Kingsley Ng, Art and Community

Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan

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Living in Hong Kong, we are all too familiar with alienation and the excessive consumerism of a capitalist society. Urbanites’ loneliness and sense of insecurity are aggravated by the teeming population, dwindling living space, and fast-paced lifestyle of the city. Behind transient encounters and weakening human bonds is social atomism actualized through individual mobility and changing social structures. Meanwhile, our patience and sensibility are constantly lashed by waves of ever-changing trends and sensual stimulations. Life experience is encroached, or even displaced, by commodified fetishism, conceding its vigor to spectacles and simulacra. How can contemporary art respond to the conditions and syndromes of our present modern life? Kingsley Ng’s projects often do not confront the above issues head-on but address them in much more subtle ways, exploring possibilities of looking and revealing, as well as the spaces between dualities.

I first experienced Kingsley Ng’s art on a hot summer’s day in 2016, not in the conventional white-cube setting of an art gallery but on an iconic form of local transport: the public tram. Kingsley Ng’s
Twenty-Five Minutes Older is exemplary of the artist’s style, which is characterized by his interesting, experiential use of light, and his exploration of space and time. The project turned two public trams into moving camera obscuras that ran between Causeway Bay and Western Market of Sheung Wan in Hong Kong. The audience was invited to board the trams with their upper-deck windows all covered up, leaving a small hole for light to enter from the outside. During the tram ride, the audience could listen, on headphones, to excerpts from Tête-bêche, Hong Kong writer Liu Yichang’s most notable stream-of-consciousness novella, while inverted images of the streets were projected onto the interior of the tram’s upper-deck.

Presented for the first time last year at the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s
Human Vibrations: The 5th Large-Scale Public Media Art Exhibition, the transformed trams were back on the road in late March as part of Art Basel Hong Kong 2017. The Art Basel version differed from the former in the excerpts selected for the novella recitation. Instead of using parts that portrayed the cityscape, parallel storylines of the two characters, Chunyu Bai, a middle-aged man who moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1949, and Ah Xing, a local teenage girl, were chosen. The tram was a poetic compression of stories of the city’s characters, including those of the audience. In addition to connecting the audience’s experiences with the city’s flow of time, embodied by changing images as the tram travelled through the streets, the second version also attempted to stimulate contemplations on social polarization in recent years.

In this interview, Kingsley Ng reflects on the artist and community, art as a nonviolent form of problem-solving, the “aura” of site-specific projects, the irony of using technology to resist a technologically-driven culture, and the deep influence of traditional Chinese aesthetics on his work.

—Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan

One of the most frequent comments people make about your works is that they are “poetic.” Very often, the word is used loosely to refer to the beautiful or evocative style of your artistic expression, or in a broader sense, the perceptive sensibility exhibited in your art. I would like to make use of this adjective as a starting point. “Poetic,” i.e. showing the quality of poetry, has its etymological root in the Greek word, poiēsis, meaning “making.” Heidegger interprets poiēsis as “bringing forth” or “revealing” in “The Question Concerning Technology.” Does this idea resonate with you? How do you understand the “poetic” aspect of your art? 

The word “revealing” is appropriate in the sense of “casting light” on something preexisting and seeing it in a different light. The idea of “casting light” involves two aspects. The first concerns light as the medium, and its nature is to illuminate things, to brighten with light. Light can be used to make things visible and reveal what is always already present.

Actually, it is debatable whether my works are complete artworks as such. I think I am more concerned with a certain artistic process of looking, a revealing process, instead of making a self-standing, fixed, and tangible object.

As for the “poetic” sense, I would say I am under a stronger influence from the traditional Chinese concept of poetry rather than the Western aesthetic tradition of the Greek or modern philosophers like Heidegger.

