What Does Sand Sound Like? Alumni Duo Explores Soundscape of the Natural World

Mădălina Telea Borteș
February 27, 2024

Bicheng Liang ’21 and Yixuan Shao ’21, the artistic duo that comprises Alchemyverse, met in the Visual Arts + Sound Art Program at the School of the Arts. Liang, who was studying printmaking, invited Shao, a Sound Art student, into his studio to see his process of creating a series of photo-based cyanotype prints inspired by The Wild Places, a book by Robert Macfarlane that documents his journey through the wilderness in the British Isles. At the time, Liang was particularly intrigued by one of Macfarlane’s descriptions of a valley where “there was no clue of time, no clock, no hours, no minutes. So the only way you can feel time is by seeing a shadow passing over a piece of rock.” 

This nonlinear passage of time inspired Liang to transform a series of landscape photos into prints. When Shao saw the prints, she immediately thought of sound. “I remember seeing grains in the photos that looked like sand or minerals,” Shao shared. “I started thinking about a musical score. And I said: do you want to hear them? I could make them. And he got really excited. I knew he’d collected some sand and branches and other materials from the desert where he took those photos, and I said I could borrow some of those materials and make recordings, so he could hear it like I do.” 

“I’d never thought about it!” Liang shared. “As a visual arts person I’d been training to visualize everything and she was the opposite, she sonified everything. I found that super interesting. That’s how we started working together, and the work that came out of it became one of our first-year MFA show pieces.”  

For that First Year Exhibition, the duo “attached transducers to the backs of the prints that vibrate the sonified thread of narrative” and they also created “a bench box that was embedded with subsonic transducers, so when people sat on the bench and looked at the work and listened to it, the bench vibrated.” 

For Alchemyverse, it’s not merely the sound itself that intrigues them, it’s the resonance of a material and the vibrations inherent within a material that shape their artistic choices and collaboration. 

“We rarely use speaker systems [to communicate the sound element] because we want to bring out the resonance and the frequencies of the materials and objects themselves. Sound is such an intangible and ephemeral energy that resonates with the solids of our world,” Shao said. “We really want to emphasize that: that [sound] is something that vibrates with you and vibrates you, [your body].” 

“The material is actually speaking,” Liang added. 

This nuanced focus on the resonance of a material stems from their considerations of how one interacts with and experiences a natural environment, and how, in turn, they can recreate that experience with a viewer or an audience. 

“We often work in outdoor spaces in the wilderness. Something that’s really drawn us into those spaces is the geological presence and the temporal scales that are interwoven in those sites. Often we look at places that are undergoing transformative changes, either naturally, anthropologically, culturally—and in a lot of sites these changes are mashed into a whirlwind that are often happening simultaneously,” Shao said.

“There is this temptation and this tendency in our practice to collect either specimens or raw materials, stories, sound clips, recordings, tangible and intangible materials from the place; both as evidence and an index of the place itself as well as how we gauge these anthropological and geological changes," Shao continued. "The materials that we obtain from those places act as a record for us to study or manipulate until it evolves into something else. So there’s a transformative aspect in why we go to those places and how we treat and view the materials.”

Recently, Liang and Shao traveled to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where they created Messa in Luce (2022-2023), a work that uses of pit-fired clay they collected in the local river. They imprinted these pieces of clay with a series of numbers that indexes the amount of solar irradiance which affects the geological changes in the area. The clay is presented as cracked and floating “tablets [that] are sonified by bone conductors, emitting sounds that the artist collective recorded in the river, desert, and salt mines in the Atacama corridor, Chile, to conjure the topography through visual and audible components.”

'Alchemyverse: Messa in Luce'

While they were working in the Atacama desert the duo also “interviewed a llama herder and her husband, [who] is the shaman of the community. We were interested in her memories of learning and speaking Kunza, this lost language that’s indigenous to the Atacama people. Kunza is a sound-based language created by collecting sound from nature. For example, a word for a very particular plant that’s native to the desert landscape there was based on the sound of it crackling in fire,” Shao and Liang explained.

“We wanted to find an intersection both between her memory of reviving this lost language and the presence and traces of water [in the surrounding land],” the duo expressed, “because we were interested in how water flows and fluctuates in desert areas and how it transforms the landscape while also being transformed by the community and the government.”

The result of that intersection is Every Floating Matter Has Its Own Fingerprint (2023), which consists of a piece of Halite from the Atacama Desert sonified by a bone conducting transmitter and secured within a plexiglass box. “There is a circuitry between the mineral, the circuit board, and the audio,” which consists of the Halite’s intrinsic sound as well as a spoken fictional story that centers the journey of “two people looking for salt and water in an unknown desert landscape.”  

Alchemyverse also collaborates with scientists and researchers, ranging from paleontologists to architects, whose backgrounds and interests resonate with the questions they pose in their practice, such as how site-specific artistic practices may foreground the relationships among materials, people, and the land. 

“This is a goal of our collaborative practice,” Liang and Shao shared, “to build up this research network where scientists and artists can engage in meaningful but perhaps not so results-driven conversations. Whenever we speak with scientists from the earth science field we see overlaps in terms of how we hypothesize and create narratives and how we construct world views based on materials and objects and, sometimes, imagination.” 

They are ardent to point out that they aren’t seeking “to create any one definitive narrative.” Rather, they stress, “it’s important for us to throw out pre-existing timelines and temporal frames. A lot of our history and how we engage with the world and how we use resources, extract, and consume, is based on this linearity, and we’d rather think of it as a circuitry—as a circle—where everything’s re-entering into the system in one form of another and becomes a system of recirculation and regeneration.” 


Alchemyverse was founded by artists Bicheng Liang and Yixuan in New York. Bicheng Liang received his BFA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China. Yixuan received her BA from University of California, San Diego. They combine their respective knowledge bases and skills in printmaking and sound studies, with intensive field research to form their collaborative practice. Recent selected solo and group exhibitions include International Studio & Curatorial Program, New York; Praise Shadows Gallery, Massachusetts; Asia Art Archive in America, New York; The Bishop Museum, Hawai’i; Lenfest Center for the Arts, Columbia University, New York, and among others. Residencies include LMCC Governors Island, New York; Desert 23°S, La Wayaka Current, Chile; AAA-A Zine Residency, Brooklyn; and the Rabbit Island Residency, Lake Superior, Michigan. Currently, they are in residence at ISCP.