Quirky and ingenious: Hong Kong artist Samson Young at Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata

Samson Young takes sound art to the next level with his debut solo show in India.

Sonic artist Samson Young’s first solo exhibition in India at Experimenter, Kolkata is a collection of works based on his distinctive practice, which explores cultural politics and communal structures rooted in Western Classical music through his experiments with sound.

Artist Samson Young. Image courtesy thenewswheel.com.

Artist Samson Young. Image courtesy thenewswheel.com.

A trained composer turned sound and performance artist based in Hong Kong, Samson Young debuts in India with an exhibition at Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata, running until 29 October 2016, titled “Mastery of Language Affords Remarkable Power”. The show is a radical attempt at contextualising the political and social conflicts inherent in reproducing institutions of classical music outside of the West.

In light of a globalised world and widespread transnationalism, Western classical music still remains rigid in its structure leaving much less breathing room for experimentation. When asked, Young confidently states: “I am very much against the idea of romanticising music and sound.” Rather, the artist found that the field of art allows him to explore music and sound with much greater freedom. On choosing to walk down this path of exploring political and communal structures, Young tells Art Radar:

Self-awareness is an accumulative process and in this case it has to do with a whole bunch of things – experiences of racism, being queer, coming into contact with critical theory, the shock and delight of encountering Chinese regional opera for the first time as an undergraduate music major in Australia, fond memories of touring with a youth orchestra but also wondering how I fit in […]. I mean, I can’t really name a single decisive moment. And not all of these experiences are negative.

Samson Young, 'Muted Situation #1: Muted String Quartet', 2014, single channel video, approx. 14 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Samson Young, ‘Muted Situation #1: Muted String Quartet’, 2014, single channel video, approx. 14 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Despite crossing over into contemporary art and engaging in multidisciplinary projects, Young is a practicing musician and continues to compose and perform regularly. He studied music, philosophy and gender studies at the University of Sydney and holds a PhD in Music Composition from Princeton.

The 37-year-old artist’s career has picked up pace in the last few years. He was named the 2013 artist of the year by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and since then has presented his works in a number of group and solo exhibitions at venues all over the world, including 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney; Asia Triennial, Manchester; Arko Art Center, Seoul; Kunsthalle Winterthur, Switzerland; the Moscow Biennale of Young Art, Moscow; Team Gallery, New York (2015); and Para Site, Hong Kong (2016). After his solo in Experimenter, Young will exhibit his works at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (Germany) in December later this year. In 2017, Young will represent his native Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale.

Samson Young. Image courtesy the artist.

Samson Young. Image courtesy the artist.

In 2015, Young’s artistic career skyrocketed after winning the inaugural edition of the Art Basel’s BMW Art Journey. He was chosen to be the first of seven artists to join the Container Artist Residency, which takes a group of selected artists on a world tour aboard a container ship, where they produce artworks. During the residency he created For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Journey Into the Sonic History of Conflict, which centred on the study of bells as a symbol of both peace as well as strife.

The programme allowed him to visit historically significant bells all over the world as part of his research, as well as to study the similarity between bells and cannons. According to the project, both objects are made from the same material and melted down into the other in times of war or peace, as needed.

His past and current experiments in sound art revolve around conflict and war by approaching them through new and inventive methods that are primarily meant to re-focus the viewer’s attention to its latent aspects.

Samson Young, 'To Fanon (Resonance Study I)', 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.4 x 17 in each, Suite of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

Samson Young, ‘To Fanon (Resonance Study I)’, 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.4 x 17 in each, Suite of 5. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

To Fanon: Performative power of language

For his show at Experimenter, Young continues his preoccupation with different modes and mediums of conflict. While his previous works such as Nocturne (2015) were focused on the possible role of artists in warfare and using artistic deception to dupe soldiers on the battlefield, here he deviates into the psychology of language as an instrument of power.

For his series “To Fanon”, Young borrows from legendary psychoanalyst and philosopher Frantz Fanon, whose theories on the de-construction of colonialist language used by the Whites on the Blacks were hailed as path breaking. The series is inspired by the great Afro-Caribbean thinker’s proposition that language could be molded to suit the opposing functions of domination as well as resistance. The title of the exhibition is in fact a quote by Fanon from his book Black Skin White Masks.

Samson Young, 'To Fanon (The Bell and the Nightingale)', 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.4 x 17 in each, Suite of 4. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

Samson Young, ‘To Fanon (The Bell and the Nightingale)’, 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.4 x 17 in each, Suite of 4. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

The series includes a number of works on paper, which are hand-written manuscripts of Young’s musical compositions made during 2005-2015. Their original function has been disengaged due to Young’s act of vandalising the manuscripts through drawing, colouring and partially covering them with collages of mixed media components that essentially make them unreadable as music scores.

