Clutching a hard hat, new media artist Kingsley Ng stands in a vast, echoing underground chamber of water, staring into the abyss with the same contemplative and calming presence that reverberates through his site-specific, often monumental and interactive art.
Ng is putting the finishing touches on his latest installation, a piece that lies deep in the city’s cavernous Tai Hang Tung drainage tank in Sham Shui Po. It’s a multi-sensory work that draws from the history of the space, Hong Kong’s relationship with rainfall (and the increasing excess of it) alongside the wider issue of climate change.
That the space feels like a cathedral, despite its faintly stale, putrid smell, has certainly not eluded Ng’s attentions: he is an artist who has long possessed a sensitivity to and reverence for the aura of spaces and how one might work with or manipulate them to serve a wider good. This is the latest in a series of monumental installation pieces made by Ng, who despite his rather self-effacing, introverted sensibility has become of the city’s most important, influential and internationally recognised artists.
Often working in large scale on pieces designed invoke a greater sense of connection among members of the audience to each other, their community and the space they occupy, among his previous works tailored specifically for Hong Kong was last year’s Art Basel installation: 25 Minutes Later. This piece involved thoughtfully turning a tram into a moving camera obscura. His pieces often strive to connect citizens to aspects of their increasingly hidden past in an elegant, minimalist way – juxtaposing the enduring with contemporary societal phenomena.
“I think of art as urban acupuncture,” he says quietly. “It’s like putting a needle into the city, activating different channels and connecting people. I want to enhance the energy and dispel blockages.” This project is a testament to that aim, it encourages viewers to come together and contemplate what is special and significant about their city.
Ever soft-spoken and slightly circumspect to start with, talking to Ng often feels like entering a room of rare books. One is uncertain of what esoteric piece of history, poetry or philosophy one might discover, what singular connections might be realised, and what piece of his own backstory might be drawn on to elucidate his ideas. But one can expect that each evocative nugget of information will function its own, self-contained way as means of understanding what Ng hopes to bring to this world through his art.
His verbal architecture, the way he brings together disparate ideas to serve a clear, explanatory function, is also reflected in his art-making practice, which is all about orchestrating carefully-controlled experiences through the use of a variety of props that aim to affect open-ended inquiry in the audience.
“It’s true that art making is often now less and less about a solitary figure alone in his studio,” says Ng, who sees his function as an artist as serving as a “mediating figure,” building bridges between disparate skill sets, fields and ideologies, playing a directing role much like that of a film maker.
After the Deluge connects the theme of water with that of time and space, in an abstract, sensual way that includes a minimalist soundscape. Ng installs a series of floating azure blue gauzes across a space so cavernous it can contain enough water to fill forty Olympic-sized swimming pools. The piece follows on from an installation put together by Ng in Adelaide that also explores the symbolism and significance of water in the contemporary context of increasing extreme weather – Adelaide being the driest major city in Australia, a country already wracked by drought in many areas.
On the other end of the extreme weather spectrum lies Hong Kong, battered by increasingly ferocious typhoons, like Hato, which this year devastated neighbouring city Macau. In the 1990s, before the water tank was built, summer’s tempestuous months saw Kowloon besieged by so much rainfall, the streets would turn into rivers. “People kept blaming each other for that,” said Ng, describing how scientific research revealed the problem might be fixed with a huge underground tank.
The tank now functions as a huge container allowing rainfall to pass seamlessly into the ocean. During the winter months it lies empty and unused, an untapped space Ng convinced the Drainage Services Department to let him use.
“In Hong Kong, there are so many people, so little land,” he says. “This project is about being more imaginative with the use of land, and its value is about reminding people that things can happen in this city. It reflects a ‘can do’ attitude we often think is lacking,” he says, adding that the theme of urban regeneration often rears its head in his works.
Ng began looking into using a drainage space a year and a half ago, in part as a way of investigating unconventional sites in city that his hamstrung by its lack of space – and where finding sites for the monumental installations aren’t all that easy.
While Happy Valley also contains a drainage usage of a similar size, Ng was particularly interested in Tai Hang Tung as it also carries an extra historical layer: in 1954, a fire broke out in a shantytown on the site where the tank now sits, one of many fires that devastated the city’s poorest communities before Hong Kong launched its public housing scheme.
Connecting Ng’s piece to various times in history offers viewer a more macroscopic vantage point of the site and its history. It also encourages the viewer to look more kindly on those handling the city’s infrastructure, in a way that Ng says pays homage to the city’s unsung heroes. “Nobody says thank you to the drainage department – they only get complaint letters,” he says.
As a figure in Hong Kong’s art world, Ng is a prominent one, but he certainly isn’t known for having an adversarial streak. “There are many kinds of artists,” he says. “The kind of storytelling I want to do is a soft approach. I think there is power in that,” he says, pulling out a little book with a quote from art critic John Berger that describes two kinds of storytellers: “Those that treat of the invisible and hidden, and those that expose and offer the revealed.”
Ng belongs very much to the former, “introverted” category that is more embracing of uncertainty and nuance, with a greater tendency to see the world through a broad lens. “Shining a light on the day to day existence and [fostering] this idea of coexistence that can happen, I see that as a very important part of my work,” says Ng.
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