Shijing (The Classic of Poetry) exemplifies original Chinese poetic ideas well. It comprises sections of ancient Chinese songs categorized into Feng (“Airs of the States”), Ya (“Lesser and Major Court Hymns”), and Song (“Eulogies of Zhou, Lu, and Shang”). Songs in Feng are folk songs about everyday life and the common people. Those in Ya and Song are court music of the aristocratic class used in rituals, ceremonies, or at banquets. They are highly relevant to the community and illustrative of human relationships with each other and nature. Poetry at that time was not restricted to the educated class, the elite.

The three major literary devices in Shijingfu (narrative), bi (explicit comparison), and xing (implicit comparison)—also demonstrate poetry as a multifaceted art. On the one hand, a poem can be descriptive, denotative, and clear in meaning; on the other hand, it can also be metaphorical and associative. These are coexisting poetic characteristics, not mutually exclusive.

The Chinese poetic tradition has had subtle influences on my way of treating the elements in my works. Poetry is a form of distillation. Simple elements are put together to contain a lot within. For example, “Spring: Homage to Liang Quan” tells a complex story of water, such as the commodification of water and geopolitics, through the arrangement of some simple objects and materials. It compresses the narrative into a ray of light under the glass. But I am not methodological in the sense that I intend to apply certain theories in my works. The ideas usually work on a subconscious level. The origin might be from my Grandpa’s teaching of ancient Chinese poetry when I was young. That has had a subtle but long-lasting influence on me.

Modern technology is usually applied instrumentally to achieve different practical ends, such as making life more convenient or providing more exciting entertainment. But in using technology in this way, we are ever creating more consumerist products and more sophisticated spectacles. What is the significance of technology in your works?  

The Chinese term for “art,” 藝術, already contains the word “technique” 術, meaning a kind of practice. The character 藝, meaning craft or art, has its origin in farming and ploughing the land. In pictographic Chinese bronze inscriptions, the character presents a man using his hands to do agricultural manual work.

Art gained its metaphorical significance from its roots in the Chinese agricultural society, symbolizing power—laboring and hard work, which I think is something very precious.

In older times when people lacked the means of mass production, an artwork could impress the viewer immensely with its rich embodiment of meanings. But nowadays, we are gradually losing our senses and becoming less perceptive.

My use of technology is, to a certain extent, to compensate for the loss of the senses. I explore ways to help regain our senses through technological means. However, I need to be careful not to turn the works into more spectacles, because the degeneration of our senses is precisely due to excessive stimulation from spectacles. It might sound a bit ironic, though.

Modern people have become accustomed to sophisticated visual images and stereo sounds. I attempt to return to simplicity by using technology, which is actually more difficult to achieve. For example, I use music boxes in my works for the instrument’s simple mechanism of sound production so as to create delicate, gentle, but long-lasting effects. I prefer using insignificant materials to instigate rich meanings. While modern technology causes the degeneration of our senses, we can use technology to help us recover what’s lost.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin suggests that the “aura” of the work of art “withers in the age of mechanical reproduction” because an artwork is no longer unique and is detached from “the fabric of tradition” due to its technology-enabled reproducibility. Of course, Benjamin was a thinker of the early 20th century, and his view had its own historical context. I think today’s site-specific art seems to work against, or at least is able to escape from, this loss of originality by existing in a particular location and responding particularly to the spatial and temporal situation of the place. Do you think art can “regain” its “aura” in this way? Or should the “aura” of art be redefined in our time? What is the “aura” of art, in your opinion?

I consider “aura” a quality of “preciousness.” An object could be valuable because it was something from a thousand years ago, or because it was made by someone close to you. Preciousness is a subjective value.

For site-specific artworks, it is not that the artworks themselves have the aura, but the places where they are located accommodate a certain auratic atmosphere. Perhaps the idea of “genius loci” is more precise than “aura” in this sense. The spirit of place makes the location precious.

My site-specific work is meant to reveal the spirit of place that is already there. For example, Lunar Park is about North Point’s Oil Street, connecting elements such as the architecture, the park’s history, and North Point’s context and community. It is located at the place; its meaning would be invalidated if it was taken out of it. You can’t photograph or record the spirit of place. I haven’t thought about the idea of aura in this way before, but I think the relationships with a place, site-specific art, and aura can be understood in this way.

