Chinese artist turns insects into steampunk artworks that can sell for US$2,300 a time

Zhang Yuebai combines insect bodies with mechanics from watches and jewellery to make his unusual artworks. He can spend up to a month assembling the intricate and fiddly pieces

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2018, 7:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 9:31am

The way bug collector and artist Zhang Yuebai goes about his work is something that comes straight out of horror fiction.

Using tiny mechanical parts, gears from disassembled watches and occasionally, gemstones, the 23-year-old builds armour for insects, creating miniature pieces of sculpture.

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Modifying one single bug can take weeks. If anything, its scale adds to the challenge.

“I need to have really steady hands as it requires great precision. If my hands are shaky, I’m unable to place the parts where they need to be,” says Zhang, also known as Lantusi. He recalls a time where he accidentally pushed the specimen off the table and broke all legs of a spider.

Before drilling holes into the insect and outfitting it with machinery parts, Zhang processes the specimen he sources from online dealers himself, removing its insides and soaking the exoskeleton in chemicals to preserve it. As for the design of the piece, besides the animals’ appearance and colour, Zhang also takes into consideration their behaviour and structure.

“Mantis shrimps have powerful claws and when they strike rapidly, they can create a [cavitation] bubble that can kill their prey. With that in mind, I equipped its claws with springs and gears, envisioning a mechanical system that would have generated such a strong force,” says Zhang.

The marine crustacean, along with a scorpion and some beetles, yielded the highest prices. “Despite it being just a shrimp,” he adds.

Zhang works from a corner of his home in Shanghai, where his impressive bug collection, bottles of chemicals and tiny machinery parts carefully sorted into small drawers line the wall, and escaped crickets – food for his pets – hop around.

Zhang has been an entomophile since he was young, possessing an extensive bug collection and keeping tarantulas and lizards among many other pets. But besides his love for creepy-crawlies, the Shanghainese native also has a penchant for all things from the Victorian era – antiques, pocket watches and vintage clocks. So when he began combining the two, he stumbled upon a new hobby – steampunk insects.

Zhang is one of very few crafters in the world that makes these insect sculptures and is believed to be the only one in China.

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Zhang started posting photos of his creations on his blog and other social media platforms three years ago and before long, collectors began approaching him to buy the sculptures. Now the side hustle has turned into a full-time job for the business management graduate, who runs an online shop, selling bug models for up to 16,000 yuan (US$2,300).

In fact, his income is enough that he has given up his previous venture – breeding tarantulas and other insects for sale.

The ones he still owns he keeps as pets and no, he does not plan to use them as future models. But does he have a favourite work so far?

“Yes, [always] the next one”, says Zhang.