motion. As he got older he got more into the fantasy adventure franchise of Star Wars which then further inspired his work “I would watch the behind-the-scenes making of those movies and try and replicate the process on my own. I started learning Maya and After Effects in high school and got hooked on building my own worlds!” Being such a diverse creative who works across an array of mediums, his catalogue of pieces and instalments stretches far and wide, however, when it comes to his favourite type to work with, he tells me “I think puppetry is the best combination of everything – performance, dance, bringing inanimate things to life, while also being sculptural and craft-driven”.

After his successful debut Doll Face in 2007, he has brought forth many other moving pieces; from his nine-part video series titled Flesh Nest, which explores and constructs a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by digital immortals “It is essentially my sci-fi Fraggle-Rock inspired trash opera, and so I built this project around the concept of afterlife. I wanted instead to construct imagery that had the same efficiency, weirdness and mythic vastness as a Hieronymus Bosch painting in which a multiplicity of characters and edifices are building up and crumbling down in the same hellish scrolling tapestry-like space. It was important for me that there is an honesty about the artifice of this universe”. To his newly short feature Kiss of the Rabbit God which premiered just a few weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Huang explores his own personal identity, cultural heritage and queerness to which he proclaims to be a form of personal revelation.

The film follows a young Chinese restaurant worker’s journey of self-discovery through a sexual awakening, after falling in love with an 18th century Qing dynasty God named the Tu’er Shen (兔兒神) “This is my first narrative short in 10 years and also my most personal film to date! I started out directing narrative films, but left to pursue more art and experimental video-making. Rabbit God is my attempt now to return to narrative but more on my terms. The film is really a love story and I’ve never been brave enough until now to create a romantic film between two queer Asian men. So, this film in a way is a confession as much as it is a love letter to my LGBTQ+ Asian community”.

Everything about Andrew’s work opens up a portal to illustration of a digital multiverse- which hasn’t gone by unnoticed. He has championed a collection of awards and honours for his creative work, becoming more popular through music videos that he’s directed for the likes of Björk, Thom Yorke’s supergroup Atoms For PeaceKelela, Perfume GeniusSigur Ròs and many more; emerging through the mist. He tells me, Music videos are a wonderful medium to experiment and build worlds and draw people into the emotional message of a piece of music. I’ve learned nearly everything I know about directing from creating music videos: how to collaborate, delegate, communicate with a team of people. But, I would also say it’s my own personal work that has informed my videos. Doing the work on music videos has helped build my vocabulary of techniques to bring to my own work as well as my own practice that has fed the ideas that I bring to the music videos. It’s a two-way conversation! I need to know what each artist is trying to say and where they’re coming from in order for me to formulate a clear concept. I prefer to have personal conversations with each artist and really get to know them as people. I don’t like to go into a collaboration guessing what they’re going to like or what they’re going to respond to. Making videos with artists, in the best scenario, is building a relationship with them and dreaming the same dream together.”

Image courtesy of Andrew Thomas Huang

Back to the recent and special project that I mentioned earlier, just last month he collaborated with FKA Twigs on her emotionally charged single; Cellophane. A video that is filled with vivid mechanical creatures and bionic figures, accompanied by a blend of renaissance imagery and dystopian scenes, showcasing a contrast of life and death, birth and destruction. An idea that embodies a new chapter, to start anew and welcome a path-breaking world that hums with possibility; Andrew also added that it is an “miraculous Icarus tale: a dance-of-death striving towards unattainable perfection, the fall from grace and the fragility of putting yourself back together”. Alongside him and Twigs graced production designer Fiona Crombie, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for her work on The Favourite. “We really did have the perfect team come together on this. Cinematographer Dani Abello came on board who shot beautiful videos for Rosalía, and pole choreographer Kelly Yvonne, too! I actually started to develop the story with Twigs in June 2018, and then Twigs, Kelly and I would rehearse together in a dance studio in Los Angeles where we brainstormed to create some of the emotional and physical beats of the performance”

Since it’s release, Andrew has been extremely candid about the inspiration behind Cellophane, admitting to outlets that the concepts of the video stemmed from Twigs’ own personal struggles; from laparoscopic surgery that she underwent to have six fibroid tumours removed from her uterus, to public scrutiny and blatant attacks regarding her ex-fiancé Robert Pattinson. Yet, the formation of the video did not arise as naturally as the ideas behind it seemed to, the process to creating such a visually compelling film was complex as it was enjoyable. “I drafted my own visualisation and storyboard for a couple months before we shot the film in Kiev, Ukraine for two days. Fiona also worked with the Ukrainian team to build some beautiful sets, namely the 360° curtain world and the large clay pit. I edited the video myself and then worked closely for four months afterwards along with Analog Studio in London to create the visual effects”.

