As part of its Conversations, Art Basel Hong Kong invited sound artist Samson Young and new media artist Tatsuo Miyajima to discuss the similarity and difference in their practices.
Art Radar reports on this event, which traced the artists journeys’ from their classical training in Western music and painting respectively, to finding combinations of visual symbolism, poetry, technology and research processes that speak to the world beyond the art world.
As part of the Conversations programme at Art Basel Hong Kong 2016, Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young and Japanese new media artist Tatsuo Miyajima discussed their visual symbolism, the challenges and opportunities presented by technology and new media, and the links between self-reflection and social engagement in their innovative works.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Trained as a composer in the Western music tradition, Samson Young won the inaugural BMW Art Journey in 2015 and undertook a research trip to explore the link between bells and conflict across 11 countries. His interest in this subject matter stems organically from a previous project in which he investigated the dense sounds of weapons. As sound has been manipulated throughout the history of warfare – most primitively through drumming, which uses intense volumes to intimidate – Young wanted to investigate the symbolic and functional role of bells around the world, especially in times of war.
An underlying premise of Young’s research is that bells and cannons are made with the same materials and can be recast into each other whenever the need arose – a fact that blurs the seemingly clear boundaries between war and peace. In terms of sound quality, these two symbolic objects of conflict and harmony also intrigue Young: before industrialisation, only bells and cannons were capable of producing louder sounds than those of natural phenomena.
Personal and Historical Sound Journeys
In his cross-country journey, Young accumulated sound recordings, interviews and photographs, which he plans consolidate into artworks. In Mombasa, Kenya, Young visited a bell that warned people of incoming slave traders during the heyday of the East African Slave Trade. In the national archives in Germany, he learned about bells confiscated by the Nazi government from the Reich’s territories before World War II. After the war ended, these loots were ruled to be German property. After locating a Polish bell that was eventually given back to Poland, Young recorded its sounds and interviewed the people involved in the transaction.
One of the earliest products of Young’s research trip was a 45-minute multimedia “sound walk” during Art Basel Hong Kong 2016, which took participants from the Convention Centre to Tamar Place on the nearby waterfront. During the walk, participants were given a soundtrack as accompaniment to their “personal journey”.
Tatsuo Miyajima is well-known for his work with LED counters. This year, the ICC skyscraper and Art Basel co-commissioned him to create an installation work on its façade. The work, titled Time Waterfall, lit up the Victoria Harbour waterfront with shining analogue numbers of different sizes dropping from the top of the building at random intervals. In response to the installation, Young comments that Miyajima’s work has always shown a consistency in visual symbolism that is absent from his own oeuvre.
A Musical World View
The only consistent aspect of Young’s works seems to be his training as a classical musician and composer. Because of this training, Young examines the world with a specific world view and sees history as structured in a particular way, such as within the framework of the “Western canon” versus “world music”. This way of seeing is manifest in different forms in his works. For instance, he has created drawings based on musical notations, appropriating the signs and symbols of Western music for his own purposes. Some of his “landscape art” has been created this way as he turned music into visual drawings with peaks, troughs and contours.
Young also challenges the Western classical repertoire and the music by white European male composers throughout centuries. For instance, he once created a fictional re-adaptation of Bach’s famous Coffee Cantata by creating a re-imagined “music video” on a piece of land he owns in New Mexico. Some conceptual problems that he deals with in his art as a Chinese musician/artist include thinking about what the “price of admission” is into the Western tradition from a position outside that lineage.
The Challenges and Opportunities of Technology
Young believes that music has always had a close relationship with technology, as musicians were often the first to adopt new technologies to expand the range, quality and volume of sounds. For instance, the sound of the piano has evolved through technological advances such as mass-produced metal frames.
Young sees moments of technological invention as historical “points of no return”. For instance, with the advent of tape recording, the world’s relationship with sound was irreversibly changed. The invention of sound spectrograms is the same. By breaking down sounds visually, spectrograms allow us to be aware that hearing in the moment is only an unattainable aspiration. For Young, technology marks historical points of arrival with irreversibly new ways of understanding with the world.
With no science or engineering background, Young uses his self-taught knowledge to create new media works involving sound and video technologies. His self-training in programming started when he collaborated with other artists in a collective early in his career. He describes the process of learning new technological tools as tiring and never-ending.
Working with New Media
Unlike Young, Miyajima is classically trained in oil painting before gravitating towards new media art. When he engages in electronic and new media art, he asks specialists to bring his concepts to fruition, so that he can largely ignore the limitations of technology and combine his artistic ideas with technology optimally. These days, he believes there is a heightened demand for younger artists to learn new technology because of the easy access to information.
