Hong Kong artist Kingsley Ng shared insights into his work at Art Basel Hong Kong’s “Conversations”.
Art Radar takes a look at the key points made by Kingsley Ng in conversation with critic Valerie C. Doran at Art Basel Hong Kong 2017.
“Conversations” is a public programme of 25 talks curated by Stephanie Bailey for Art Basel Hong Kong 2017. Key critics, writers, curators and artists were joined in conversation on topics such as “Cities on the Move”, “What makes an institution public?”, “When Patronage Becomes Form”, among others. Translator and critic Valerie C. Doran interviewed Hong Kong artist Kingsley Ng on Wednesday, 22 March 2017. Art Radar summarises their hour-long conversation, which traversed such topics as:
- the artist’s recent commission for Art Basel entitled Twenty-Five Minutes Older
- how the work critiques current polarisation across the public realm in subtle ways
- the influence of Confucianism on the media artist’s practice
- the ten channel video installation work Gallery Express and its quiet social critique
- the participatory art project To the Moon (2014) and another site-specific installation entitled Moongate
- Kingsley Ng’s decision to be an artist
The camera obscura
Valerie C. Doran opened her interview with Kingsley Ng by referencing his most recent work Twenty-Five Minutes Older (2017), which was commissioned by Art Basel Hong Kong for the 2017 edition of the fair. For this work, Kingsley Ng transformed two of the territory’s iconic trams into moving camera obscuras: as the trams move through the city the cityscape outside the tram is captured through a small pin-hole and projected inside the tram, whose walls have been painted white. The tram was also fitted with a series of headphones used by tram-goers to listen to spoken extracts of Liu Yichang’s popular novella Tête-bêche. Kingsley decided to focus on two of the novel’s characters – a young woman seeking fame in Hong Kong and an elderly man. On one side of the tram, a girl’s voice can be heard through the headphones, saying: “The sky rumbles, looking up, three red lights blink in the sky. An airplane is flying to Hong Kong from afar”. On the other side of the tram the elderly man’s voice narrates his inner life.
Kingsely Ng explained that his decision to split the audio on two sides of the tram was motivated by a desire to explore the effects of current polarisation in the political and public realm, spurred on, according to his analysis, by social media, asking:
what happens when we can only hear one side, and not the other. I wanted to focus on this decision to listen to one and not the other
Twenty-Five Minutes Older ran from 20 to 28 March 2017 between Causeway Bay and Western Market, Sheung Wan, and was advertised to the public with the phrase: “Go onboard the moving time capsule that does not get old in the fast moving city.” Ng also talked about the relevance of the camera oscura as a technology, still used in the latest cameras installed in mobile phones, but also as “a metaphor for a way of seeing”.
Doran suggested that this work exemplifies much of the artist’s practice: the controlled use of light, the use of specific and often complex programming or technology, and the will to see things differently through the creation of “in between spaces” that trigger a shift in our perception of something.
Critiquing states of mind
Doran commented on the artist’s foundational interest in the ideas of relational aesthetics and institutional critique, highlighting how Ng has talked in the past about the influence of artists such as Hans Haack. Kingsely Ng responded that his grandfather, a newspaper seller, was one of the biggest influences on his work, referring to the Confucian teachings related to him by this family member. Valerie Doran summarises the Confucian philosophy as a means of “being detached and engaged in the world at the same time suggesting that Kingsley Ng’s practice is “about being in between places, between detachment and engagement”. Doran developed the idea, stating:
You don’t really critique governments or institutions so much but you critique the state of mind induced in us that leads us to be numb to the things around us.
Doran mentioned by way of example the work Gallery Express (2013). In Gallery Express the gallery is transformed into a train, with the multiple screens projecting images of train windows, fitted with a diary voice recordings made by a fictional passenger:
The story is about exile, about people escaping. They have a reason for traveling back in time for recovering something that is lost […]. It’s about migration, food issues, remembering and time.
The moon works
Kingsley described his 2014 work To the Moon, a participatory work that departs from his invitation to children to imagine a future city constructed using the most basic of materials – water, wood, fire, earth and gold. Entitled 月台 (‘platform’ in Chinese), To the Moon is a site-specific, participatory installation presented at the Jordan Valley Park, a former dumpsite where the children’s city designs were shared with park goers. The event was held in mid-Autumn on the night of the traditional Full Moon Festival, which Kingsley explained was once an important time to give thanks to nature and plan for the harvests ahead. Illuminated by the moon at its fullest, a miniature train routes through the five imaginary cities, which Kingsley reasserted in the interview were conceived or “scripted” by a group of ten-year-olds, using only five elements in a renewable cycle.
By using only the most “elemental” of elements as the central materials of these imagined cities (turning away from our post-industrial and digital world’s reliance on electricity), the work seeks to reflect on the material infrastructures of modern life, asking “could this be the blueprint for the future?”.
Doran and Ng continued their conversation, turning next to Moon.gate – a gallery installation most recently produced Taipei in 2015 and shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei. The work departs from the Chinese character 閒, which literally means “leisure”. Kingsley described how the character comprises two elements, 門 (gate) and 月 (moon), highlighting how the complex archaic characters 閒 (leisure) and 間 (space) are used interchangeably. The latter Chinese character, which means “space” depicts a gate inside which is a sun, while the former depicts a gate and the moon. Summarising the philosophy of time and space contained in these characters, Kingsley Ng stated:
This is the moment when there is a small gap and the light penetrates into an interior and informs the idea of space. When moonlight penetrates this gap into the interior space and when we are under this stream of light from the moon, it is called leisure. I was fascinated by this idea.
In Taipei, Ng blocked the window but recreated the moonlight using computer controlled programming. Ng explained that the work raises the following fundamental question for him: what is the state of mind required for listening to the world we live in today? Doran shared her experience of seeing the moonlit space in the middle of downtown Hong Kong at Osage Soho, where the work was first shown in 2011:
On a hot day in Hong Kong when you have exhaust in your nose and it’s noising the experience of walking into that moonlit space is actually quite shocking.
Your ability to create atmospheres in a white cube situation (and the technology involved in creating this moment) is something characteristic of much of your work.
Doran closed the interview with comments on the artist’s decision to become an artist, which she dated to Ng’s student days when he was studying computer science. Doran noted that the artist has often described his artistic career to be the result of a “pragmatic decision”. Kingsley Ng responded:
Art is about learning how to be a human being and that is a life’s work. In that sense art is very pragmatic.
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