Taken from ‘Cellophane’.
FKA Twigs in ‘Cellophane’.

Despite the constant use of extraterrestrial figures in his art, it isn’t always deliberate, confessing “I actually always thought that Martians were kind of boring! (with the exception of the Martians from Mars Attacks). Extraterrestrials aren’t though, alien life is always fascinating…like the aliens in The Abyss or The X-files”.  yet, with everything that’s been going on in Andrew’s life, I concluded the interview by asking him what he does to unwind and how he finds new creative energy “Hmm. Detaching from society, for sure! And going into nature are the most nourishing things for me. My most vivid and connected moments in life have occurred when I’m hiking or by the ocean, or just spending time with my grandmother! I’m eternally working on the challenge of being present in the moment”.

Keep up with Andrew and his work;

Website- http://www.andrewthomashuang.com/Art.htm

Facebook Page- www.facebook.com/AndrewThomasHuangAndrewThomasHuang

Instagram: www.instagram.com/andrewthomashuang/

Twitter: @Andrew_T_Huang

Youtube Channel- http://www.youtube.com/andrewhu

Vimeo Channel- https://vimeo.com/user1293099

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Why you should definitely go to a gig alone 

At least once.

Whether it’s a song, perfume, book, album, movie, television show, or underground cultural phenomenon, there are certain seemingly small things that have actually changed the course of our lives. Even if it’s minor and quite superficial through the eyes of others, if it makes you feel alive in some way then hang onto that.

This is going to sound kind of dark; but around two years ago when I was heavily suicidal, I read a post that suggested that if you feel as though you serve no purpose being alive, then stick around for the minor things. Like never being able to taste your favourite ice cream ever again, or  not being able to stroke your neighbours cute Labrador anymore, or trying the first bite of a delicious pizza, or even turning up at that event coming up that actually looked kind of cool (?).

For me, this ‘seemingly small superficial thing’ was Frank Ocean’s Blonde & Endless. If you’re under the age of 40, you’ll probably know who he is. Ocean’s lyrics deal with themes of love, longing, spiritually, misgiving, and nostalgia, all that resonated with to new extents. I won’t go into his entire discography but since his first mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra revealing his idiosyncratic approach to pop, I was hooked. Years clicked and in this super weird way, I found the wait to be part of the thrill. It was easy to worry as there are precedents for this sort of thing, for disappearances of the self-implosion of Black genius.

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But eventually, he came back. And it was amazing. This’ll seem corny but it restored my belief in the phrase “When one door closes, another one opens”. Despite going through a rough time and dealing with a lot of losses, with the thought of waiting for the new album to finally come out then having it do so gave me something to look forward to. It made me want to wait for the other little thing, then the other minor thing, then another, until I was past the rough time and wasn’t feeling so sad anymore. Through sharing the things that helped us become who we are today, hopefully it’ll  inspire you to try them out for yourselves. Anyway, aside from me basically admitting that Frank Ocean saved my life there was a point to this. What I’m saying is that the experience made me a little more introspective, thereby leading me to do a more things alone; like attending concerts.

I’m a music journalist (kind of, let me gas myself), so whenever a concert is in my town and I’m interested in the performer, I ask a publication to contact the PR team then I get in for free. Back in November, I went to see Mac Demarco in Rock City, Nottingham. I reviewed the show and even made friends with a girl that was friendly with the supporting band leading in me meeting Mac after the show- you can read the interview/review here. Plus, as sad as it sounds, I actually like being alone. I’m virtually always by myself, I go shopping alone, I go to my lectures alone, hell, I’ve even travelled around some areas around Europe alone when I finished high school. And I’ve become quite an evangelist about it.

