To Feel the Shape of the Sun on Your Palm
Valerie C. Doran
In the 17th century, the Japanese poet Basho wrote:
Even in Kyoto—
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.
One evening in 2016, Kingsley Ng invited me to experience his recent project, Twenty-Five Minutes Older. Sitting on a pillow on the floor of a city tram rolling through the darkness, I watched, projected through a camera obscura, the nightscape of Hong Kong transformed into an ethereal, fleeting landscape of light and shadows. And I thought of Basho’s poem.
In many of my encounters with Ng’s works, I have often experienced that moment of acute sensory attentiveness which Basho speaks of so simply and eloquently in his haiku, where the present moment stops, turns course and flows simultaneously into the past and into the future. It is, in other words, an experiential, sensory collapse of the past and the future into the present moment—a small taste of the eternal. In Ng’s works, it might be triggered by sound that seems to be conjured from the very physical reverberations of the past, as in Musical Loom, where the artist has turned an obsolete tool of production into an instrument for contemporary hands to play. Or by the experience of entering a quiet space off the street in one of Hong Kong’s busiest districts, and finding that all the technical ingenuity of the artist has been distilled into the sight of a tree’s shadow swaying gently across the floor (moon.gate). And one sits or stands there quietly, lulled by the tree’s natural motion, where outside there is no tree.
For Ng, how to integrate what he unabashedly names as aesthetic beauty into relational, socially participatory work has always been a key issue. The works that have emerged through his careful, creative process have a level of both conceptual and material refinement that avoids being exquisite because of the simplicity and immediacy of the experience of encounter he opens up for his audience. (Rather, in fact, like the crafting of a haiku poem). Ng often achieves an almost seamless integration of the technological and the poetic within the built structure; yet this seamlessness is the result of multiple, complex layers of problem solving and negotiation on technical, social and aesthetic levels. (“Luckily for me,” Ng says, “problem solving is part of my psyche.”i)
Ng names the American artist Hans Haacke as one of his strongest inspirations, and it is easy to trace this in the aesthetics of Haacke’s early work, particularly during his time with the Zero group of artists in the early to mid 1960s, with their emphasis on non-traditional and ephemeral media, including industrial materials, the changing processes of biological systems, and the use of light, water and kinetic effects. Haacke’s later works of social and institutional critique have also clearly been an influence on Ng, and like Haacke, Ng takes into account all aspects of the mechanics of bringing a site-specific work into being and out into the world: “I consider and build everything into it,” says Ng, “from who’s funding the project, to the aim of the exhibition, the relationship between the exhibition space and the city, and the audience’s engagement with and reception of the work. The work itself is mediation and emerges as one element of the larger situation. And conversely the situation becomes part of the work.”ii
Yet the aim and form of Ng’s critique differ in essential ways from Haacke’s process of direct confrontation. Rather than challenging the shortcomings of political and institutional structures head-on, Ng challenges the state of mind which is induced in us by living in a world circumscribed by them. Ng’s critique can be likened to the simple act of opening up a space to breathe in (akin to the “opening up” of negative space in a Chinese landscape painting). And once we have the breathing space in which to be attentive, he is able to illuminate for us what is sacred in the everyday. (The poet Basho called this ability karuni — the knowledge of how to communicate the sacred beauty of ordinary things in a simple way.)
In this aspect, Ng has a close link to the sensibility of some other key Hong Kong artists such as Jaffa Lam Laam, who works with discarded materials like umbrella silk and crate wood, and collaborates with redundant industrial workers in the creation of sculptural installations that give cast-off materials a new life; or Frog King (Kwok Mang Ho), who reclaims and transforms trash and tawdry plastic materials and incorporates them into shamanistic happenings throughout the city, where the public is invited to participate in and celebrate transient utopian moments; or the sound and video artist Samson Young, who has created subtle sound installations that are aural maps of Hong Kong’s physical borders. Even the highly conceptual artist Lee Kit has some resonance with Ng, in the way he fashions very personal sacred spaces from the mundane trappings of everyday Hong Kong life. Yet the difference here is that Lee Kit’s spaces are always private: they are part of the artist’s own drama and he doesn’t invite us in. The works of Kingsley Ng do the opposite: they open a door, and they invite us to enter it.
Ng’s works are the artist’s visions, certainly, but at the same time they are in effect meticulously conceived, crafted and often ephemeral instruments that help us regain a deeper level of sight, to hear more clearly our own voices, and to experience more acutely our own living, breathing moments. As Ng hopes, at their strongest his works generate a state of practice, an “étude for the everyday,” bringing one back to the ability to pause in the midst of the urban rush and, metaphorically or literally, to “feel the shape of the sun on your palm.” iii
i Interview with the artist by the author in 2011, previously published in “We Now Pause for this Message: A (Brief) Interview with Kingsley Ng,” in In.Between (Hong Kong: Osage Gallery, 2011), 13.
ii Op. cit., 14.
iii See the artist’s notes on p. 11 of this publication.
Valerie C. Doran is a Hong Kong-based curator, writer and translator specializing in the field of contemporary Asian art with a special interest in cultural cross-currents and comparative art theory.