'Interstice' Is Your Bone-Breaking Look At Cultural Displacement
Upon entering Milk Gallery’s newest exhibition, Interstice, one is hit with a wave of unease–the haunting sound of what sounds like perpetually shattering glass. In a sense, artist and Legs Media director Andrew Thomas Huang’s newest project feels like an ancient ritual that we’ve collectively stumbled into, and we can’t stop staring. Nor do we want to. Huang has transformed the Milk Gallery into a dark, twisting labyrinth of rooms, heavy with musk-scented incense culled from Chinese apothecaries. The exhibit is broken into chapters to provide an interactive, chronological tour of the world of Interstice, complete with a swinging pendulum that at times feels like a tour guide. The finale, housed behind thick black drapes, plays out in front of a discarded tent and veil before leading viewers into a traditional gallery space in which Huang’s digital prints are on display.
Based out of LA, Huang’s career has been punctuated by years of award-winning video and commercial work, as well as more personal and experimental film projects. These two worlds began to collide a few years ago, when Huang started collaborating with Björk, who’s spent her career pushing the boundaries. The duo created two music videos together, including last year’s Black Lake, which premiered at the Icelandic artist’s MoMA retrospective. Now, the director has set his gaze inward for his most personal project yet.
“I think ultimately the film is about being American, because it is about displacement and the totally schizophrenic identity of America.”
It’s this dark winding path laid out in the exhibition that mirrors the film’s own narrative. At its core, Interstice is as much an amalgamation of intersecting cultural identities as it is an introspection into Huang’s own lifelong struggle to reconcile heritage with his own American identity. “I think ultimately the film is about being American, because it is about displacement, and the totally schizophrenic identity of America,” he explained ahead of the gallery’s opening. While complex, this struggle to identify American selfhood is what pulled together a small village of talent, all seeking out the answer to Huang’s one essential question: What does it mean to be an American?
Growing up in Southern California, Huang’s childhood was punctuated with annual Chinese banquets, to allow those who had fled the country to gather and honor their lost heritage through celebration and dance. Though he remembers these yearly reunions as less than lavish, the image of red and gold Chinese Lion Dances stuck with him. “You always have the lion’s head and then you have the train. No one else pays attention to the train,” he explained.
The lion’s train ebbed and flowed alongside the movements of the dancers, serving as a precursor to Interstice, which focuses on the movements and metaphors behind traditional veils. Long touted as a symbol of lust and illusion, Huang’s adaptation of the veil was inspired by the Dance of the Seven Veils within Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play, Salome. Though for Huang, that particular dance now conjures up Orientalized images of white women in turbans and silk veils, the underlying allure remains. As he said, “It’s meant to be racy, but also seductive, and yet there’s something kind of mystical about it.”
Over a century later, it’s safe to conclude that the veils that twist and contort in the hands of Interstices’ Flex dancers have transcended orientalism, becoming something totally unique to Huang’s vision. This is thanks in part to the support of his art director on the project, Lauren Nikrooz, who brought her own culture and identity to the project. “I’m half Persian Jewish and grew up in the UK. The concept of rituals within a Synagogue is something I’m familiar with,” she stated. “Researching my history in this way and tying in two completely separate elements of my life felt extremely inspiring.” Her own heritage may have provided a source of inspiration, but Nikrooz also looked to Colombian artist Olga De Amaral for inspiration. The artist’s work with linen and gold leaf inspired her to add human hair to the veil, for a more visceral edge.
Alongside a Colombian influence, Nikrooz teamed up with composer CFCF (born Michael Silver) to imbue Interstice with Japanese culture. Clad in Samurai-inspired armor, shrouded figures dance to visceral shards of sound, carefully influenced by Japanese Gagaku tradition. “A lot of it was trying to tailor this kind of Gagaku style music towards this kind of sympathized mishmash of cultures, dancing, and film, and have it be representative of the historical intuitive,” Silver shared. By the end of the mixing process, he’d created an almost mathematically rigid sound that paired perfectly with another member of Huang’s team of creatives—design house and sacred geometry enthusiasts threeASFOUR.
