New York

Shih Chieh Huang, T-24-L (detail), 2016–17, mixed media, 12 × 10 × 12'.

Shih Chieh Huang, T-24-L (detail), 2016–17, mixed media, 12 × 10 × 12'.

Shih Chieh Huang

A heightened awareness of climate change and the inevitable ruination it will bring forth is producing a specific kind of emotional distress that requires a new lexicon of anguish. Mental-health workers now treat conditions such as “eco-anxiety,” “environmental melancholy,” and “ecological grief.” But there was little trace of such misery in Shih Chieh Huang’s exhibition “Incubate” at Ronald Feldman Gallery. This was surprising, since Huang utilizes materials (plastics of varied sorts) and forms (evocative of shimmering deep-sea creatures) one immediately associates with disaster: the waste of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, or the trash found in the stomachs of animals that dwell in even the deepest and most remote parts of the planet’s oceans. According to a recent prediction, underwater life will essentially be dead by 2050. Huang’s project, however, is not one of agitated activism; he has instead created a soothing, gently pulsating scene of frothy, techno-pop wonder.

The basic unit propelling each sculpture is a computer-cooling fan, which blows life into (or sucks it out of) these immersive works, creating a mesmerizing oscillating effect. V4H9 (Red Wall), 2018, which was installed directly opposite the gallery’s entrance, is constructed of thirty-six plastic bags mounted in a grid on a twelve-foot-long, six-foot-high board. The work’s motion detectors trigger a ten-minute choreographic sequence for which the tendril-like bags were programmed to languidly float up and down, illuminated by slowly blinking neon-red lights. V4H9’s circuitry was prominently displayed, as if it were a glowing brain on the outside of a skull. Similar chimeras were hung on the gallery walls or suspended from the ceiling in various configurations. V4H9 (Red Hang Open Back), 2018, is comprised of two boards with feelers placed back-to-back, recalling an alien version of Doctor Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu; the tentacles of VT-36, 2017–18, on the other hand, run up and down a vertical spine, with the work’s motherboard nestled into its base, from which dangles a small, round plastic bag gasping for air: an infant artwork, struggling to grow. The regal star of the show was the enormous and graceful T-24-L, 2016–17, which hovered in the darkened second gallery like a jellyfish, its delicate appendages set above a chaotic mass of hanging cords, lights, and mysterious bottles containing a fluorescent-yellow liquid. When I entered the room, the assemblage was drooping listlessly, but when I walked up close to inspect the thing, it suddenly illuminated while two arms flared out, nearly hitting me in the face, as if in self-defense.

Huang has created a spectacular sensory experience; I’ve rarely seen an art gallery filled with viewers who stayed so long, in rapt enjoyment and fascination. There’s nothing taxing or provocative in the artist’s objects; no one will struggle to “understand.” For some, Huang’s sculptures may evoke Paul Chan’s “breathers,” 2016–17, for which fans animate fabric figures arranged in vignettes rife with art-historical and political references. Conceptually, Huang’s works, which he has been making for more than a decade, are diametrically opposed to Chan’s distressed, melancholy phantoms. I felt uncomfortable enjoying Huang’s bioluminescent zone, when the very life-forms he was invoking are soon to disappear from this planet entirely (and thus presage the demise of human civilization). Is there something morally wrong in seeking solace in such escapism? Or can we appreciate these twinkling forms as a gently sublime, lo-fi memorial to what little natural wonder we have left?

The creatures had been sweetly swaying throughout my visit. But as I was getting ready to leave, something strange happened. Sparked by some unseen command, the creatures in Huang’s menagerie suddenly threw their limbs straight into the air, stiffly vibrating in alarm. I left the gallery, regretfully, with my anxieties restored.