Monsters Mash

Shadow Monsters invade museum: Create a creature with 21st-century technology for ferocious fun

Shadow Monsters invade museum: Create a creature for ferocious fun

Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Philip Worthington's, Shadow Monsters, images created by Java, Processing, BlobDetection, SoNIA, and Physics software.  Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Making Monsters at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Philip Worthington's, Shadow Monsters, images created by Java, Processing, BlobDetection, SoNIA, and Physics software.    Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Portrait of the artist, Phillip Worthington, as a monster. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
An eye monster springs to life in Cullinan Hall. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters
Museum of Fine Arts Shadow Monsters

Don’t be afraid, Houston, but the Museum of Fine Arts has unleashed a hall (Cullinan Hall to be precise) full of monsters, and they’re waiting to play with you in the light. With the opening of artist Philip Worthington’s Shadow Monsters installation, a summer a trip to the MFAH becomes something like a journey inside a storybook full of ferocious, but lovable monsters, and visitors will become co-creators in their own tale.

After the success of last year’s installation Soto: The Houston Penetrable, it’s not surprising that the MFAH would bring another interactive art work for some cool art fun to our long, hot summer days. This time instead of wading into Penetrable’s transparent and golden stranded sea, adults and kids alike can become magicians of light.

When I got a preview of the work and a chance to talk with Worthington, the word magic did seem to pop up –– like a shadow rabbit from a silhouette hat –– more than a few times.

Playing with light and shadow

Shadow Monsters takes the ancient concept of shadow play, using light and solid props to project shapes on a wall, to its 21-century technological extreme. Entering Cullinan Hall, visitors can step in front of one of the three light boxes and make shapes with their bodies. The vision-recognition computer software analyzes the silhouettes, looking at angles and contours, and then adds animation and sounds to the projection of the shadow onto the wall.

 Make a shadow mouth with your hands and the computer adds eyes, teeth, bubbles and perhaps the snarl of a crocodile to your projection.  

Make a shadow mouth with your hands and the computer adds eyes, teeth, bubbles and perhaps the snarl of a crocodile to your projection. 

Worthington’s idea for this monster first sprang to life as a project for a school assignment. Working on his masters in Interaction Design from the Royal College of Art, he was required to devise a “technological magic trick.” 

“At the time I was interested in computer vision,” he explained. “I started looking at Victorian shadow play and people who make these incredible forms using body parts. Just combining those two ideas, it just sort of evolved from there.”

But why monsters, instead of something like happy little shadow bunnies?

“Monsters are just fun,” Worthington insisted. “I think everyone can interact with them. I wanted it to be fun and accessible for everyone.”

For kids of all ages

After I got to try my own hand (pun intended) at making monsters, I couldn’t decide what was most enjoyable about the experience, creating my own shadow beasts, or watching others contort their bodies and then seeing how those contortions translate into their own, not so private, monsters. Either way, the installation does generate much joy.

 “Monsters are just fun,” Worthington insisted. “I think everyone can interact with them. I wanted it to be fun and accessible for everyone.” 

Since Shadow Monsters has been traveling internationally for several years now, Worthington has become something of an expert at how easily people lose their museum manners when they get to play in the installation. So I had to ask: Who creates the best critters, kids or adults?

“Watching kids is great because they actually get it,” he said, “but watching a 50-year-old guy in a suit or my granddad come along and suddenly turn into a four-year-old, I think that’s the most interesting. It somehow brings out something childish inside of you.”

Shadow Monsters remains at the MFAH until Sept. 20, with some possible changes and special programs coming to enhance the experience. There's already a live feed to watch the monsters from a safe distance. A props box might be added, and Worthington continues to think of schemes to multiply the monsters. He isn’t promising anything but is toying with the idea that there might be some way for museum goers to print or email their monsters home to them. Who knows, perhaps one day we can give them a place beneath our beds to guard us a night.

Until then, this interactive art reminds us that fantastical creatures don’t just live in our imaginations, they’re always with us when light creates shadow.