Within the Moment of Exchange: The Infinity of Nature

Charles Merewether

 

Kingsley Ng has consistently sought to engage the audience through his multi-media based installations and event-based work. This form of contemporary art has been the hallmark of a new generation of artists who have been rethinking how new technologies of communication can be used effectively to strengthen the experience of art. For Ng, it has meant, in particular, how to heighten the audience’s experience of the natural world.

Born in Hong Kong in 1980, Ng’s education and career enabled him to work, from early his student days on, across various cities internationally. A defining feature of his practice is that contemplation – the hallmark of classical and modern art – is integrated into a larger set of forms of engagement. By definition, Ng’s work is participatory. Not only does it encourage contemplation but also active physical participation, not only visually through giving particular focus to perception but also in audio, through hearing the many sounds that are both human-made and of the surrounding natural world within which we find ourselves. Music can be understood in this way. It is not ancillary to art but, as much, a defining part of a work as the image.

 

Kingsley studied new media art at Ryerson University in Toronto and, then participated in an exchange semester with Roskilde University in Denmark. This was followed by a training programme at Le Fresnoy – National Studio of Contemporary Arts from 2003 to 2005. Le Fresnoy attracted some of the top artists working with new media, as well as a high-calibre student intake. Ng was not only with fifteen or so highly talented international co-students, he also met a range of artists, working with new media, such as Antoni Muntadas and Gary Hill. He also encountered Godard, Alain Fleisher and Andre Labarthe, who visited the Studio to give critique sessions, as well as the English-born Charles Sandison who was working with computer generated video projects; Atau Tanaka whose work bridged experimental music and media art in his interactive performances and exhibition and the French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. During this time, Andrea Cera was closest to him. Cera was an electroacoustic composer, working on sound design and installation. Studying at Le Fresnoy, Ng discovered the value of research-led practices and how new interactive technologies in the audio and visual realm could heighten our perception of the natural world. This rich experience had a deep impact and influence on shaping Ng’s work, opening up new ways of shaping art through interactivity.

 

Ng’s first major work, his graduation project in 2005, was an interactive installation titled Musical Loom, which was awarded the Félicitations du Jury à l’unanimité. Conceived in the textile industry region of Northern France, the work transformed a 250-year-old antique weaving machine into an interactive musical instrument. “Participants could weave sound and image shadow by controlling a light beam and generate mechanical sound or malleable musical expression based on their interaction.”i The following year in 2006, Ng made an ephemeral interactive installation titled Homage to Tadao Ando at the Benetton Group’s Fabrica Research Centre in Treviso, Italy. Ando had designed the Centre. Ng “extracted a spiral pattern out of the architectural plan by the architect, and rendered it as a musical composition structure. It was, in turn, projected as a light pattern onto the water pond at night. Participants were invited to send candle-lit paper boats out onto the water and a musical note was generated when a candle-lit boat flowed over the projected lights.”ii The result was a work that was realised through human engagement and gestures of participation.

 

Upon returning to Hong Kong, Ng discovered different forms of engagement and contemplation. In a region imbued with rich and long philosophical and cultural traditions of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, Ng points to its forms of engagement as defined by being: “into the world” (rushi) and “out of the world” (chushi) in relation to contemplation. This engagement increasingly informed his work after his return to Hong Kong. From 2007 to 2008, he was commissioned by the Osage Art Foundation Osage at their Kwun Tong Gallery (Hong Kong) to create a large-scale work titled Musical Wheel. Six meters in diameter, the work invited participants to sit inside on the rotational wheel. There were nine pieces of curved wooden soundboards mounted with hundreds of strings. As the boards slowly turned, the strings created ambient music from all four sides of the wheel. The artist wanted to interrogate the relationship between the gallery space and the location in which it was situated, one of the most industrial areas in Hong Kong. Ng explains succinctly:

 

The gallery is nestled in a district which tells an interesting, orchestral tune: on a daily basis, there are men repairing car wheels, people pushing trolleys, forklifts transporting goods, ventilation fans humming, printing drums turning, weaving machines looming. This collective rotational energy of the working class becomes a core essence of the work.ii

For the 2008 exhibition of the city-wide visual arts festival “October Contemporary” (Hong Kong), Ng made an art installation, titled Record: Light from +22° 16’ 14” +114° 68’ 48. The overall theme of the Festival was “Attr/Action” and Ng’s exhibition was called “Site: Seeing.” Composed of two large video projection screens, a modern version of the “gramophone” player, a coffee table and sofa, the screens displayed a tranquil view of the Central district of Hong Kong at night, including several landmark architectural features that characterised the area. At the centre of the screens, Ng captured the apparently insignificant flashes of tourist photography taken at Victoria Peak. Each flash was then marked and etched onto a 12-inch disk. The disk was played on the gramophone, producing light and music. First presented at Osage Kwun Tong, the artist had wanted to investigate the contradiction between man’s ideas of “possession” and “appreciation” that revolved around Hong Kong’s harbour, an “attraction” to many for over a hundred years. As Ng remarks, “it was about the line, differentiating and connection, between attraction and action. In the context of my city, it made me think about the Peak.”vi