Although your works do not explore “language” in a strict sense, many of them involve the transformation of materials or translation between media (“materials” and “media” operate like language in art). For example, light is being translated in The Sun over the Placid World; Record: Light from +22° 16′ 14″ +114° 08′ 48″; and Sail, to name a few. Solitary Light can be understood as a visual translation of the poetry of Zha Shenxing. In linguistic translation, especially in literature, creativity is at work on various levels, ranging from stylistic, cultural, to intersubjective encounters. Would you please comment on some aspects of “translation” in your works?

Strictly speaking, linguistic translation is not a usual artistic practice of mine, but the mechanism of “translation” is involved in some sense. For example, playing a musical instrument is a form of translation. The score is interpreted and translated into something else, such as movements or sounds. This constitutes a basis for me to conceive different artistic methods.

Different senses and different languages have different qualities. Michel Chion has written on issues concerning audio-vision. He discusses three categories of listening: causal, semantic, and reduced. There is a fundamental difference between listening and seeing. When we hear a certain sound, we will recall our own experience, a recent moment in our experience that we can associate with.

Contrarily, for the visual sense, especially when seeing figural images, we remain on the level of the figural images. In interactive works, the audience has their particular role. The use of sound can bring vision to the mind. So, very often when we transform visuals into sounds or transform data into something else, we can explore different possibilities.

Chion has also written on the relationship between film and sound. The connections between visuals and sound can be considered forms of translation. Another issue concerning translation is that I think translation is not restricted to the change of being “translated into something.” The source material and the outcome can coexist, in a relationship of “and.” While “trans” means that something has been changed, it could actually be a mix of the two. When A is translated into B, it is not a complete change but an in-between. I am interested in exploring the possibilities.

The work moon.gate emerges from the pictographic connotation of the Chinese character, 閒 (the moon 月 placed within a gate 門), and its archaic synonym, 間 (the sun 日 placed within a gate 門). The characters 閒 and 間 are incredible poetry packed with meanings. The installation attempts to bring forth these meanings. It is a means of interpretation; while someone might use calligraphy or other art forms, I use space and light to interpret the connotations.

Experiential art emphasizes the creation of immersive, holistic, and embodied experience by engaging the audience and making them constitutive participants of the experience projects. Members of the audience are no longer mere consumers, spectators, or art-viewers. Some of your experiential art projects were designed for interactive participation while some others engendered contemplative involvement. What are the considerations when you conceive an experiential project?

Practical considerations vary from project to project because different projects face different challenges. But there are some common questions to consider. The first major issue is criteria of coexistence; that is, to consider the presence of both the audience and the artist. My work is not only about the world of the artist but also about how the audience members can see their own worlds. For example, in the tram project, Twenty-Five Minutes Older, the visual element is quite reduced. The audience can see inverted images of the streets while listening to the sound of the tram and the narration of Liu Yichang’s story (Tête-bêche). But all of the elements work together to bring the audience to the awareness of their own stories of the city. The work involves the presence of Liu Yichang and me, but more importantly, each member of the audience as an individual can see his own world through the experience. This consideration is applicable to both interactive and contemplative works. Moreover, I am cautious of being manipulative. Sherry R. Arnstein’s idea of a ladder of participation may be relevant here. We should avoid the potential danger of manipulation. In higher levels of participation, the participants should be empowered to do something that they were unable to do before. Considerations for experiential projects really vary, including the project's background, amount of resources, target audience, and different restrictions of public spaces.

Your works sometimes allude to the works of other artists or writers. How do other artists and art forms influence you? Solitary Light and Twenty-Five Minutes Older are two works explicitly related to literature, but there are also instances of an implicit presence of literature, such as the reference to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in To the Moon or even the remark on Japanese haiku in your artist's statement for Musical Loom. What is your experience of literature as a source of inspiration?