But no matter what, I believe that everyone who can safely go to a show alone absolutely should, especially if it’s for a band you really love. Why? Music is evocative and emotional, and I’ve previously explained, it is extremely significant for ones well-being. Sometimes, by going to a gig or concert by yourself it’s easier to not have to explain everything to someone else. You have the right to dance, sing along or even cry at when you want to without worrying about the people with you, and you should get to experience that at a show without worrying about what anyone else’s experience looks or feels like. And this isn’t to say you shouldn’t share these experiences with your loved ones, but it is to say that YOUR experience should not be dependent on theirs.

On the night I went to see Mac Demarco, I learnt a lot in the space of a couple of hours. If you’re nervous about going alone or you feel sort of weird about it, that’s fine. It’s totally normal, actually. The main thing to remember is that doing anything outside of your comfort zone is bound to feel uncomfortable at first. But that’s how you grow. Obviously, if you feel truly scared to go to a show by yourself, or your gut senses something weird, then don’t. Or maybe find another show that you’d feel comfortable going to. The whole ordeal is going to look different for everyone. So, if you have ever been really keen to see someone live but none of your friends are down for it; here are some tips I’ve learnt about going to a gig or concert alone.

  • Turn up early, it’s kind of boring and maybe a little cold at first, but eventually people will turn up and maybe you’ll even get an opportunity to meet the artist! Weirdly for me, not only did Mac go out for a cigarette but he also got locked out the venue- so I  had a small opportunity to speak with him prior. Plus, you’ll be right at the front. Which is always great.
  • Speaking of people, even when you’re bored you can still find something to occupy with other than just staring down at your phone and refreshing snapchat. Interact with the crowd so that you feel more apart of it, additionally, you may get lucky- it’s how I met Mac.
  • Check out the location beforehand and let someone know you’re going to the function. If you’re going to a sketchy area, consider having an Uber drop you off so you don’t have to walk alone.
  • Speaking of which, I know this is a dark example but think about what happened at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester- Let family/friends/significant other  know around what time you expect to leave the show. Text them updates about when you’re leaving.
  • Don’t drink too much, you are alone after all.
  • Charge your phone fully because you’ll almost definitely run dry and please, please invest in a portable charger. You’ll thank me later.
  • If you want to avoid the massive rush at the end, leave early, being surrounded by sweaty strangers is pretty gross. Also, know where the fire exits are because you never know.

Most importantly, trust your gut, prepare in advance, and have an amazing time, kid! It’s never as scary as you think it will be, you’ll leave feeling super empowered and it should remind you of why you love music in first place. And maybe you’ll be so inspired after the experience that you’ll feel the need to blog and tell other people about it. Or maybe, it’ll restore your tiny faith in humanity just a little bit, I know it helped with mine.

 

 

The importance of “Dear White People” and the struggle with self-indentity

An opinion piece on the Netflix series “Dear White People” told from a mixed race perspective.

“When the truth is suppressed, it doesn’t die; it goes underground”.

It has been quite some time since I’ve written a blog post, I find that my intentions with this site change every other month. Originally, it was just a safe space for me to talk about my life and adventures, then it became a platform for me to practice my music journalism by reviewing albums, but then somewhere along the way I lost track of all of that in an abundance of things, like my exams, internships, portfolio expanding, maintaining friendships, working etc. And as a result my self-esteem sort of plummeted, especially in a creative sense. But one thing that I like and, above all else, appreciate about this blog is that I’m free to express whatever I want, no judgement on how I deliver statements or no one to devalue my views and opinions, and nowadays I find that my work frequently intersects with issues of race, gender, sexuality, feminism, and progressive politics.

Nevertheless, everybody experiences things in a different way, it’s not always easy to get people to understand what you mean or for everyone to see eye-to -eye. We’re living in far more polarising, politically intense times where things almost go full circle to the point that we lose direction. Or that we’re all reciting the same lines to the point where every room becomes an echo chamber, and it’s getting cramped.

If I choose to one day have children, the only values I hope for them to have is to appreciate nature, to love themselves and their bodies, have gratitude and empathy towards others but most importantly, to keep an open mind towards things and people that they don’t understand. This should be just the basis, but unfortunately this isn’t a natural inclination for everybody.

As a young person I always felt that it was important that I cultivate these strengths within my own character so that I can lead by example, not words. To be open to a new era of political correctness and changing sexual politics. You can call it whatever you want, whether it be “a liberal” or a “social justice warrior”, or the current favourite insult, a “snowflake” *cringes* however, these are the values I live by. Though it hasn’t always been this way.

