As they walked into the Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday, visitors drew close to the central stage, where a few words in white letters illuminated the walls. “Don’t be scared,” each read. “Make a shadow.”
Children and adults alike stepped in front of light-boxes, and, on the walls, their shadows changed into skeletal spikes and menacing eyeballs. London-born, New York–based artist Philip Worthington’s installation, titled Shadow Monsters, uses a graphics program to transform silhouettes into amorphous creatures in an enormous display of visuals and sounds.
Using a library of graphics and “weird and wonderful animal noises,” as Worthington calls them, a sensor analyzes the contour of a person’s body and assigns to it an image based on their form and curvature. Closed circuits—such as the triangle formed between the body and a bent arm with hand on hip—create creeping eyes. The volume of the screeching, roaring, hooting and growling depends on the size of each graphic. A V-shape with your hands will create a little mouth with a little sound, Worthington explains, while a V-shape with your arms generates a louder and greater canine-baring image.
“It just came from me experimenting with play,” he says. “I think the best toys from my childhood were definitely the ones that were the least prescriptive: the Legos of the world as opposed to the action-man figures. Something that’s just building blocks for you to express and create something yourself.”
Shadow Monsters was born when Worthington was taking an interactive design course while getting his master’s at the Royal College of Art in London. One of his projects was to base a design loosely on a magic trick. Reminded of his childhood days contorting his fingers in front of a projector, he started to study forms of shadowplay.
“I started researching Victorian shadow puppets and Chinese shadow puppets, and the magic that happens when people make forms with their body and create something new and unique,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing where, in front of the candlelight, they used to use tracing paper and a candle. Some of it's really intricate, if you look into it. Just the forms you can make with your hands—incredible. Really difficult, skilled art.”
Worthington's program turned out to have unexpected uses, including helping a woman who worked primarily with children with disabilities to interact with her students. “Because the children have trouble communicating amongst themselves, it created this platform where they could sort of express themselves, which is something that’s difficult for them,” he says.
Combined with the concept of open-ended play, Shadow Monsters allows the entire body to become part of the puppetry art. Over 10 years, the installation has been featured in museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, allowing both children and adults to transcend regular existence and become monsters.
“That kind of intuitive, childish play—I think that’s something that’s inside all of us. It’s not kid-specific, but I think it’s definitely something that all kids have. Some adults have it,” says Worthington. “Having said that, I love seeing grown-up businessmen in suits turn into 5-year-olds. The inner child in all of us comes out.”
See the installation at the Museum of Fine Arts through September 20.