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Like many densely populated cities, going about one’s daily business without everyone hearing about it seems impossible in Hong Kong. The reasons for this run the gamut from multiple languages vocalizing a city in motion to the endless stream of texts, songs, games, films and ringtones percolating within earshot out of countless electronic devices. Luckily, this is music to Samson Young’s ears. The Hong Kong-based artist’s work, encompassing drawing, installation, video, performance and writing, has long engaged in an exchange between sound and site.
Case in point: Pastoral Music (But It Is Entirely Hollow), begun in 2015, where Young records himself singing “Of Forests and Pastures,” a popular Cantonese nursery rhyme, during intermittent visits to the New Territories’ Gin Drinkers’ Line. Infusing this disused trail of bunkers, tunnels and trenches with childlike verse comes off as both sublimely poetic and profoundly ironic, but that’s not the point: Young’s focus is on echoing how sound was used in the past—namely, by mimicking weaponry as a kind of “fake out” in shielding the British military defensive line from invasion during World War II. Rearticulating Hong Kong’s perimeter as the “special administrative region” of China similarly drives Liquid Borders (2012), which features field recordings Young made while traipsing alongside the fence connecting both sides.
Time and again, Young mines existing aural histories, putting his background in music composition on full display. In response to a recent invitation by Asia Art Archive, Young created AAAFM99.3, a roving radio station doubling as a bookmobile and deejay booth, and hosted a series of public broadcasts at various area locations. Young also chose to intervene into the organization’s audio collection by extracting the ambient noise from a combined set of interviews conducted by art historian John Clark. Placing the resulting soundtrack of imagined activity surrounding the absent talk among the library stacks, the project belies the light touch Young uses to engage in a deeper enquiry into how information gets embedded, memorialized or cut out from art history.
An enquiry into the aural histories and the
transformative potential of sound.
While his ties to Hong Kong remain strong, travel plans are imminent. Recently awarded the inaugural BMW Art Journey prize to produce For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Journey Into the Sonic History of Conflict, Young will conduct what has been dubbed “a worldwide tour of iconic bells, documenting them and creating works of visual art and music composition in response to them.”
In this as in his other works, it is the transformative potential of sound that intrigues Young. After all, bells and canons are inextricably linked, both on account of being melted before mutating into one or the other in times of war and peace, and since both summon calls to action, whether by warning or celebration.
There is plenty to keep Young busy otherwise, including Kaifong Orchestra, a year-long project developed through the Hong Kong contemporary art centre Para Site, looking at neighborhood orchestras as both ensemble and archetype. Young also remounts Memorising the Tristan Chord (Institute of Fictional Ethnomusicology) for the China Shanghai International Arts Festival (CSIAF) this fall.
The phrase “to move along and against the grain” is imprinted in neon yellow letters across the AAAFM99.3 mobile cart. This could certainly double as a tagline for Young, whose nuanced sonic sensibility serves as a reminder that despite fewer unfamiliar environments being left to wander (and wonder) through, there is still room to hear and be heard much more.
Samson Young (Hong Kong, b. 1979) is an artist who lives and works in Hong Kong. He is represented by AM Space, Hong Kong. He was awarded the first BMW Art Journey, a new global collaboration between Art Basel and BMW that will allow him to embark on a creative journey across five continents. His upcoming projects include a solo exhibition opening in November at Team Gallery, New York.
Ingrid Chu is Public Programs Curator at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.
Image: Samson Young, Pastoral Music (But It Is Entirely Hollow), documentation of field work (2015)