Trailblazing Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young has won the BMW Art Journey award, unleashing him on a journey across five continents.

On 21 May 2015 Art Basel and BMW announced Samson Young as the winner of the first BMW Art Journey. We peer into the profile of this fascinating Hong Kong-based artist and his winning proposal “For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Journey into the Sonic History of Conflict.” 

Samson Young, 'I am thinking in a room, different from the one you are hearing in now (homage to Alvin Lucier)', (2011), sound Performance. Image courtesy the artist.

Samson Young, ‘I am Thinking in a Room, Different from the One You are Hearing in Now (Homage to Alvin Lucier)’, (2011), sound performance. Image courtesy the artist.

A composer-turned-artist

Samson Young (b. 1979, Hong Kong) is a cutting-edge sound artist who is known for his searing intelligence and genre-shifting projects. He is a composer with a PhD in Music from Princeton University, an award-winning multimedia digital sound artist, and a scholar and art theorist with numerous publications to his name.

Young is the first to admit that he’s had no formal training in contemporary art; he studied music, philosophy and gender studies at the University of Sydney before heading to Princeton. In a 2013 presentation at Colgate University hosted by Asia Art Archive in America, he said:

I was not trained in contemporary art. My training was very traditional, strict, down the center, music training […] up until the year 2002, I was still what you would call a very strict, down the center composer. I would write pieces for string quartets and orchestras and what have you and in some ways I still do that.

Samson Young, 'Nocturne' (studio performance documentation', 2015. Image courtesy the artist and am space.

Samson Young, ‘Nocturne’ (studio performance documentation), 2015. Image courtesy the artist and am space gallery.

Uniquely intermedia

From classical musical composition, Young moved on to sound art — but even that label fails to sufficiently encapsulate his visually compelling, techno-dominant and playfully political art. His projects are “uniquely intermedia experiences”, writes Input/Output Gallery, and are united only in their persistent breaking down of preconceived boundaries.

One iconic example is Young’s project Hong Kong iPhone Orchestra (2010) in which participants were selected via an open call two months prior to the performance in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon. Led by Young, the ‘musicians’ (many of whom had never played music before) performed a musical score of matrix notations by using the iPhone applications Melodica (Free), Nlog Free Synth, Kalimba Free and Satori.

In March 2015, Young performed Pastoral Music (But it is Entirely Hollow) (2014-ongoing) at the am space gallery booth in Art Basel Hong Kong 2015. The site-specific performance examines Hong Kong’s involvement in the second world war and the role that artists play during conflicts.

Samson Young performing at the am space gallery booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2015. Image courtesy the artist and am space gallery.

Samson Young performing at the am space gallery booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2015. Image courtesy the artist and am space gallery.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls”

Young’s project for the BMW Art Journey, which supports an emerging artist each year on a journey aimed to further develop their artistic work, is entitled “For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Journey into the Sonic History of Conflict”. The project builds on Young’s “longstanding fascination with military technology and his training as a composer” and, according to the press release, it focuses on:

… bells, which bring together these two related areas of interest. Canons and bells are made of essentially the same materials. In times of war, bells would be melted down to create cannons, and when peace returned, bells would be recast from surplus weapons.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” borrows the title of Hemingway’s novel and asks: Who needs bells? For whom are bells cast, sounded, and preserved in perpetuity? Young’s project investigates bells qua conflict and resolution; he writes in his proposal:

The auditory coverage of bells defines territories, separating one community from another along cultural, religious, or ideological fault lines. Bells also connect individuals. When great care is taken in the tuning of bells, the purity of tone and fullness of volume become sources of collective pride.

Young will travel to sites around the world to notate and record the sounds of exceptional and historically resonant bells. He will generate an archive of recordings and “bell sound sketches”, as well as create a set of new bronze bells and an original musical composition for bell-ringers and orchestras.

Samson Young, 'Muted Situations', 2014. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes. Image courtesy CFCCA.

Samson Young, ‘Muted Situations’, 2014. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes. Image courtesy CFCCA.

About BMW Art Journey

The BMW Art Journey is a new global collaboration between BMW and Art Basel. The award offers artists an opportunity to undertake a journey of creative discovery to almost anywhere in the world. Artists who are showing in Art Basel’s sectors for emerging artists in Miami Beach and Hong Kong are eligible, with one artist to be chosen from each location every year starting 2015.

This year the judging panel that chose Young included:

The jury had high praise for Young’s proposal:

Samson Young’s proposal stood out for several reasons: its depth and clarity, its multi-layered approach and its ability to bring a simultaneously contemporary and historical dimension to notions of place. His research will thoughtfully interweave multiple contexts addressing major issues to include war, religion, community and the politics of sound […] Samson Young has crafted a journey with ambitious scope and strong potential to offer meaningful strides in his development as an artist.

Click here to read Art Radar’s 2013 interview with Samson Young on his project “Memorizing the Tristan Chord”

Michele Chan


Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, sound art, electronic art, mixed media, new media, political art, awards ceremonies, prizes

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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