Art Month Installations: Kingsley Ng Turns a Tram Into a Roving Camera Obscura

This week, as Kingsley Ng transforms one of Hong Kong’s trams into a roving camera obscura, he has been thinking about his grandfather. “One of my earliest memories of my grandfather is getting a lesson from him about return on investment while we were on the tram – I must have been about three or four,” he says, laughing. “He was comparing how much it costs to ride one of those mechanised toys they have outside shops to how much it costs to go on the tram. He told us not to waste our money. That’s a very Hong Kong experience.”

Ng is the artist behind 25 Minutes Older, a new installation commissioned for this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong. The tram runs continuously between the Western Market and Causeway Bay until March 28, 2017.

Trams have rattled down Hong Kong’s streets since 1904, which is perhaps why Ng was plunged into the past as he prepared the installation. Ng’s grandfather arrived in Hong Kong during the Second World War from Guangdong. He built a life for himself here with the practical wisdom Ng associates with that generation. Ng’s family left for Canada before the handover in 1997, leaving his grandfather behind in the rapid transforming city. Much has changed since those days, but one thing that has endured is its tram.

“I don’t think it is very slow,” says Ng when I ask him whether he is frustrated by its slow pace. “It certainly has a more romantic pace than other means of transport. It carries a different time. A time capsule that does not get old in a fast-paced city.”

This is not the first time 25 Minutes Older has been on the road, so to speak. Ng has worked on two other iterations since 2013, but this time around, he filled the tram with text chosen especially to mark Art Basel’s fifth year in Hong Kong.

Putting the finishing touches to his vehicle in the Whitty Street Depot, where the trams rest when they are not fighting traffic in the streets, Ng gives us a quick tour of the oldest vehicle on the block, a wood-framed tram that predates World War II. Elements from this tram, like its rattan seats, have been replicated in the tram Ng used for his installation.

Ng says he was inspired by the history of the trams, which first installed tracks along Victoria Harbour in 1903, with the iconic double-deckers introduced in 1912. When it was first launched, there were separate sections for Chinese and European passengers. The 1970s saw class distinctions abolished.

He likes the depot because it makes him think of the behind-the-scenes work we often take for granted, and the complex history that comes with so much about Hong Kong we forget to notice.  It’s a peculiar corner of the city, where disgorged vehicles are parked among their fully operational brethren amid piles of oil-sodden machine parts. We joke that it would make a perfect place to play hide-and-seek. Ng has a rather serious way of looking at the world, but he’s not without a sense of humour.

A quiet-mannered, convivial talker, Ng’s influences are complex, international, and somewhat academic. He identifies as a global artist rather than one bound to strictly local concerns, though he now bases himself in leafy Sheung Shui, a part of Hong Kong far removed from the flashy, cosmopolitan surroundings of Art Basel. Navigating these poles of identity, between the local and the international, are what lend his work a sense of cultural duality that will resonate with many in this city of transient populations and checkered  heritage.

In 25 Minutes Older, two apertures are used to offer passengers dual perspectives running concurrently. These dual perspectives run in tandem with the narrated story of two very different Hongkongers. Through these interactions of contrasting individuals and perspectives, Ng builds an experience that fosters co existence in a polarised world. As such, the tram serves as a symbol for unifying spaces where individuals can connect despite their diverging stories.

The project itself is named in reference to a 1978 short film, 10 Minutes Older, by Latvian director Herz Frank, who turns the camera back on its audience to show the reactions of children watching a movie. But the story itself is bound to writer Liu Yichang’s literary piece Tête-bêche. Liu is one of Hong Kong’s best loved contemporary writers, and still lives in the city well into his 90s. It was his wife who assisted Ng with research queries into the work.

Liu’s 1975 story, which also inspired Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, is a stream of conscious narrative that presents the opposing world views of two passengers on the tram who are divided in age but not in mode of transport they opt to take. The elder’s common sense approach to life offsets the young Hongkonger’s idealism, creating a disjunct in worldviews not unfamiliar in modern Hong Kong, where social discord cuts across generations and social strata.

Tête-bêche refers to a type of stamp in which two images are pictured, with one turned on its head from the other. It offers a play on perspectives not unlike that of a camera obscura. That the story is paired with a visual experiment with two apertures enables views to see Hong Kong from various angles, all at once.

“Everything together, the experience will be an in-between space, with two storylines and perspectives running in parallel, distinct but co-existing, like two sides of the same coin,” says Ng. That Hong Kong is often described of as an “in-between space,” owing to how it has long straddled diverging worlds, is worth noting.

With a rather dreamy style of elocution, Ng says what’s important are the personal associations viewers bring to the experience. As such, the piece is designed as something of an epiphany-enabling vehicle that taps into our subjective experiences, and encourages us to see beyond our increasingly fractured perspectives.

“My favourite aspect of the project is that one can never pinpoint single image, as the images are never repeated and every image will only exist for a fraction of a second. When you try to contemplate it, hold onto it, it slips away, forever. Life, as it is, reveals itself.”

As in this artwork, Ng often plays with light and perception, in community-engaging projects that fuse old and new technologies and meditate on ideas of journey, change, sustainability and community. While 25 Minutes Older serves as a vehicle for looking back, it raises important questions about where we are headed from here on out in this age of unprecedented change and cacophony – and what we might learn from the experience of Hong Kong, a city that has long been comprised of co-existing, diverging worlds.

25 Minutes Older runs until March 28, 2017. Click here for more information.

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