CREDIT: SHIH CHIEH HUANG / Patrick Rey / Smithsonian Institution
Artist Shih Chieh Huang spent a good part of 2007 exploring specimens of deep-ocean animals found in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History. He was a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow and was investigating the unusual evolutionary adaptations that allow these creatures to live in environments unthinkable to humans.
One adaptation, called bioluminescence, inspired Huang to create haunting installations that will be suspended in the Sant Ocean Hall Focus Gallery from Sept. 3, 2011- Jan. 8, 2012. The temporary exhibition, “The Bright Beneath: The Luminous Art of Shih Chieh Huang,” contains creations composed of lights, computer parts, and plastic tube appendages.
As a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, Huang had access to part of the museum’s immense collections of more than 125 million objects and specimens. He gravitated toward the mysterious deep-sea creatures that produce light in order to survive in the deep, a process called bioluminescence. Their appearance inspired Huang to create artistic installations that would invoke the same sense of wonder and curiosity he felt when peering through the microscope at their unique anatomy.
Huang worked closely with scientists like Lynne Parenti, Curator of Fishes in the museum’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology, to document each specimen he studied. It’s a process he then carried over to his studio as he produced his creations, designed to appear as if they were “floating” in the darkness of the museum gallery. While the constructions are not biological models or reconstructions of the specimens he studied, they represent the creativity and imagination that was sparked by his investigation.
“People may be surprised to know how much you can learn about a process like bioluminescence, light produced by living plants and animals, by examining dead ones, yet, every day, our scientists study such specimens to make astonishing new discoveries about our living world,” said Parenti. “Shih Chieh Huang knew the same kind of examination was critical to his artwork, and the result is an exceptional exhibition that conveys warmth, whimsy and artistic genius.”
Bioluminescence, the extraordinary adaptation that allows certain animals to produce and emit light, is especially useful when the habitat where these animals live is one of perpetual darkness, like the deep ocean. In order to survive without sunlight many organisms (and even bacteria and algae) have evolved the ability to ingest chemicals that react together to produce a light reaction. Luminescent bacteria can even find a home within other organisms and produce light for their host. Other deep-marine species can emit light in particular flashing patterns or glow different colors to help them seek prey, find mates and warn off predators.