Portrait

Andrew Thomas Huang on lighting up the sails of the Sydney Opera House during Vivid. By Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung.

Artist Andrew Thomas Huang

I’m five minutes early to meet Andrew Thomas Huang, but he’s already waiting when I arrive. It’s lunchtime, and as bodies move and seconds pass, we realise rush hour at this Potts Point cafe is too intense for our talk.

“I’m happy to do a walking interview,” he suggests. “I do them all the time back home – it’s nicer to get out and breathe.”

And so we weave through narrow alleyways onto Macleay Street, deciding to lounge on the grass behind the El Alamein Fountain. Huang has just flown into Sydney from Los Angeles to finalise his projection Austral Flora Ballet, which is set to light up the sails of the Sydney Opera House during Vivid. The projection blends five native Australian flowers with a motion-captured dance, exploring the synergy between human bodies and nature.

At first glance, the project is politically charged. There are inherent problems with Huang, as a Chinese American artist with no prior connection to Australia, conceptualising a work using flora so grounded in country and First Nations history. Yet there is an interesting detachment to his angle. He has made Austral Flora Ballet with an alertness to his position as a visitor here, seeking to emphasise the beauty of the Australian landscape as his artwork swirls and ricochets off the sails.

“I want to behave like a guest, to respect Indigenous histories,” he says. “But I also want to use this opportunity to showcase these native flowers so that every member of the public can appreciate their beauty.”

As he reclines on a warm autumn afternoon, legs outstretched in perpetually sunny Sydney, Huang is a textbook image of calm. There are less than four days until his artwork goes live, so I ask him if what I’m seeing is a state of nirvana reached at the end of protracted creative battle. “The whole project has been… pretty breezy, to be honest,” he says with a polite chuckle. “All smooth sailing on my end, but I can’t speak for everyone else!”

The groundedness Huang projects obscures his obvious discipline. In the past year, he has released Kiss of the Rabbit God – a short film about a Chinese restaurant worker falling into a dark romance with Qing dynasty god Tu’er Shen – and storyboarded and shot the acclaimed music video for FKA twigs’ track “Cellophane”. “I worked with twigs in June last year, and then the Opera House job came shortly after,” Huang says. “It’s all been very back to back.”

While each of these jobs is undoubtedly distinct, they are unified by Huang’s recognisable aesthetic. Themes of growth and decay, of bodies rising and falling in highly stylised, futuristic biospheres lend a cohesion to his work that many multimedia artists lack. They are there in his collaborations with Björk and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, in his works displayed at MoMA in New York, the Barbican in London and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. “I definitely think my projects inform each other,” Huang says. “They kind of have to!”

Insofar as Huang constructs worlds that move between the futuristic and the contemporary, there is a particular kind of poetry in the characters he conjures. In Kiss of the Rabbit God, he redesigns the legend of Tu’er Shen to merge a tale of homosexual desire in ancient China with a setting so familiar to us here in Australia – the Chinese restaurant. I ask about Huang’s childhood, growing up in his own family’s restaurant, a space where glistening morsels of honey chicken and fried rice are served to satiate mainly Western clientele. It’s a familiar history for me, and so we trace and trade stories of our families and the fragmenting of culture that comes with diaspora. Neither of us can quite articulate the abrupt amnesia that first- and second-generation immigrants experience, the blank spots that leave us wondering where in China our families were from before maps changed and villages were rezoned following Mao’s Cultural Revolution. “My friends and I are at this point now where we’re making work about being Chinese,” Huang says. “We’re like, there’s Chinese people everywhere. But where are the stories?”

Perhaps the dreamscapes of Huang’s work reflect this speculative inquiry; of where and how his experiences of queerness, migration and Chineseness intersect, and indeed what stories he hopes to pass down to those who come after him.

As he continues to speak with great nuance and thought, I can’t help but notice a blue staffy a few metres away, on heat and thrusting aggressively into the grass. I can tell that Huang has noticed me slipping away, too, and so I resolve to admit my distraction, and derail the conversation to point out the scene behind him. He whips his head around and we erupt into laughter. We can’t help it, and neither of us seems to mind the interruption. The pace and tone of the conversation shifts, but it feels only momentary; questions of family and lived experience still unresolved but close at hand, and perhaps we will turn to them again, soon enough.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Smooth sailing". Subscribe here.

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung
is an art critic based in Sydney.