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Your Space Or Mine

‘Den Den the Mushi’ finds its home at BUILDHOLLYWOOD’s sculpture garden

In our latest Your Space Or Mine intervention, ArtistSteph Huang installs her sculpture at our Camberwell Sculpture garden ‘Dancing in the Shadow of Henry’; titled DenDen The Mushi, the piece is a colossal snail crawling across a couple of equally humongous leaves. Huangs choice to present a brawny gastropodis perhaps informed by Henry Moore’s chunky biomorphic forms sited in the nearby Brandon Estate. Snails also, of course, can’t help but signify the tragically topical issues of migration and home. Then, with its muted but lush green-grey-blue patina Den Den The Mushi could be cast simply as a delighting figurative celebration of a less noticed part of biodiversity.  

The sculpture’s incongruous scale, at secondglance, its curiously boxy head and four aerial-like tentacles, suggest there’sa more complex, subtleand – in keeping with one of the curatorial premises of this public art project – mirthful meanings at play here. This won’t surprise anyone familiar with Huang’s rich and beguiling practice. As much as intriguing the eye, her artprovokes curious wondering. 

For example, a very different work from last year – I Will See You When the Week Ends(2023) – is an assemblage that comprises four seemingly repurposed plywood sections. Overhanging this ply structure on one side are two transparent hand-blown glass globes with a mild steel tube piercing them, out of which a clear capillary tube stretches from the globes, across the supporting structure to overhang on the other side of the ply form. Balanced here on the capillary tubing is a pair of diminutive, slightly shrivelled fruits cast in bronze (a material that usually connotes monumentality!). It’s as if the fruits suggest vulnerability in a markedly different, almost opposing way to the glass globes.  


Words by Adrian Burnham

InHuangs work, formal tensions provoke psychological states and questions that can never be conclusively answered. Through her poetic combination of contrasting materials, techniques and processes, and by putting together the ‘mundane’ (commonplace, and often discarded objects) with the ‘magical’ (the alchemy of hand-blown glass) Huangcommunicatesa quotidian matter-of-fact-ness and, at the same time, an uncanny delicacy, a playful precarity. 

Whilst not immediately obvious,Huangs new contribution to the Camberwell New Road, on reflection, combines this provocative mix of intriguing, sometimes ludic form that also carries a less-than-obvious but profound and topical significance. The title DenDen The Mushi refers to characters in EiichiroOda’s anime and manga ‘One Piece’ who take the form of a ‘snail phone’. This animated device represents the last promise of a future where psychic snails draw together and heal a fractured humanity.

If this seems at once brilliantly daft and tragic the inspiration for DenDenThe Mushiwon’t disappoint. In the 1850s a French occultist and would-be inventor named J. T. Benoît set out to create a method of communication that would outdo morse code. All that was required to actualise this proposed technology were wooden beams, zinc bowls and twenty-four pairs of sexually frustrated snails. 

Benoit asserted that after mating, snails remained monogamous and through their exchange of sympathetic fluids achieved a lifelong telepathic bond. So, how to proceed? Well, divide the snail pairs and stick them in them in separate bowls containing the same single letter. Next? Affix the bowls to two wooden beams, move the beams continents apart, and when one of the pair is ‘stimulated’ (read ‘poked with an electric current’) its mate would react, and this could be read instantaneously by the operators. That’s the theory. It didnt go well.

So, while an eye-catching and playful work tocontemplate, HuangsDenDenThe Mushiisa cautionary tale, an extraordinary molluscthat’s also a sobering memo to humankind. Unless we create a way to practice effective, kindly and inclusive communication – in London SE5 and across the globe – the future looks dishearteningly bleak. In the meantime, HuangsDenDenThe Mushi looks just fabulous from the top deck of the number thirty-six bus. 

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