Their costumes incorporate clashing “East meets West” ideologies that are almost a physical manifestation of Huang’s own conflicted identity. “When I made a film about being Chinese or appropriating Chinese signifiers, it almost feels like I am appropriating my own culture or heritage, but it’s really not mine,” said Huang. “It’s equally alien to me. So I think in the process I felt a bit tensed by myself. I was like, ‘Shit! I’m trying to create this feeling of what my heritage would be like but I’m really only guessing and romanticizing it.’” It’s a difficult balance. But tackling this mishmash of customs proved to be be no challenge for the designers—mostly because they don’t believe in such cultural divisions.
After meeting Huang at one of Björk’s dinner parties and bonding over a mutual love for sacred geometry (seriously), the design trio joined in to break down culture the only way they know how. “We learn from Mother Nature and the universe,” explained one-third of the brand, Adi. “We don’t believe you are defined by where you’re born. We are, first of all, a soul. It’s beautiful to see traditions and cultures but, at the end of the day, we are all the same.” Tuned into Huang’s overlying message but challenged with the unique style of Flex dancing that punctuates the film, threeASFOUR, naturally, looked at what the body told them to do. The designers incorporated international cultures, tied it together with patterns derived from sacred geometry, and created garments that became an extension, rather than a suppression, of the Flex dancers’ movements.
The end result is felt in every bone-breaking move that the dancers, Bones, Brixx, and Slicc, bring to the film. It’s through their own unique style, called Flex, that these three dancers bridged the dance style’s Brooklyn origins with international artistry and religious ritualism, creating something entirely unique to Huang’s question of American identity. Yet this relationship almost never happened. When Huang began the Interstice project, long before casting even began, he brought on his friend and fellow artist, Jason Akira Somma. He’d made a career out of choreography, but began a long-lasting friendship and mentorship with Bones himself seven years ago. More than just a collaborator, he became a guiding light for Bones and his crew, making sure their unique culture was neither taken advantage of nor commodified.
“I feel like I’m trying to exercise the illusions that I have about my own culture or maybe even my own ethnicity.”
Despite the near decade of support that Somma had given Bones, Huang remained wary. Because of Flex dancing’s distinctive style and tight-knit community, he saw himself as an intruder into their space—much like how many saw Paris is Burning as an invasion into the vogue scene. After some heavy prodding by Somma, Huang agreed to have the dancers come in for the open audition to see how they fit within his narrative. “It was just immediately relevant and immediately obvious how perfect they were for this project,” Somma explained.
Their emotional connection was unparalleled in the face of classically trained dancers, who couldn’t quite connect to Huang’s personal vision. It was after the audition that the bond between him, Somma, and the dancers truly solidified into something that defied culture. “It really felt like sharing, like they were contributing so much to it, like I was creating a scenario for them to inhabit,” Huang noted. For Bones specifically, thirteen years of his own blend of hip-hop and contortion that he brought to flexing could never have prepared him for this project—or how it would change him. “It was inspiring to be on set with him and get excited about everything he’s bringing to the art form,” he exclaimed. “He really creates moving art.”
This commitment to artistry really stuck with the team of creatives involved in the project, but also helped ease Huang’s fear of cultural appropriation. Bringing together such a diverse group of people from all areas of life united them, encouraging them to engage with their own cultural backgrounds. While he may have begun Interstice by confronting the cultural veil within himself as a Chinese American, he allowed others to confront their heritage while grappling with their own unique identities as Americans. “I feel like I’m trying to exercise the illusions that I have about my own culture or maybe even my own ethnicity. I think that’s why it was important for me to cast people of color,” he explained. “Because it’s people who are marginalized, it’s an issue that we all face. We are literally trying to unmask these illusions that are projected onto us.”
Interstice: An Installation by Andrew Thomas Huang will be on display at Milk Gallery through April 3, 2016.