May 18, 2011
by Paulette Beete
Unread Book Project by Arthur Huang. Photo courtesy of the artist
“At points of intersection, I think that art can expand science and vice versa to help push both fields forward.”—Arthur Huang
Arthur Huang doesn’t see the arts and the sciences as an either/or proposition. On the contrary, Huang transitions easily between his dual roles as a molecular biologist and a conceptual visual artist. Huang’s mature explorations of the visual arts medium began concurrently with his studies in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1990s. Today, as Huang explains in our interview with him, his methodology for his creative practice is fairly similar to his work in the science lab, and his two professions complement rather than compete with each other.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist life?
ARTHUR HUANG: When I was younger, I always imagined the artist life as spending your days and nights inside the studio alone with your work and thoughts. As it turns out, there are many different versions of an artist life and almost all the artists that I know don’t have my idealized version of an artist life. That’s okay. We all do what we can to carve out time for our creative endeavors. The best thing about my studio practice is that it engages elements of daily life like diet, spending, and reading. Since those are part of my everyday life, I am always in the studio so to speak.I currently work as a molecular biologist in a neuroscience laboratory just outside of Tokyo. Before that, I was a molecular biologist at a biotechnology company doing research into potential cancer treatments in the San Francisco Bay Area. My workweek is spent like most people—getting up, commuting, working, commuting, and going home. With the experiments I do, there tends to be a flurry of work to prepare an experiment and then the experiment needs time to take place. It’s in those spaces of time that I try to be engaged with my studio practice. My mind can wander along the lines of my experiment, thinking about how the work might converge with my studio practice. I might pick up a thought I had on the train ride on the way to work, or follow the thread of a thought after reading an article in a magazine or journal. I do my best to jot these ideas or sketches down so I can process them later.
When I am home, I do my best to find studio time to develop these bits of thoughts into a more cohesive idea that may or may not eventually become a project. When I am in the middle of a project, I tend to put all my focus and energy into that project since most of my projects are somewhat laborious and time consuming.
I find ideas and inspiration through various sources—websites, museum and gallery hopping, walking around taking photographs, and reading.
NEA: What’s your earliest memory of engaging with/experiencing the arts?
HUANG: Music was my first exposure to the arts. I started playing the piano at the age of eight. It was not something that I necessarily wanted to do, so I was never really engaged with it. Well, that is until I quit taking lessons during high school, and then I realized how fantastic it was to be able to play music.
My earliest memory of the visual arts was around the age of 10 or 11. It was an awful experience. I was taking a drawing class at the local community center. The most vivid memory for me was attempting to draw still life and the instructor coming around and belittling me for not making more decisive marks with my pencil. This scolding happened constantly throughout the course of the class. It didn’t make me more decisive, in fact, it made me even more tentative. By the end, I decided I was no good at drawing and gave it up. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I picked up an art class. It was an introductory acrylic painting class and, after that, I fell back in love with the visual arts.
NEA: On your website, you call yourself a conceptual archivist. What does that mean?
HUANG: I love to collect and organize things—junk mail, receipts, bills, envelopes, cardboard packaging, plastic packaging, photographs, brochures, and ticket stubs. I guess that’s where “archivist” comes from. I think everyone has an interest in collecting and archiving something. The “conceptual” part addresses my interest in exploring the reasons behind this desire to collect and organize. Why is it that I love to collect these items? Can I begin to understand the desires and impulses through a project? Those are some very fundamental questions that I am always asking myself in the studio.
NEA: It seems to me that the building blocks of your work are text and line, with text often being grouped to make the visual gesture. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between text and line in your work?
HUANG: I love drawing, more specifically, the quality of the line. In my first year of graduate school, I was an abstract painter. Brice Marden is one of my favorite painters, and I loved the quality of his lines. Even though I moved toward a more conceptual practice after that, I continue to be a sap for beautifully drawn lines.
The challenge for me is trying to find a way incorporate line into my work so that line encompasses both the meaning that I desire as well as the visual pull. Text-based work is an interesting medium because it can end up just being the written word without any visual elements. Sometimes my work requires that, but other times, I want to make text-based work that draws the viewer in based on its visual qualities. I think it is an effective way of engaging the viewer in what can sometimes be a difficult medium.
NEA: What do you see as the relationship between art and science? And how does that relationship play out in your work as a visual artist and a molecular biologist?
HUANG: I think that art and science are interconnected. Art and science have largely been viewed as mutually exclusive in modern culture. However, I think that has been changing during my career as a visual artist. There are ever increasing numbers of collaborations between scientists and artists.