Growing up in a predominantly white area in the UK (no, seriously the population of minorities is 2.2% in my area and that’s all the minority races in total) I never realised how oblivious I was to a lot of things, or how oblivious others were. Every comment that was made about my appearance and identity I mostly usually brushed off, especially because I was (unfortunately fortunate) enough to be light-skinned and borderline considered “White passing”. Yet still had the features of a Black person. So all my life I’ve been, what can be considered as ‘lucky’ in a way that not being ‘black’ enough came to my advantage, but in the least rewarding way. It’s as complex as it is problematic.

And that’s where my fascination with “Dear White People” came in, I immediately recognised the protagonist, played by Logan Browning, from Bratz: The Movie in 2007. My initial thoughts were “Oh god, please don’t let another mixed race girl not acknowledge her biracial heritage” I know, to some of you this may sound ghastly. But Zendaya in Disney Channel’s Shake It Up had two Black parents, and growing up I found this quite damaging, because it made it seem like multiculturalism couldn’t and shouldn’t exist, like we’re experiments and not the real thing, as if you had to be either one or the other. A “watered down” version of the original. So watching a show that finally addresses the struggles of a biracial individual and the war with their self-identification was refreshing to say the least, as well as reflecting the real internal struggle of figuring out who you are in this world.

Gail Lukasik’s novel ‘White Like Her‘ is a prime example of the struggle with self-identifying, she explains how her mother pretended to be White throughout her entire life and by doing this, she received a lot more privileges socially and economically, because she was “passing”. The saddest part, is that it all has to even matter in the first place. It’s funny how race is apparent on sight, isn’t it?

Yet racism hasn’t always been black and white. White supremacists, for example, used to hate Irish and Italians at the turn of the century. They weren’t considered white. But once people realised that there were a huge amount of them, they needed to include them for power’s sake and they did. Race is almost a concept, but in which involves real and damaging effects.

I kind of understand why people are interested in people like myself who are racially ambiguous. Race, however flawed the concept, is used as a tool for understanding people. Personally, I’m curious about other people’s racial backgrounds too and as human beings we are always searching for ways to identify, and factors like skin tone serve as physical reminders of our ancestry and racial heritage.

BUUUUUT, there are appropriate ways to talk to someone about their background and then there are ways to sound like, for lack of better words, an ignorant dickhead. And a lot of what I went through before was never worth compromising myself and who I am just to have a couple of friends, I’d go through the countless eye rolls and the tone deaf “You’re not even Black so you have no right to be offended!” statements just to get people to finally understand me on some level.

Since recently visiting an old friend from school that I had contrasting views with, the daunting realisation that I’m forever going to have to explain and justify my existence hit me like a bus. It was a heart-breaking epitome, racism is a lot more than “being mean” to someone because of their race. They’re a whole load of stages in White supremacy before being considered an extremist and with the case of my close friend from school, it was past indifference and minimisation, you know, “We all belong to the human race!” and the use of phrases like “post-racial society” and the casual White saviour complex followed by the denial of White privilege, plus never forgetting the constant false equivocation. Classic.

Yet the movie/television show “Dear White People” was enough in its title because it caused a bellicose, erupting reaction. Even Antoinette Robertson who played ‘white whisperer’ Coco Conners stated in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that the name and podcasts ‘alienated’ White people. The like/dislike ratio on the YouTube official trailer was almost equal and the comments were all too familiar “What if there was a show called ‘Dear Black People??? There would be a war!”

Sigh. In explanation of that; first of all, the intent with the show was to generally raise more awareness with racial sensitivity i.e not doing black face and other blatantly racist hate crimes. Whereas a show directed towards minorities is always done with malicious intentions and is poorly informed i.e. everything Nicole Arbour has posted, ever.

Back to the show; each episode in the second season, save for the last, focuses on the experiences of one character, nose-diving viewers into the realities and trepidation’s of what it means to be black, or not black, or not black enough. Although the creator recognises that the show quantifies this problem through blackness, he thinks it’s a systemic result of the human condition.

In an ideal world, Dear White People would be better received. It encourages people to call out ignorance when they see it while educating individuals without chastising them, and holding both sides accountable. It deserves to have its watercooler moment because it encourages the discussions and bring issues to the surface that we really need to be having during these increasingly divisive times.

As journalist Wesley Morris of The New York Times pointed out in a podcast, change is happening in the Western world; “It’s just happening in dog years”.