Originally from China, Deming Huang is a mixed media artist who graduated from Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London in 2019. Here, he speaks to Richard Unwin about coming to London, the work he presented for his Chelsea degree show and the new course he has now started at the prestigious Royal College of Art.
Richard Unwin: Before moving to London, you had already travelled quite extensively and studied in Australia and China. Can you explain a little bit about your life before UAL?
Deming Huang: I was born and raised on a tropical island called Hainan, located in southern China. My father was a construction contractor and my mother a housewife. When I was fifteen, I went to Melbourne to study high school and after graduating I decided to take a gap year and spend some time taking care of myself, because of my problems with depression. I went to Europe and tried to pass the entry exam to the fashion course at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp, but failed. I was offered a place on a painting course in Melbourne, but my family convinced me to move on to a new place, so – when my depression got better – I continued my studies with a UAL foundation course in Guangzhou, China with the prospect of coming to London.
RU: What made you choose Chelsea for your BA in Fine Art and what was your experience like on the course? Was it what you expected?
DH: I actually wanted to go to Chelsea ever since I considered studying fine art during my foundation year (before then I was more into fashion design). I was intrigued by the students’ work and by the course’s structure – the freedom of using any medium and any materials to present one’s own landscape of the surrounding world. And during more research on the school’s projects and exhibitions, I was impressed by how their work stands out being unique and diverse. Instead of becoming a group of students whose works are similar and being part of an art school producing the same type of artwork every year, I could see the Chelsea graduates still remain strongly individual, everyone has got something to say with their own voice. I was delighted to see this still happening in my own year of graduates, especially once our practice started becoming more mature, and much more professional and caring.
RU: The work you presented in the degree show appeared very polished and carefully prepared. Could you explain a bit about the ideas behind the installation and what you wanted the work to convey?
The work I made for the degree show is a mixed-media installation composed as a theatrical mise-en-scène setting, where the objects are being perceived through time and lighting, as well as space. The installation within the space is an exterior scene where space is primary and becomes a trigger that brings everything together in a spatial condition. The initial idea for the exterior mise-en-scène comes from my coincidental encounter with a concrete mixer-truck in the street. At that moment I was immediately drawn back to my childhood memories – by the truck and the way the gravels and sand and water were rattling and being mixed inside the revolving drum. My mind was brought back to the time when as I was a child and growing up between a Chinese garden (where I lived) and construction sites (where my father used to work). I somehow became interested in the rocks, as they were the material used in both places extensively, and how they are transformed by the space, whilst the space is also changing its nature of presence.
Such realisations and perception quickly bring me to the question of asking what objects can be seen and interpreted differently through time and space. I often draw inspiration from my personal memory and art is a language I use in order to communicate with myself and others, as well as the environment around me. The approach of a psychological understanding towards matter in an environment creates an atmosphere that surrounds me in my head, and a visual image of a Chinese garden is just pouring out of a concrete mixer-truck. My personal experience is turning into a physical stage that the objects are occupying; my body becomes the substance within the rotating drum and it’s changing and blending and floating in the air, trapped in a constant state of becoming.
RU: The installation juxtaposed, or brought together, organic elements – in the form of living plants – with man-made materials, such as steel frames and walkways, that are both minimal and forceful – in that they take up an economical amount of space and are visually simple, but also evoke ideas about security, power and containment. The colour palette was also simple, yet striking, in the bringing together of organic green and man-made metallic grey. You’ve described how those contrasting elements were perhaps expressive of childhood memories of the Chinese garden and the construction site where your father worked. Once you had brought the installation together, how did it feel to stand in that space – was the experience as powerful as the initial trigger of encountering the mixer-truck?
