How to Translate Research into Art (1/2)

Updated: May 2


This is Part I of “How to Translate Complex Research into Art.” Please click here for Part II.




I have had a lot of undergrad and graduate students ask me this question. “How do you translate your complex research into your artworks?”


Let me illustrate with my moving drawings short film “Plastic, plastic, every where!”



Watch the film


Step 1: Identify the unique idea


Plastic, plastic, every where: “If animals can eat plastic, why can’t children?”


Arguably the most critical step of the entire process is to come up with a unique idea that art can be built upon. Mine was children eating plastic. I happened to come up with this one in a dream. (Read about it here.)





Library books I borrowed for a lecture for the Hong Kong Public Libraries

While dreams can’t be planned, one can definitely also arrive at the unique idea through research or imagination. (I have done so many times with other bodies of works.) My research methodology, definitely not the most efficient, is to glean a copious amount of related materials (films, novels, documentaries, scholarly books, art history and contemporary art) with the focused intention to find my unique idea. My first step usually involves cleaning out all available related materials in the university library system, and then go from there.



It might take me days, weeks, months or even years to come up with the unique idea. As you research, you may also change the direction of the idea. This is totally OK and normal. Here I'm sharing my graduation project proposal (starting point for "Plastic, plastic, every where!") from 2014. You will see in the next post how the project took on a life of its own, acknowledging but basically ignoring the initial proposal...





Step 2: Find Supporting References


Plastic, plastic, every where: marine plastic pollution stats and news stories, dystopian/sci-fi literature, Model United Nations, animation


Once the artist identifies the unique idea, she needs to give flesh and bones to the idea. That means the artistic style, tools and medium. There may be some beautiful constraints to begin with. For instance, for a dancer who doesn't do anything else, the medium is quite restricted. Or the project has a predetermined outcome, say a small painting for an exhibition that requires specific sizes. View the constraints as a benefit instead of an obstacle to the outcome. It is so easy to get lost in the ocean of possibilities, so having some parameters to work with is a plus.


If you enjoy research like I do, you could very well get lost meandering through the labyrinth of research and never want to come out! A word of caution from my friend Dr. Estela Ibáñez García, if you research without an aim, you can be forever meandering and never getting anywhere!

Experimenting with mask-making in the garment lab that didn't work out.

Step 3: Testing


Plastic, plastic, every where: different painting and animation techniques


Without any animation knowledge and background, I first began looking up animation techniques. Learning a bit about stop motion, I tested a few frames. Every frame was meticulously hand-drawn on clear plastic sheets. Even though my grad school professor John Aiken loved the effect, I was personally dissatisfied with the result. As much as it was visually beautiful, the work was too stiff and didn't convey my essence as a person, thus as an artist. Never forget that there comes a point when the artist has to filter out all the outside noises, put her foot down and decide for herself.










I finally settled on mixed-media Chinese ink on cloud-dragon handmade rice paper.

Data becomes Art

As I read into the marine plastic pollution problems, I learnt about the great pacific garbage gyre, plastic recycling and the deadly effect on wildlife. All those hard facts were translated into the context of the story.



Participatory Research

My initial idea for a 2084 performance was to have an international meeting between all the imaginary countries. My first thought was the United Nations. After some googling, I learnt about the Model United Nations (MUN) where students emulate UN delegates to conduct debate and meetings. Through a friend, I got in touch with young people who were actively involved in this. I attended a meeting in person. Subsequently, this experience became one of the most important images in my practice: the G5 Meeting.





Eventually, I will spend my lifetime expanding each imaginary country’s narrative and weave together my vision of the future, especially one impacted by climate change in the Anthropocene. That was not part of the plan. The project evolved and I will discuss this in a future post.


Step 4: Translate Research into Art


After I had gathered enough materials, I found a morning when I could work without any interruptions and went through all the gathered materials with the intention to make creative connections and to form a holistic artwork.


I cannot stress the importance of this step more. Up to this point, an artist is only gathering information. She is not creating anything new. The process of picking, choosing, curating and modifying the information into elements for her art IS the act of creating.


So far, I had gathered:


· Marine plastic pollution data

· Possible animation styles and techniques

· International meetings similar to UN


I decided to weave the pollution data into my narrative’s context, use the international meeting as a critical point and let go of my inhibition to create an animation style that is bizarre and delicate. Next comes the experimentation…


Click here for Part II.


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