Samson Young sits in the foyer of the glassy M+ Pavilion, which, perched in the edge of a construction site that will one day be Asia’s largest art complex, glimmers in the eerie darkness that is the unfinished West Kowloon Cultural District.
With a slightly faraway, albeit amiable look in his eyes, Young describes a host of emotions and thoughts he is experiencing as he puts together his latest piece, Songs for Disaster Relief, a return show that was originally staged last year at the Venice Biennale.
Laughing and chatting generously, Young says he’s excited and eager to get stuck into the technical side of setting up, but certainly isn’t free from the nerves that come in the run up to a big show. “Stress and anxiety is part of the job, but I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love what I do,” he says, his eyes darting around the room. “I love my gig.”
The exhibition is an incisive but playful critique of the charity single. It’s a cultural product that has, since its heyday in the late 1980s and early 90s, begun to feel like a rather awkward relic of a bygone era – a naïve time that coincided with the rise of neoliberalism and the global pop industry.
“This show is about failed aspirations, which is something I definitely think Hong Kong audiences will feel connected to, alongside hearing the pop music again,” says Young.
The piece has only been slightly changed from the version that represented Hong Kong last year in Venice. The changes include incorporating an extra song to the repertoire: a cover of Gather All Our Lights , which was released by RTHK in collaboration with Hong Kong government in the early 1990s, in a bid to reassure Hongkongers in the wake of Tiananmen.
Among the songs featured at the Venice Biennale is a video of Young singing a tune using his own translation that renders the Cantonese version into a list of numbers. The footage shows the back of Young’s head on a boat peering into what looks like the stormy seas around Hong Kong, which offers a rather disconcerting, albeit open-ended visage of where he thinks he is headed; the unknown, or else the abyss.
Other songs featured include Bob Geldof’s unforgettable earworm Do They Know It’s Christmas, written in 1984 to raise funds for famine victims in Ethiopia, and then brought back into the limelight with a star-studded remake in 2014, and Michael Jackson’s We Are The World. These songs will be as recognizable to Hong Kong audiences reared on Western pop ballads, which were often translated into Cantonese, as they would have been to the crowds in Venice.
By failed aspirations, Young is referring to how a there is something amiss with these songs and initiatives. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that they peddle a particularly Anglo-Saxon vision of the world in which big problems can be solved by quick-fix pop songs and lashings of goodwill by an anointed, well-heeled few.
That sense of unease permeates the exhibit, which, separated into distinct rooms, evoke disconcerting, multisensory reworking of these songs. One particularly evocative room features quirky, unappealing furniture from the 1970s, peculiar knick-knacks arranged to accompany Young’s renditions of the charity singles, which, with mouse-like squeaks, dissonant chords and off-putting timing, sound fabulously Lynchian.
The exhibition also features a Hong Kong choir whispering the lyrics of We Are the World, alongside a self-playing piano. It adds to the disorienting experience Young creates as he peels apart and offers a new soundscape for this mad world of musical, mistranslated mayhem. It’s an exhibition that both provides a parody of this odd, and rather wrong, cultural product, while allowing the audience a multisensory window into Young’s original sense of it.
Young unpacks his own ambivalence towards the songs and his sense that they are out of touch but not exactly morally deplorable. Another dimension to the work involves finding a space where one can both acknowledge that the endeavours are problematic while also recognizing the good intentions behind the gestures.
“I’m trying not to be cynical, and I’m trying to process [these impressions], and I’m trying to work through that ambivalence,” he says. “People always try to pick problems, and of course, these songs are super problematic, Eurocentric, but okay, people [were] trying to respond to an urgent situation. So, this is about how not to point fingers.”
With a background in music composition, Young crossed over into the world of installation and performance art after completing his PhD in music composition at Princeton University, bringing a playful, new media and interactive edge to pieces that incorporated implements of the modern-day everyman.
Earlier pieces have drawn on videogame soundscapes, iPhone technology and ringtones, as well as self-taught videography and references to pop and contemporary culture.
His fondness for videogames speaks to another one of Young’s big loves – gaming culture. Brought up in the era of the Atari console, he now enjoys spending his free time exploring old and new games, when he is not dipping into an Iris Murdoch novel or reading Chinese poetry. He is currently enjoying Zelda on Nintendo Switch, and speaks approvingly of the franchise’s history.
Over the years, Young has garnered acclaim for pieces that bring together disparate skill sets, perspectives and technologies. All are undergirded by a composer’s capacity to arouse sentiments and moods in the audience alongside an artist’s indefatigable search for answers to life’s big questions.
For Young, key ingredients to the creative process include a dollop of fun, alongside lashings of an intellectual maelstrom – the product of intense research, unending curiosity and a dogged compulsion to solve unanswered mysteries. And while that process is an organic one in which he can (and often does) get lost, it comes with a certain goal: to expose audiences to a certain emotional landscape that goes beyond verbal communication.
“My mind is messy, and sometimes it gets too messy,” he says. “I’m not sleek or organised in my work like some artists, and that’s okay. It’s complicated, and that can be confusing for the audiences, but that’s who I am. I lay my mind map out for audiences, but I don’t deliberately try to confuse them.”
Mind map is an apt word to describe Young’s multi-disciplinary works. His process involves grasping after answers to questions he comes across, peeling apart layers of received wisdom with the scrupulous diligence of an investigator, while embracing the lack of closure and the discomforts of ambivalence with the openness of an artist.
“With my art, I have a level of control in that I can make people feel, but what people do with that feeling I have a lot less control over,” he says.
And while he is an internationally recognised artist, Hong Kong very often takes front centre role in his work, a fact that he attributes to the city being very much woven into the fabric of who he is. That is because he was born here and returned with his family after growing up in Sydney. He talks of his relationship with Hong Kong as being both innate and impossible to rationalise, informing the texture in the work alongside the lens through which he experiences the city. It also informs some of his reading habits, a favourite poet of his being the rather gloomy but also witty Nicholas Wong.
“I tend to be an optimistic person, and while some artists here do feel paralyzed by [the current situation], I believe there’s still a lot more to be said and done,” he says. “Interesting times make for interesting art – and there has never been a better time to be an artist in Hong Kong than right now.” Among the reasons he cites include the increasing number of places in which artists can showcase their works, which have ballooned in the last decade, alongside increasing support for emerging and established artists.
Previous projects have involved exploring the auditory experiences of the borderlands between Hong Kong and mainland China, which involved hiking across the landscape with a recording device, making notations of the sounds he was exposed to over the two-year course of these explorations.
Other projects have involved scouring museum archives for stories pertaining to Stanley’s World War II history, alongside making a catalogue of recordings of Cantonese singers performing their own version of a famous Wagnerian chord. Many of his projects are interactive, sprawling and deal with slices of contemporary Hong Kong and global culture.
His latest piece continues along that line of inquiry by exploring totems of the popular culture and socio-politics in which we have been immersed, and it carries the same sense of open-ended inquiry that underpins his entire body of work.
But has the project given him a finite answer to his question of how to appraise the legacy of the charity single?
“I still don’t think I know,” he says. “But that’s okay. There’s no rush in knowing.”
Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour runs at Pavillon M+ from February 9 to May 6, 2018. For more information please visit here