image courtesy of Sydney Opera House

from fka twigs to the sydney opera house, andrew thomas huang is an artist for icons

After his acclaimed video for FKA Twigs 'Cellophane' the visual artist and director takes on lighting the Opera House for this year's Vivid Sydney.

by Mitch Parker
15 May 2019, 4:19am

image courtesy of Sydney Opera House

Simply put, Andrew Thomas Huang is having a great year. When the video he directed for FKA Twigs' Cellophane debuted recently it felt like the whole internet paused and gasped in unison at its beauty. Now, just a few weeks since its release, it has over three millions views and thousands of comments from people gushing with praise. Alongside the Cellophane video Andrew also found time to debut his short film Kiss of the Rabbit God at the Tribeca Film Festival and has a video art collaboration showing at the Venice Biennale 2019. But that still leaves his largest project, physically at least, to talk about — lighting the sails of the Sydney Opera House as a part of Vivid Sydney 2019.

Titled Austral Flora Ballet, for months Andrew has been working on the large scale projections that will coat the iconic sails of the Opera House each evening and be seen by millions. The piece is an homage to Australia's native flora that comes to life through a blend of warped floral imagery and motion capture of a choreographed dancer. Ahead of his first trip to Australia for the piece's debut Andrew spoke to i-D about the process behind creating Austral Flora Ballet and, because we couldn't help ourselves, the Cellophane video.

Can tell you us about the concept behind your visuals for the Opera House?
Well, I wanted to make a piece that felt tailored to the site. And, obviously, being such an iconic Australian building, I wanted to focus on Australian natives as a base to start from. So I was looking at native Australian plants and flowers and seeing how to make that a somatic through line for this piece… the idea was just to literally make dancing flowers. So rather than simply animate all of it, I wanted to use motion capture and dance as a way to drive the animation. There is a performative component to this that is really key.

Is this the first time that you've worked with projections?
This is the first time I've done projections on a building like this. I've done experiential and installation work in the past, but this is my first large-scale building projection.

It’s not a normal building either, the Opera House. With the shape being so different, has that been difficult to work on? It's been a challenge, but a great one. It's certainly not an average building, but it's also so iconic, so I think from the start we wanted to make sure that what we're doing is pretty tailored for the Opera House. So, when we did the choreography on the motion capture stage, we actually projected the shape of the Opera House and the dancing crew respond to the shape of the buildings and the sails. We've been really trying to make this piece very much of the Opera House, its DNA, in terms of its silhouette and it's organisation as the piece.

Australian flora feature really interesting shapes, similar, I think, to shapes that are present in your past work. Do you think that's why you were drawn to the flora?
Well, my partner is a scientist. He works in conservation and restoration specifically for native plants in different arid regions. Our bodies and civilisation are inextricably tied to the nature around us, and so why not ... if we're going to create a very public facing piece, why not draw attention to Australia's natural gems and also bring them to life using technology and the movement of a dancer. I feel like I just want to show people plants that maybe they're familiar with in a new way.

Does the way that the audience engage with the piece, given that it’s essentially public art, effect the way that you make it?
This is, obviously, a world landmark. Everyone who sees it is going to be of all different ages, of all different backgrounds. You even have tourists coming by. It's such a public facing work, so you have to treat it very democratically. No one's going to get mad at flowers.

You're not going to get cancelled for flowers.
You don't get cancelled for flowers. This is the kind of work that I would want my grandmother to look at and enjoy or my nephew. So, it's perhaps not as confrontational as maybe some of my other work is. But that's okay. I feel like we're still doing some pretty daring stuff. There's many different ways you could portray dancing flowers. You could make it like Fantasia or you could try and present these things in a way that feels strange, but familiar at the same time. I'm trying to work within the parameters I'm given and make sure that the work is both broad, but also challenging.

And staying away from it being kitschy, I guess.
Yeah… in the hands of another artist, I'm sure dancing flowers would be done completely different.

Okay, so I have to ask you about the FKA Twigs video because it's sublime.
Thank you.

How are you feeling about the reaction to it? Because I don't know if you've read any of the YouTube comments, but usually they're just people trolling or posting memes. But the comments on that video is overwhelmingly universal praise. What does that feel like?
It's extremely rewarding. I'm really happy. I couldn't be more pleased. And when people tell me they cried, I feel like I did my job. With the state of the world and how much content we consume, I just feel like if you don't make someone laugh or cry at the end of the day then it's not really worth it.

I've done so many videos at this point that when all the stars do align, I'm just really grateful. She brought her best work, I brought my best work, it's a good song. It comes at a meaningful time in her life. I think many people are responding to I think the grief and the catharsis in the song.

There's a lot of emotion there that is connecting with people.
Yeah, it's a confessional song that I think anyone who's been heartbroken or has experienced grief can relate to it.

Is that working relationship with Twigs something that you hope to continue into the future?
Oh, absolutely. We've already talked about new stuff, but I can't announce anything right now. I think right now this is such a good piece that we just made... I think there's no doubt in my mind that we'll probably work together again, it's just a question of when.

You seem perpetually busy, is there something else that you're working on at the moment that you want to tell us about?
I'm working on my first feature film. That's been the thing that I've been wanting to do since the beginning of my career. But it's just taken a long time and I'm ready now. So I've got a script ready, I've got a lot of things teed up to launch that. So it's just a matter of finding the right team and financing and... you know, this is like a five year process. So just taking it one day at a time.

Andrew Thomas Huang’s ‘Austral Flora Ballet’ will light up the Opera House from 6pm – 11pm on Friday May 24 – Saturday June 15 and will be live-streamed from 6pm on Friday May 24 on the Sydney Opera House Facebook page .

VIVID Sydney
FKA Twigs
Sydney Opera House
Andrew Thomas Huang