 

In 2009, Ng collaborated with Syren Johnstone and Daniel Patzold to stage Excavation. Presented at the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, the work was conceived as an archeological dig where an imagined future of the exhibition site was seen as partially unearthed. The critic and curator David Spalding considers the work as “a brilliant site-specific intervention… a parallel spatio-temporal experience that recasts the entire Biennale site as a ruin-in-progress.”v Soon after Ng left for Paris as an artist-in-residence at Cité Internationale des Arts. Returning to Hong Kong in 2011, he produced two single-channel video works from his exploration of camera flashes and contemporary society’s obsession with taking photographs. The first was a re-showing of his 2008 work + 22° 16′ 17″ + 114° 8′ 59″, depicting the Hong Kong skyline, and the new one was + 39° 54’ 20″ + 116° 23’ 29″, showing Beijing’s city centre on vertically-oriented rectangular flat-screen monitors. Ng had recorded the lights in the scene, set in white against a black background, and captured the bright, split-second transient flashes from digital cameras.

 

In the same year, Ng drew attention to the impact of light on Hong Kong’s built environment through a four-channel video installation, Solitary Light. Projected on a horizontal line of four screens, Ng juxtaposed a silhouette of the darkened Hong Kong skyline and Victoria Peak behind it with digitally manipulated footage of native fireflies (some actual, others digitally animated later). The result was a dynamic mass of moving light in front of the still cityscape. However, Ng was only able to highlight the existence of fireflies after the city lights had been artificially dimmed, as the insects’ luminescence was overwhelmed by the lights of the city. A complex site-specific media installation drew attention to something so simple as beauty and to the underlying ecology struggling beneath a growing metropolis. Ng explains:

 

There lies an irony in the work that, when the Hong Kong Island cityscape completely disappears, the natural landscape remains. The landscape is reclaimed by natural habitats — in this case the fireflies — and demonstrates a similar vibrancy as that which we are used to viewing over Victoria Harbour.vi

Though an awareness of nature may seem an odd subject for a new media art show in a white-walled gallery space, Ng responds by noting:

 

There exists a constant negotiation between chance and control. The precision of control allows for the visibility of the “un-controllable”—the ecology of our city and the rhythm of life.vii

 

In this way, Ng’s technology-driven works call attention to nature, which is often forgotten amidst the chaos of urban life.

 

Since 2011, Ng’s projects have been even more focused on issues of an increasingly fragile ecology under threat by human intervention. The question was, of course, how art or a creative practice might contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of this issue. In 2013 Ng participated in the 2nd Land Art Biennale Mongolia that took place in Ikh Gazrin Chuluu, Dundgobi, about three hundred kilometers south of Ulaanbaatar, under the theme of art and politics. Ng produced a site-specific installation The Sun Over the Placid World. Rocks were laid out according to the melodic wave pattern of the eponymous sacred Mongolian folk song, and aligned to the path of the sun. A final exhibition presented documentation of the artwork at the National Mongolian Modern Art Gallery in Ulaanbaatar. Over the past three years, many of Ng’s larger-scale projects have included local communities, such as To the Moon (Jordan Valley Park, Hong Kong, 2014) which staged a public event during the traditional Moon Festival in a park, for contemplation between man and nature.

Underpinning these projects and Ng’s practice is developing new forms of engagement and contemplation that go beyond the conventional art system. Ng seeks to orchestrate a balance in the sensory experience of his work. “The physical materiality of phenomena is transformed into a means of perception of time and of listening. Narratives are told in music, and music is played in light,”viii provoking new ways of art circulation and production. This balance is experienced by the audience and in so doing, creates a prolonged moment of immersion in the essence of nature. Such work has become the hallmark of a new generation of media art.

 

i The work was successful, touring in exhibitions and festivals in Europe and Asia. The quotation is taken from “Kingsley Ng,” Wikipedia, accessed 15 August 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsley_Ng.

 

ii “Kingsley Ng,” Wikipedia, accessed 15 August 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsley_Ng.

 

iii “Kingsley Ng,” Wikipedia, accessed 15 August 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsley_Ng.

 

iv A special video version was also made for the group exhibition: “This is HK” curated by Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya of Para/Site Art Space. The group exhibition then toured in Asia and Europe.

v David Spalding, “A Tale of Two Biennales,” cited in “Kingsley Ng,” Wikipedia, accessed 15 August 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsley_Ng.

 

vi Cited in Ashley Lee, “A Thousand Plateaus,” ArtAsiaPacific (online version), 1 January 2011, accessed 15 August 2016, http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/WebExclusives/KingsleyNg.

 

vii Cited by Lee, op. cit.

 

viii The quotation is taken from Alain Fleischer, “A Poetic Interface”; see p. 114 of Notes.

 

Charles Merewether is an art historian and writer on contemporary and post-war art. He was Collections Curator at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles from 1994 to 2004, and Artistic Director and Curator for the 2006 Sydney Biennale. Currently he is the Curator of the Contemporary Art Gallery, Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi.