Huang Zhiyang: I am cute germs

Craig Yee

Song dynasty (960-1279) 理学 Lixue is the study of human morals as a manifestation of an order immanent in the natural world of which humanity is but one part. Drawing upon this world view, the Southern Song (1127-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi朱熹 (1130-1200 CE) advocated 格物 gewu "the investigation of things" — the empirical study of oneself, the natural world and society — in order to comprehend the 理 lior ordering principles that underlie and shape all physical, organic, mental and social phenomena.


In the video installation I am cute germs from 2001-2002, Huang uses a digital microscope to explore a microcosmic world unknown to Zhu Xi and the Song neo-Confucians. A world where the patterns that order energy and matter in the physical world take shape as self-maintaining and self-replicating forms of life. This is the world of the micro-organism: bacteria, single-celled organisms, simple multi-cellular organisms, and symbiotic communities made up of such micro-organisms.


Through Huang's films, one can immediately perceive a world teeming with life and movement. Small transparent oval bodies swim in a liquid medium (fig. 2). Some organisms are rigid, other soft some are tiny (fig. 3), while others, in comparison, unfathomably large (fig. 4).


This a world populated with diversity and difference and yet all forms of life appear connected within a larger pattern or system of order not unlike a community or an ecosystem. In fact, this order is so striking that some of Huang's footage could be mistaken for that of human, animal or plant tissues instead of what they really are: a drop of pond water.


It turns out that humans, animals, and plants are, in fact, symbiotic communities of very large and complex cells and that our cells are, in turn, the symbiogenetic merging of more primitive microorganisms — namely bacteria. This symbiotic process of assemblage and merging, this cooperative "harmonization of wills" is one of the primary means by which nature, from more primitive building blocks, produces higher levels of complexity and order including organic life, individual consciousness, societies, and civilizations.


Embedded in this process is a basic principle of nature: our world is made up of nested levels of order, each level historically emerging from an earlier one in a continuous unfolding. From this realization, Huang developed the Three Marks series, Zoon-Beijing Bio series, and the Zoon-Dreamscape series; each series related to the others, as one level of order to another, and all integrating together into a unified whole.


Studying Huang's micro-organisms, as Zhu Xi might have done, can teach us another principle of nature's order. Watching them swim about their business, we feel not only life in their movements but also a sense of purpose to their actions driven by a sense of awareness of their surroundings. Although self-awareness may indeed be the province of beings of higher sentience, cognition of one's world and self-purposeful action seem to begin with the origins of life itself.


It is perhaps worth noting that many evolutionary microbiologists define the beginning of life on earth with the containment of a self-maintaining, self-replicating (i.e. autopoietic) biochemical metabolism within an enclosing cell wall (fig. 5). This is perhaps the first time in nature at which we can speak of a "self" (inside the walls) that is separate from but nevertheless still part of a "world" (outside the walls).


The fist cell walls were made up of (phospho)lipid (i.e. fat) molecules. These lipid molecules are non-polar — and therefore hydrophobic — at one end and negatively charged — and therefore hydrophilic — at the other. In a watery environment of dipolar H2O molecules, they spontaneously self-assemble into a double layer — called a bilayer lipid membrane — that encloses a watery environment separate from that of the outside world (fig. 6). Physical matter, therefore, gives rise to self and world through the spontaneous interaction of hydrophobic-hydrophilic dipolar lipids and positively and negatively charged dipolar water molecules. Indeed, it would seem that the Song Lixue world — of 阴阳 yin-yang dipoles and spontaneously self-assembling phase states of matter — that Huang so carefully depicts in his Three Marks series, is not far from the physical reality that in fact gives rise to life from energy and self from world.