DH: Yes, exactly. I am happy that is the effect the materials had. The wire fence garden bases are constructed preciously and as plinths, they hold the objects in an aesthetic way without being too overpowering and as a foundation they make the idea of ‘being in the state of floating, becoming’ appear subtle. The gratings are common material used for gardening and industrial purposes; while they still perform the function of a pavement and walking support. I look at them as Heidegger’s imagination of the scenario of the ‘ways to the bridge’ – “we speak of man and space…as though man stood on one side, space on the other. Yet space is not something that faces man. It is neither an external object nor an inner experience.” The bridge is here and now and ready to be traveled through; the topology of being is everywhere in the room. The middle of the bridge where the sweet potato is had been transformed into the pavilion of which Tang Xianzu had written in his play “The peony pavilion” (1958), the return of soul from dreamscape becomes alive when the emotions are expressed spatially. That’s what it felt like standing in the space when it was finished. I’m not sure if the experience was as powerful, it was different. Just like in the play, I felt like a ghost coming back to the world of the living. The past is present, dreams come true.
RU: Has practising art and using it as a form of expression been helpful in responding to your experience of depression?
DH: “I armed myself against justice” is a line from ‘A Season in Hell’ by Arthur Rimbaud. I too have armed myself with art. Using it as an outlet and a form of expression has definitely been one of the factors in overcoming my depression, yes.
RU: You’ve now started an MA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art (RCA). It should be a great course and place to study. Why did you decide on that specific course?
DH: The initial idea of choosing to study sculpture in RCA came from a period of time when I was a member of the Chelsea film forum, which is run by the Chelsea tutors and students themselves. We watched films by R. W. Fassbinder every Tuesday night and had some discussions about them. At that same time the BFI was showing Antonioni’s films and my friends brought me some Visconti films. So I was indulging in the world of cinema, which sometimes involved watching three or four films in a day. That’s when the idea of “mine-en-scène” started kicking in and lead me into observing the world as a phenomenological situation. I imagined making a film of my own memories and experience. Like Andrei Tarkovsky sculpting time in his films, I want to be sculpting ‘beings’ in my practice. I liked the way sculpture was presented psychologically at RCA after visiting their show. The school does seem like an intense place where I can push myself further and explore my own practice in a more refined and broader context – a place where I can have some fun!
RU: It’s interesting that you’ve come to sculpture in a way through film, and that sculpture can be about more than solid objects You clearly also have multidisciplinary interests. Do you feel like artists today can be largely free to work across different mediums and have you ever felt restricted in being able to realise a concept or idea in a specific way, or by the limits of what’s technically or realistically achievable?
DH: I believe that medium is a physical representation of metaphysical thought that captures a psychological concept, so I don’t personally feel restricted by the nature of a chosen medium. And, of course, in today’s context artists are free to use anything that they feel connected with to express their own voice. Like props on a stage, the medium is essential for storytelling, but it’s not the story itself. The artists are welcome to find their own method to tell the story, using the material to construct a myth rather than giving a clear answer.
In terms of technical limitations or expectations, the most important thing for me is to stay committed to my work because that means enjoying the preparatory and research stage and building a strong foundation that I can always come back to when a problem occurs. Also, being spontaneous and letting the medium and space communicate and transform through time allows my work to grow organically and always get to the destination I want to go to, even if on a different path.
RU: You’ve lived and studied in a diverse range of places. What was your awareness and impression of London as a cultural destination before coming here, and how does the experience of living in the city compare to some of the other places you’ve lived? And would you say that you’ve found it more challenging or liberating to move between these different places, which are separated by considerable distances?
DH: Yes, like I said I grew up on a tropical island and went to high school in Australia, both being very pleasant and relaxed places to live but also somewhat slow-paced. I suppose, at that point in my life, when I started being seriously interested in art as a practice, I needed a more diverse and culturally rich place to make my next step. This is what I’d imagined London would be like before coming here. I knew the London cultural scene mainly through music, I knew I could find what I wanted and be who I really wanted to be- here in London. The experience of moving between different locations has been both challenging and liberating as I’ve found the anonymity of being in new places thrilling.
A subtitled version of the video that featured as part of Deming’s degree show installation can be found on his website: https://www.deminghuang.com/film (second film down from the top)
All images courtesy of the artist, Deming Huang.