Hong Kong, 1979
Multicultural paradigms, weaved into a symphony of image and sound, are at the heart of Hong Kong artist and composer, Samson Young’s (b. 1979) practice. With a formal cross-cultural training in music composition, Young channels his attunement to melody by pushing it’s formalist boundaries to create innovative cross-media experiences that touch upon the recurring topics of identity, war and literature. Emphasising a sense of play and intellectual witticism through the inclusion of unexpected sounds, ranging from the ring of Gameboys, fanfare rides and Cantonese nursery rhymes, to references of great works of fiction, Young builds peculiar scenarios that challenge one’s everyday associations with objects, stories and spaces.
Behind each project is an extensive process of research, involving a mapping of the endeavour through a series of drawings and recordings. ‘Liquid Borders’ (2012-14), for example, involved the transcription into graphical notation of sounds collected from the ‘Frontier Closed Area’, a zone separating China and Hong Kong that was only opened in 2012. More recently, Young’s ongoing work ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls: A Journey Into the Sonic History of Conflicts’ (2015-) has followed his mission to transcribe the sounds of bells across five continents. Interested in how they define territories, separating one community from another, as well as their historical background and associations with religion and war, Young explores their pluralistic uses and connotations. Akin to a travelling landscape artist, Young sketches and records the sounds of each object, to create a visual and auditory archive, which ultimately addresses the title of the work and thereby the question posed by Hemingway’s novel and Donne’s poem of the same title: For whom are bells cast and rung in perpetuity? Crossing interchangeably drawing and sound with literature and investigation, Young builds a play on the sonorific attributes of these objects and their dualistic value as both calls for celebration and warning.
Key to Young’s interest in war is its interplay with identity: the borders it creates, the allegiances it builds, personalities and cultures it forges. In the earlier work ‘Stanley’ (2014), for example, Young fleshes out the Hong Kong beach’s overlooked significance as a WWII battleground. Drawing on research into the site drawn partially from archives at the Imperial War Museum, Young built a multidisciplinary homage, from a dinner performance to a sound composition, that meshes the zone’s recreational present and its internee past. An important new work to also touch upon the impact of borders and especially Hong Kong identity is the site-specific sound performance ‘Pastoral Music (But It Is Entirely Hollow)’. Taking the location of Gin Drinker’s Lane – a British defensive system that ran across the New Territories, constructed between 1936 to 1938 to defend against enemy invasion, but fell under Japanese attack in just 12 hours in December 1941 – Young visited all of the site’s remaining relics and recorded himself singing the Cantonese nursery rhyme Of Forests and Pastures. Highly reverberant concrete structures, Young’s voice resonates with eerie extension as exterior elements weave themselves into his recordings: bird songs, passing airplanes, water dripping. Mounting juxtaposition between the past, zones of conflict, childhood, and the future, Young builds a nostalgic environment alluding to the inflicted developments of generations.
As such, Young uses the components of music – sound, beat, rhythm, resonance – to flesh out global issues surrounding topical conflicts that have affected our past and present as well as future. For ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’ (2013), for example, Young recruited 70 Cantonese speakers to invent Cantonese phrases that perfectly map onto the pitch contour that leads up and immediately follows from the famous ‘Tristan Chord’ in Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Nonsensical and a puzzling mixture of sound and words, Young prompts interpellation on geographical, historical, cultural localisation and consequent appropriation. More recently, for ‘Nocturne’ (2015), Young collected found video footage of night bombings (Gaza strip, ISIS, gulf war etc.) from the Internet, muted them, and in real-time recreated the sound of explosions, gunshots and debris as realistically as possible, using household objects and “live-Foley” techniques. Broadcast on-site via an FM radio transmission, the audience experienced the performance with hand-held radios, whether in other parts of the venue or in close proximity with the performer. Weaving the ordinary with the dramatic, bringing the homely act of radio-listening in line with its use at war, Young delves the viewer into auditory and visual contact with the current political affairs that are defining territories as well as the lives of people worldwide.
Samson Young is a highly regarded composer and media artist based in Hong Kong. Holding a PhD in Music Composition from Princeton University, Young was selected to represent Hong Kong at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 and is recently commissioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He has held multiple solo exhibitions worldwide, including M+ Pavilion, Hong Kong; Manchester International Festival, Manchester; Goethe-Institute, Hong Kong and Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan. Group exhibitions include 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney; Asia Triennial Manchester; amongst others. Furthermore, he has participated in multiple festivals, as well as been the recipient of several prizes, including the 2015 BMW Art Journey Award. Further awards include Artist of the Year (Hong Kong Arts Development Council), Prix Ars Electronica, Bloomberg Emerging Artist Award.