Both fields are engaged in research. Both fields put forth hypotheses and test them to see if they are true. The tools for research may be different, but both fields are exploring ideas rigorously. Both fields build and expand their knowledge based on previous work done. Both fields are looking for answers. At points of intersection, I think that art can expand science and vice versa to help push both fields forward.
For me, my work as a visual artist primarily engages the methodology of science. I usually become interested in an idea about some aspect of my archives, and I think about how I want to explore that idea. I come up with a framework for exploring that idea and then I set forth to execute it. That is where my art comes from.
In fact, for one of my projects I was literally postulating hypotheses and testing them. I analyzed my spending and diet habits and came up with hypotheses about my behavior. Then I tested the hypotheses by analyzing subsequent spending and diet habits.
Right now, I am working in a laboratory that is studying the basic mechanisms of learning and memory. My work as well as my colleagues’ work is informing me about the scientific basis of learning and memory. I am interested in taking that knowledge and figuring out how to apply it to my own artistic interest in the memory of my own experiences. It’s early in the process, but I am excited about the potential for my work.
NEA: What’s the role of the artist in the community?
HUANG: Artists are great observers. They take notice of things that may otherwise go unseen. I think it is important for artists to thoughtfully process their observations and create works that allow the community to see what he or she sees. They bring to light a kernel of an idea that engages one or more of the five senses and allow the community at large to pick up that idea and expand upon it.
NEA: Conversely, what’s the responsibility of the community to the artist?
I like to believe there is a mutual respect between the artist and the community. If the artist is fully engaged in his or her work, then it makes it easier for the viewer to be equally engaged in the work. Different people like different art, so it means not everyone is necessarily drawn to the same works of art.
It’s art’s ability to expand people’s horizons that is so appealing to me. It takes time and patience, which I know isn’t always there. There have been plenty of times when I’ve gone to exhibitions with friends and artists and quickly moved past a piece only to have someone point out something interesting about the work. It almost always makes me think about new ideas and new ways of seeing. I just try to remember to sit with a piece of work and see what it is trying to say.You may or may not understand what it is trying to say. But when you do, it opens up your world. Being thoughtfully engaged with art also allows you to know yourself better.
NEA: Are there any artists who have particularly influenced you, and how/why?
HUANG: That’s such a hard question. I draw influences from a wide variety of artists. I will mention three artists: The first one is On Kawara. His date paintings and postcard series expanded the notion of art for me. Seeing his work, I realized art can be born from the everyday and seemingly mundane. His daily, almost ritualistic artistic practice is something that I also connected with. I think that there are patterns and ideas to be discovered through the daily act of recording. And as such, I have been cataloging my spending for the last 11 years and my diet for the last eight years.
Mark Lombardi is another influential artist for me. I was fortunate to see his work at Greater New York at P.S.1 in 2000. His file cabinets overflowing with handwritten index cards culled from his research fascinated me. The analog nature of his research is something I am drawn to. My own work and research is also analog in nature. I keep information in spreadsheets and databases, but I examine all the information visually and use tally marks and a hand counter for data analysis. Of course, his flowcharts are gorgeous. They are so minimal, yet they bear so much information through the connections that he draws between individuals, corporations, and money.
Tom Friedman is the third artist. I love how he is able to transform everyday materials. There is a “wow” factor for me when I see his work. I also admire the intense nature of his studio practice. I had read that in his early studio practice, he would bring just one object or idea into his studio and think about that one thing until he was able to decide what he wanted to do with it.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to the field of visual arts—or even the arts as a whole—what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you or other visual artists as a community are making that isn’t yet there?
HUANG: I am not sure what is missing from the field of visual arts as a whole. I can only speak for myself and what I am interested in. I think the ideas I am mulling and the work I am making explore things that are missing from my own knowledge base. Maybe someone else isn’t missing those things, but I know that I am. Collectively, artists are working to fill in the gaps based on their own worlds and, in turn, filling in the gaps in the world as a whole. Ideas are being reworked by artists all the time. We all build our work based on work that has been previously made. Perhaps the drive is to make work that addresses our contemporary milieu with some of the same ideas.
NEA: What does “Art Works” mean to you?
HUANG: Art is an important part of our daily lives. The creative impulse is within all of us and needs to be fed whether it be music, dance, visual arts, literature, or the performing arts. Being active in the arts helps us to notice the little things and see the bigger picture. Creativity allows us to see things from different perspectives and evolve as human beings. Art works because it satisfies our innate curiosity to understand the unknown.