The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bits and pieces from the dollar store create an artistic universe at Reston gallery

In “Synthetic Transformations,” bright LEDs flash and transparent plastic tentacles gesture. It creates what looks like a floating realm of phosphorescent fish and cybernetic octopuses. (Shih Chieh Huang)

The many windows of the Greater Reston Arts Center’s gallery have been blacked out, and the interior is as dim as the ocean’s lower depths. Bright red and green LEDs flash and transparent plastic tentacles gesture in the darkness, as if “Synthetic Transformations” were a floating realm of phosphorescent fish and cybernetic octopuses.

To creator Shih Chieh Huang, however, the low-light installation also evokes something else: a Taipei night market.

Huang’s family emigrated from Taiwan to Southern California when he was 12, about 30 years ago, and the artist now lives in New York. But he says he remembers those neon-lighted markets as a place to buy cheap toys and electronic gizmos of the sort he repurposes. He started cobbling together such purchases, with no idea how they worked.

He recalls that he learned the difference between AC and DC by plugging incompatible devices into each other and causing an explosion. “I break a lot of things,” Huang said in a recent interview. “The things you see here are the successes of all those failures.”

Today, Huang buys his raw ingredients at dollar stores, Home Depot and Bed, Bath and Beyond. His LEDs are meant for automobile and motorcycle lights, and the pumps that make some of his concoctions move come from medical supply stores. Plastic bags are carefully chosen for their thickness, because thinner membranes seem more organic.

He says he likes commonplace items because they’re “more personal.”

Huang also has frequented spots that are more exclusive than suburban strip malls. He spent several months studying bioluminescent ocean creatures at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “I was looking for anything that glowed,” he said.

Although Huang uses over-the-counter materials, he rarely comments directly on their commercial origins. One exception is a machine that cleverly recirculates green-tinted fluid, using bottles marked with the Smartwater logo. In this universe, even water can have artificial intelligence.

Some of Huang’s inventions use computers and video screens, as well as motion sensors so they react to visitors’ presence. When there are no visitors in the darkened space, the machines go to sleep.

That makes Huang’s little cosmos much more humancentric than the real one outside. No needs to worry whether a falling tree will make a noise if no one is there to hear it. If no one is watching Huang’s world, there’s nothing to watch.

The declining prices of LEDs and processors allow the artist to keep expanding his electronic menagerie and to construct devices that would have been too expensive 20 years ago, when Huang realized he was an artist rather than a guy who was “just making stuff.”

The shrinking size of electronic components, along with Huang’s move into a tiny New York studio, pushed him to make his improvised devices more compact and contained — “more creaturelike,” in his words. Spread out in the Reston gallery’s main room, the devices bob like organisms in primordial soup.

To Huang, the human body is a machine, as is nature. Using video, he incorporates bits of humanity into his inventions: an image of his navel, symbolic of birth and corporeal connection, or sets of eyes he calls “extracted” from the faces that contain them.

Perhaps because he works with so many mass-produced items, Huang considers a video eye just another universal part to be swapped in or out. When people ask him why he uses specifically Asian eyes, he replies, “I see them as eyes, not Asian eyes.”

One piece features a video of Huang’s eyes, and there’s something eerie about them. That’s because they’re the same eye, doubled, rather his actual set of two. Such trickery wouldn’t be so disturbing if the objects were bottles, lights or microprocessors. But people are highly attuned — too much so, perhaps — to small deviations and incongruities in human appearance.

It seems we’re not quite ready to become cyborgs with interchangeable parts, replaceable at the dollar store. The human body may be just another machine, but humans still perceive themselves as different. Even in an increasingly synthetic universe, there’s an intense attachment to what we have been taught is natural.

If you go

Synthetic Transformations

Greater Reston Arts Center, 12001 Market St., Reston. 703-471-9242.

Dates: Through Nov. 19.

Admission: Free.