My initial motive for studying art and engaging in artistic creation was simple curiosity about learning art; I did not begin with the ambition of becoming an artist. I wished to learn from different artists and artworks, and to learn how art can help us to be human beings. Therefore, some of my works make references and pay tribute to other artists. The learning process is very important to me. I think there are complex and delicate relationships between literature and the visual arts. But the possibilities have not yet been fully explored.

In your artist's statement, you assert that “art shall advocate interactivity, sociability and conviviality” (with reference to Nicolas Bourriaud). Relational art certainly constitutes a crucial part of your oeuvre. Your community and participatory art projects, from the earlier works, la ville dans la baguette, la baguette dans la ville conducted in Lille, France, Wind Chimes in Niigata, Japan, to the more recent To the Moon and Listening Time in Hong Kong, were designed to foreground or establish human relations. What kind of human relations can be produced, or how can human relations be enhanced, through relational art?

This brings us back to the significance of art for community, exemplified in the songs of Shijing I mentioned earlier. Ancient art was closely connected to people. Folk songs in the section of Feng (“Airs of the States”) could be about ethnic or customary activities, interactions within a village, and people’s activities in festivals. Ya and Song reflected religious rituals and ceremonies. They represented how people got together and gathered in ancient times.

Art itself is originally a means of relationship formation. It is highly relevant to our life. Creating communal bonding is an important dimension of art. We can observe the presence of art in many traditional festivals. For example, people in Mali participate in an annual plastering to keep the Great Mosque of Djenné, which is the largest mud-built structure in the world, in good shape. I think it is a fascinating festival. In Japan, there are also traditional celebrations for the transplantation of rice seedlings.

Modernist art deliberately detached art from tradition. Of course, modernism brought new thinking and renewed the aesthetic paradigm, but something precious was lost. When we talk about art, it should not be restricted to art of the last century; we can still be inspired by art from thousands of years ago, from a time when art was relevant to everyday life. In the community, the artist was a mediator. He was not a creator of some painting to be hung in a rich man’s house; instead, he acted as an interpreter of narratives, or as a mediator between man and nature.

I am interested in exploring this role of the artist in the context of the present day. For example, in the project To the Moon, I return to the cultural meanings of the Mid-Autumn Festival. In ancient times, artists would be inspired by the festival to create artworks, such as paintings and poems. Nowadays, it has largely become a commodified experience that basically concerns the selling and consuming of mooncakes and festive products. The significance of the festival as a celebration of harvest and nature’s endowment has been lost. I wonder, can a contemporary artist reconnect life with tradition?

In a conversation with curator Valerie C. Doran, you stated, “I believed art was the most useful subject because it has a transformative effect on your ways of seeing and your relationship with the world.” Would you elaborate on the “usefulness” of such transformation, and tell us more about your view on the “usefulness” of art?

Art is in everything. For example, we have to make lots of decisions every day. Our decision-making can be merely a logistical process which just concerns cost-effectiveness, but it can also be very artful. If we chose to consider things in an artful way, the world would be very different.

This might sound a bit naive, but I think art is something like salt. Although you cannot eat it directly, the taste of a dish will be different when you add salt. Art can be a way of thinking or a practice. Let’s take my two-year study in France, for instance. The projects I conducted there were integral to the holistic experience of my stay in France. There would be no other way to reproduce that experience.

Art influences different levels of our understanding and feeling, how we analyze and respond to things. This may be connected to my interest in dualities. Things are not always polarized and fixed. To comprehend and grasp the complexities in life, we need a different pace and approaches beyond words. Art can intervene here.

Art is a form of nonviolent communication for solving problems and contradictions. From a utilitarian perspective, it plays a crucial role in cultural diplomacy. Its usefulness can be manifested on different levels, from the macro-level of culture to the micro-level of personal life. A good example is the experience of one of my students here in the Academy of Visual Arts of at the Hong Kong Baptist University. She used to have a troubled relationship with her father. But the relationship was repaired through working out her final project with her father. Art has the power to transform that transcends the limitations of words.