Death of the composer: Sound artist Wang Chung-Kun’s music machines

Taiwanese artist Wang Chung-Kun probes the physical and philosophical depths of sound.

Art Radar investigates the artist’s intriguing music-making machines and philosophy of anonymity on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Project Fulfill Art Space in Taipei.

Wang Chung-kun, 'Sound.of.Suitcase - Noise Box', 2014, interactive sound sculpture: customised laser-cut acrylic object, 3D printing horn, motor, ultrasonic sensor, customised electric device, wood and leather, 35.5 x 23 x 24 cm, edition: 1 of 3. Image courtesy Project Fulfill Art Space.

Wang Chung-Kun, ‘Sound.of.Suitcase – Noise Box’, 2014, interactive sound sculpture: customised laser-cut acrylic object, 3D printing horn, motor, ultrasonic sensor, customised electric device, wood and leather, 35.5 x 23 x 24 cm, edition: 1 of 3. Image courtesy Project Fulfill Art Space.

Marking a decade since the Taiwanese artist embarked on his artistic career, “Making Sound – Wang Chung-Kun Solo Exhibition” (until 27 February 2016) spotlights Wang’s recent sound machines as well as a new interactive sound installation.

Sound as existential possibility

For Wang Chung-Kun (b. 1982), sound is not just a sensory modality but an intrinsic component of value and identity. His graduation work, a kinetic sculpture entitled wood-fish (2005), explores how sound imbues life in an otherwise cold and inorganic structure. Wang’s artist statement for the piece, as translated by Art Radar, reads:

Machines give people an ice-cold feeling. In the artist’s eyes, however, machines can have a life of their own. A whole new life can be born from the combination of different contrasting materials and mediums. […] The intervention of sound, in particular, increases an artwork’s existential value and potential.

Since wood-fish, Wang’s enduring devotion to kinetic sculpture (or, as he terms it, “complicated musical instruments”) has resulted in a mesmerising body of work. Quietly stirring and whirring, clicking and humming, the complex automated machines exude a mysterious yet cheerfully spirited sensuality. As his artist biography on Project Fulfill Art Space’s website states, Wang’s various forms of machinery

have consistently maintained an intriguing purity and peculiar sense of beauty. […] Sound-making, switching on and off, exhaling, spinning or twinkling […] they have their own rhythm variation, as if they have a life of their own.

Wang Chung-kun, 'sound.of.suitcase - three little wood fishes', 2014, interactive sound sculpture: hand-made wooden fish, motor, ultrasonic sensor, customised electric device and wood , 26 x 26 x 46 cm, edition: 2 of 3. Image courtesy Project Fulfill Art Space.

Wang Chung-Kun, ‘sound.of.suitcase – three little wood fishes’, 2014, interactive sound sculpture: hand-made wooden fish, motor, ultrasonic sensor, customised electric device and wood , 26 x 26 x 46 cm, edition: 2 of 3. Image courtesy Project Fulfill Art Space.

The beauty of automation 

Wang’s love for his craft is evident in his creations. His increasingly sophisticated kinetic sculptures retain a zen-like visual elegance, emanating the charm of old-fashioned quality woodwork. The true allure, however, comes from the machines’ uncanny and gently whimsical automated movements, whose rhythms and directions are initiated and dictated solely by fate. The exhibition press release describes it thus:

Wang’s artworks are usually designed to produce sound either by the viewers’ engagement or by the auto-run programs. They offer us unique experiences of sound in a mesmerizing manner. Besides, these sound artworks can be transformed into musical instruments for live performances through different digital changeover procedures.

Click here to watch Wang Chung-Kun’s sound.of.suitcase – noiseBox on Vimeo

Wang’s sound.of.suitcase series, which began in 2011 and debuted at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2014, enthralled fairgoers on first viewing and is much sought after by collectors. Inspired by vintage portable sound devices and box-type instruments, the elegant devices interact and respond to viewers as if with individual minds of their own. The press release explains:

Employing his ingenious techniques and shrewd aesthetic judgement, the artist repurposed traditional instruments such as wood fishes, pipe organs, and gramophones into aesthetically pleasing sound sculptures or installations. The infrared sensors attached to the wooden boxes capture the viewers’ motion, thereby putting the in-box instruments into operation and producing all sorts of noise and sound.

Wang Chung-kun, 'sound.of.suitcase -seascape', 2015, wood, electronic device, motor, LED and plastic, 54 x 19.5 x 21.5 cm, editions of 3. Image courtesy Project Fulfill Art Space.

Wang Chung-Kun, ‘sound.of.suitcase -seascape’, 2015, wood, electronic device, motor, LED and plastic, 54 x 19.5 x 21.5 cm, editions of 3. Image courtesy Project Fulfill Art Space.

Death of the composer

In one iteration of the sound.of.suitcase series, the machine concludes its performance and, after a charismatic pause, snaps its lid shut on its own accord. As Sheryl Cheung observed in LEAP in 2013, Wang’s objective and anonymous machines explore “classical questions of originality and authorship in music culture”:

Wang’s interest in soundscape does not lie in manipulating sound as environment, but in conducting a visual study of electronic music writing. […] The lack of human touch during the writing process subordinates the role of authorship […].

Sound Wall, the new large-scale interactive installation on show at Project Fulfill Art Space, is an elaborate manifestation of the themes of anonymity and authorship. Combining and developing motifs from older works, Sound Wall reproduces the process of electronic sound production with configured devices that utilise the laws of permutation. Anonymous and universal, Wang’s aural aesthetic discards subjective production so as to encourage viewers to listen to the world.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Taiwanese artists, sound art, kinetic art, interactive art, installation, sculpture, gallery shows, events in Taipei

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