The final product is an artwork that memorialises the original compositions, by transforming them into creatively re-produced ‘readings’ carefully constructed by the artist. The standout feature of these works is a word or set of words printed in bold letters in the centre across most of them, which catch the viewer’s attention before the other elements come into focus.

Samson Young, 'To Fanon (Out of the water, out of itself)', 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.8 x 16.5 in each, Suite of 7. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

Samson Young, ‘To Fanon (Out of the water, out of itself)’, 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.8 x 16.5 in each, Suite of 7. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

On his website, Young explains the motive behind these works:

These compositions had previously received public performances, and sound recordings of these performances exist, but I did not make copies of the manuscripts before vandalizing them, meaning that I will not be able to stage further performances of these compositions in the future. Layered on top of these original manuscripts are images, texts, musical signs, and objects that have performative power in the sense that they summon something into being: an action, a sound, a gesture, a flinch.

“I do”, “I validate”, “I protest” and “I beg” are some of the phrases used by the artist teamed with photographs, clips and random doodles over music notes drawn with soft pastels. Young says that while musical notations possess a performative power in a more literal sense, these phrases have a kind of potential energy that trip with excess, inciting a reaction in the viewer.

Samson Young, 'To Fanon (But my mother weeps rich black tears), 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.8 x 16.5 in each, Suite of 8. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

Samson Young, ‘To Fanon (But my mother weeps rich black tears), 2016, pastel, coloured pencil, xerox print, silk screen print and mixed media on original composition manuscripts (ink on paper), 11.8 x 16.5 in each, Suite of 8. Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter.

Samson Young, 'Muted Situation #1: Muted String Quartet', 2014, single channel video, approx. 14 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Samson Young, ‘Muted Situation #1: Muted String Quartet’, 2014, single channel video, approx. 14 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Muted Situations: Vandalism or conscious re-imagination?

Another interesting project that Young is exhibiting in his current show is an older series dating back to 2014 called “Muted Situations”. A visually engaging performance piece, he plays around with the idea of recreating a musical or dance performance, or any experience where sound has a defining role, by consciously muting the most obvious sounds. The result is a shift of focus from the dominant sounds to those that go by unnoticed. In his own words,

[…] The act of muting is an intensely focused re-imagination and re-construction of the auditory. It involves the conscious suppression of dominant voices, as a way to uncover the unheard and the marginalized, or to make apparent certain assumptions about hearing and sounding.

Click here to watch ‘Muted Lion Dance’ by Samson Young on Vimeo

Young has put up a long list of possible situations and instructions on his website about how to re-create them without sound. A few of them are on display as a video installation in the exhibition. For instance, in Muted String Quartet instead of the melody, one notices the controlled breathing of musicians and sounds of their hands sliding up and down the fingerboard.

In Muted Lion Dance, the dancers seem to prance about in silence and instead of the strong percussive music that accompanies such a performance, what one can hear are sounds of the lions’ heads rattling, and the stomping of the feet in unison, keeping to the absent beats. Surprisingly though, in both cases the muting does not necessarily compromise on the theatricality of the performance, but oddly amplifies it through our own efforts at attempting to pick up sound.

Samson Young, 'Muted Situation #2: Muted Lion Dance', 2014, single channel video, approx. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Samson Young, ‘Muted Situation #2: Muted Lion Dance’, 2014, single channel video, approx. 7 min. Image courtesy the artist.

While silent events and performances are not uncommon in contemporary art, Young distinguishes his experiments with ‘muting’ as separate from ‘silencing’. His discovery of the series began with a simple curiosity, as he tells Art Radar:

I play the double bass, and as a double bassist in an orchestra, you spend a whole lot of time waiting for things to happen. To kill time during rehearsals, I used to silently finger passages. I started to imagine the whole bass section silently fingering a piece, and how awesome that would sound – which, actually does happen occasionally in sectional practice sessions. So that’s how the first Muted Situation came into being, and then I kept thinking about other similar situations. The thinking process gave me pleasure. Of course this act of muting (which, I stress, is very different to John Cage’s notion of silence – which is a kind of relinquishing of control; muted-ness is an active re-prioritization and it’s highly controlled) could be imagined to have certain political implications.

Ria Sarkar

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Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, sound, installation, video, sound art, new media, gallery shows, events in Kolkata

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