Artist bitten by the bug

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You could say his passion for art is bugging him. At Tan Yan'ge's studio in Changsha, Hunan province, there is a retro-futuristic world of insects, which seems to come straight out of a sci-fi movie.

Combining bug bodies with metal gears, mainly retrieved from watches, Tan has built an army of bizarre hybrid creatures, from scorpions and beetles to spiders, all with a touch of steampunk.

In his eyes, every insect "wearing mechanical armor" is a soldier with its own personality. Behind each piece, Tan tries to unfold a story. In his imagination, a bush-cricket is a fully equipped war machine when the world is on the brink of apocalypse, and a giant lobster cricket is a knight in the desert.

"The bush-cricket is my favorite design, which is inspired by the adventure film Mad Max: Fury Road. Set in a postapocalyptic future, it is like a character walking out of a film scene," Tan says.

Since 2017, the 33-year-old artist has carved out more than 200 bug carcasses and built them into stunningly sophisticated mechanical artworks. Each is displayed on a black base with a dome glass over it to protect it from dust and dirt.

Besides insects, marine creatures, like crabs, also inspire his creation. One of Tan's artworks features a steampunk box crab marching toward the land, ready to fight others for energy resources.

Popular among the community of steampunk enthusiasts, although still small in China, Tan's creations have been exhibited in galleries in Beijing and Changsha. When sold online, the price ranges from 600 yuan ($87.3) to 6,000 yuan.

Originally coined in the 1980s, the term "steampunk" refers to a subgenre of science fiction that is inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery, usually within a dark postapocalyptic future. The aesthetic has been popularized in books, films and video games. It has also inspired many artists, one of whom is Mike Libby from the United States. He combines real preserved insect specimens with mechanical components, in order to create whimsical biocybernetic sculptures.

Tan came across Libby's artworks in 2017, when surfing online. He was fascinated by the hybrid creatures combining nature and machinery. As a fan of bugs and sci-fi films, he started to learn how to create steampunk insects.

From 2017 to 2019, he was a full-time civil engineer by day, and a steampunk insect sculptor by night. In 2020, he quit the engineering post and the hobby became his career.

"For me, it is like a boy's dream come true. Since I first saw an insect specimen at about 5 years old, I marveled at its beauty," Tan says.

He still has vivid childhood memories of catching ants and grasshoppers in the fields of his hometown. In his eyes, these small creatures provide a different perspective of nature and life.

"Back in my middle school days, I liked to breed insects in glass bottles, but they all died within a few days. I wanted to preserve them as specimens, but always failed," he recalls.

Besides bugs, painting is his other hobby. In his studio, Tan still keeps his drawings from primary school, which often feature different beasts inspired by anime and cartoons, such as Ultraman and Transformers.

Libby's artworks brought these memories back and opened a fantastic world to Tan. With no one to consult or learn from, it meant that Tan had to explore every step of making such creations from scratch.

Through online communities and forums, he learned the correct way to transform insects into specimens and how to reshape and decorate them into robotic bug sculptures.

He acquires dried insects from suppliers found through online shopping platforms. The smallest piece in his collection is a 3-centimeter jewel beetle, while the largest is a pirate crab.

After receiving them, Tan will re-humidify them and carefully peel their carapaces open to remove any soft tissue. He will reposition the legs and wings, and pin the insects to Styrofoam bases, which enables him to add the mechanical embellishments.

"The whole process takes more than a week, which is a test of patience and care," Tan says.

Every day, he spends more than 10 hours at his desk, which is covered with myriad gears and various insect bodies.

Like a doctor performing surgery, Tan cuts a scorpion belly open and spends over an hour removing all the soft tissue and refilling it with sculpting clay. After an anti-corrosion treatment, he begins the creative part — setting a scene and designing the character, which is the "most interesting part" of the process, according to Tan.

Acting like a film director, Tan envisions things, even a complete story, in his mind before setting hands on the insect.

With no background in art, Tan spent about 10,000 yuan for a 10-day 3D modeling course at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which allows him to make his imagination a reality.

Applying the technique, he started to create true-to-life models of different environments, such as deserts and oceans.

"Every creature has its own specialty and, in my design, these features are exaggerated in their particular scene," Tan says.

In a battlefield setting, Tan loaded a giant stag beetle with various "weapons" made of components dismantled from old watches. In his description, the beetle acts like a moving fortress. Another of his creations features a dragonfly with its wings spread.

"Under proper treatment and storage, the steampunk insects can last for a long time," Tan says, adding that he believes they trigger people to reflect on the relationship between people and nature and raise public awareness of biodiversity protection, especially among children.

Although steampunk insect designing is not an art form that can be appreciated by most people, and is not a profession that can make ends meet in China, Tan remains passionate for the craft.

In the future, he plans to create pieces inspired by elements of Chinese mythological literature and films, imbuing his work with a more Eastern aesthetic.

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