Miyajima mentions that people often question his choice of LED counters and other digital media in his works, in a way that they would not question the choice of oil or clay for painters and sculptors. He thinks that new artists have to use new media simply because the world is constantly changing. He does concede, however, that there is a risk of over-relying on technology. The question that new media artists should constantly ask themselves is whether they are using technology, or whether they are used by it.
Miyajima feels that many beautiful visual creations in the art world are “all surface” and have “no heart”. For him, the philosophy behind works is more important, and to achieve this, his strong visual symbolism plays an important role.
Young thinks that Miyajima’s LED counters and frequent use of numbers play into a consistent system of visual symbols that seems culturally specific and is suggestive of a techno-utopianism without “orientalising”. Miyajima agrees and says he bases much of his symbolism in Buddhism, with central ideas revolving around “life” and “death”: in Buddhism, life is a cycle in which one is born and one dies in a recurring sequence. It is this concept of the eternity of life that he seeks to present with LED counters.
On the symbolism of numbers, Young cites Miyajima as saying that “we oscillate between the abstract and the figurative when we deal with numbers”. In Time Waterfall, Miyajima used numbers from 9 to 1 in a constant visual countdown, deliberately leaving out the number “0”, which represents death. The “countdown” is therefore between life and death while allowing the life cycle to keep on going.
Young thinks there is a strong parallel between the use of music in his works and the use of numbers in Miyajima’s works. Neither is tangible, but both can be manipulated, amplified, compared and verified. The falling numbers in Time Waterfall is to Young almost musical and contrapuntal, corresponding to various counting speeds in music
The speed at which the numbers drop on Time Waterfall is completely random, modelled after a natural rhythm. After programming the work with a natural rhythm, Miyajima relinquished control of the speed at which numbers dropped at any instant. He started to draw on natural rhythms in his works after the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011. He says:
We cannot control nature. Art also cannot control nature. The rhythm [of Time Waterfall] is like rain and fireworks falling down.
The conceptual blueprint for the work is for the numbers to be falling from the universe, as if coming down to earth. He imagines the ICC standing right at the intersection between heaven and earth. The foggy weather during the days when the work was displayed made the numbers seem like they were falling from the clouds, which heightened Miyajima’s original idea.
Art for the People
Mostly importantly, Miyajima believes that art is for people instead of “for art’s sake”. He wants to show his human spirit through his art and make beautiful works that belie a conceptual spirit and philosophy. His goal as an artist is always to create in this mode, for “people and for the world”.
Although both artists profess a wish to engage with social issues and world problems in their new media art, it seems that a strong prescriptive urge is missing from their works. Young’s works are investigative and research-based, while Miyajima’s works are poetic and contemplative; yet, these characteristics of their art somehow create a bridge to larger issues.
Young thinks that, whether in his work on bells and conflict, or other issues such as the relationship between Hong Kong and China, research is an important process to formulate informed opinions on the world. His core impulse is to look inward when thinking about larger social issues, as he values first-hand research and the truths it reveals more than the pre-fabricated opinions of others – whether they are right or not. Ultimately, Young believes that artists have a role in engaging with larger questions but at the same time need to be self-reflective as they navigate their political and cultural positions.
For Miyajima, art is not a plane of explanations for social issues, but it does allow people to “catch up” with the world. The poetic aspect of art motivates him to find a balance between making beautiful art and art that engages philosophically with the world and its problems. He concludes:
If art is not poetic. Nobody would see it.
- Death of the composer: Sound artist Wang Chung-Kun’s music machines – February 2016 – Taiwanese artist Wang Chung-Kun probes the physical and philosophical depths of sound
- “The World Goes Pop”: 5 Japanese Pop artists at Tate Modern – January 2016 – Art Radar profiles 5 pop art icons from Japan, as Tate Modern’s exhibition on global pop art comes to a close
- A search for Hong Kong tradition through 6 artists – Part 2 – August 2015 – Art Radar explores the “tradition” of a new generation of Hong Kong artists
- Art Dubai’s technology-focused Global Art Forum 2015 – February 2015 – entitled “Download Update?”, the 9th edition of the Global Art Forum takes on the theme of technologies and their impact on art and culture
- “Memorizing the Tristan Chord”: Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young – interview – September 2013 – Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young discusses the influence of his classical music, China rim culture and how he came to juxtapose random Cantonese phrases with musical melodies in his 2013 work Memorizing the Tristan Chord
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