About Kingsley Ng
Being also a lecturer at the Academy for Visual Arts, the Baptist University of Hong Kong (AVA), Ng, like any other academic in Hong Kong, is regularly required to take stock of his career as an artist and academic. He therefore recently put into the official format of such an exercise his thoughts about his art practice, where it came from and where it seems to be heading to. We met recently for an interview that was supposed to provide a short portrait of a mid-career artist and Ng, who does not think being in the middle of an art career conveys any kind of meaning though, believed that putting into words his recent past and projected future was an ideal starting point for such an interview. In view of his professional background, his institution requires him to teach both art and design and he has been involved in doing so at both the Hong Kong and the Shenzhen campus for AVA. From 2005 to 2013, he worked first as Set and Environment Designer and subsequently as Creative Director at the global experiential marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide. He was responsible for creating brand experiences and large-scale brand events for multinational companies internationally. It was in that context that he explored an important text for that very specific, and yet all-embracing, business activity, a book titled The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore and published in 1999. These two authors wrote that book while working at the Harvard School of Business and conceived of design and marketing as a new way to stage events and leave more than a fleeting impression on the minds of consumers. As much as I find these marketing strategies personally questionable, as they also tend to reinforce a model of consumption that is quite literally destroying the world, Ng was more impressed by the way they were based on the idea of an aesthetic turned towards participation.
These reflections informed all his art practice and he emphasizes his interest in artists profoundly involved in socially-engaged art practices, like the Swiss Thomas Hirschhorn. But where Hirschhorn would only make works with the help of often very large groups of people (he once involved the entire young population of a poor neighborhood to create several buildings made of refuse to celebrate the works of the French writer Georges Bataille), Ng can also create works and situations on his own, even though they are always about very specific stories about communities in an urban context. His now famous piece, Musical Loom also from 2005, touched me on a very personal level. Caroline Ha Thuc, (Contemporary art in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, Asia One Books and Nouvelles Editions Scala, 2013, 39-40.), thus describes this work: ‘Kingsley Ng always starts with the history of a place before he begins work. In 2004, when he was in France for a two-year residency at Le Fresnoy, he conceived Musical Loom, a musical weaving loom that made reference to the history of northern France. He transformed a 250 year-old loom into an interactive instrument through which, by use of its shuttle, the public could weave sounds and shadows to create mechanical music. Wishing to open a dialogue with the region’s community, Ng devised the loom to weave links between the people and the history of the textile industry… To his mind, he no longer creates objects but relations between people and an object.’ Why was I more touched by this one? Because Ng conceived it while in a residency in Tourcoing, in the North of France where I grew up, and dealt with, among other things, the issue of a dying culture: the one that developed for some two centuries around the textile industry, an industry now ravaged by some of the most negative effects of globalization. Between the apparently stunning beauty of this work, its engagement with the social issues of the place it was conceived in, and my own memories of the economically difficult decades when the textile industry collapsed in the North of France, I could not avoid feeling very close to the way Ng works and conceive his art.
The Musical Loom and other works partly reflect, in fact, the notions inspired by the experience economy and Ng enacted in them his idea of art as strategy for urban regeneration. Etudes for the Everyday, for instance, is a series of exhibitions and workshops that he launched in 2013. Through the development of creative exercises to be practised periodically in everyday situations, over a hundred leading art practitioners were mobilised to reach out to the wider public. Another endeavour, To the moon, was a community art project in which a series of participatory experiences were staged in a public park in Jordan Valley, under the full moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2014. A light installation, whose form originated from stories written by children, was mounted alongside with stories shared by grown-up storytellers (cultural practitioners who are active in the urban landscape in various ways, from creative works to architecture, urban farming and public advocacy) during the festive days, to prompt reflections on the urban resource cycle and the future of our city. Maybe more than socially-engaged art practices with a direct, creative involvement of outside participants though, Ng often prefers to create controlled environments in order to revitalize the urban environment.
For example Luna Park, which he created in 2014, was conceived at the former Royal Yacht Club and told the story of the old North Point District. In Ng’s own words: ‘With the use of computer-controlled window blinds, a programmed mist sprinkle system, light and shadows, the work attentively turns the site into a theatrical setting, where the existing ambience of the heritage building is transformed into malleable expressions over time. Other sensory stimulations such as smell and taste, and historical artefacts are blended in to complete the narrative and experiential dimension of the work.’ Using a filmed documentary on the amusement park that once stood not far from Oil Street, and also with the sounds of the actual street emerging from time to time, he tried to make an exhibition that was at once pedagogical and participatory. In his mind, this type of engagement is thought of as a sort of ‘urban acupuncture’. Result of a long-term research, whose findings he presented in several conferences around the world, he relates this idea to Chinese notions like ‘Qi’ (Ch’i). The city is seen as shot through by these channels of energy; whenever these channels are cluttered, the creation of such a participatory art environment at a specific nodal point, like the old Royal Yacht Club at Oil Street (now, of course, siege of the Arts Promotion Office) should be able to restore the lost balance. In so doing he also found his own way to modify the role of the artist as the sole creator of a project. In the mind of this artist and educator who sees himself as healing the city, the artwork is there to stimulate changes that then will take care of themselves.
Frank Vigneron is Professor of Fine Arts Department, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.