The Art We Breathe: Elaine Yan Ling Ng’s Nexus Air Quality Installation at Art Basel Hong Kong

Air quality data is undeniably useful, but Hong Kong-based textile artist and weaver Elaine Yan Ling Ng thinks it can also be beautiful — and inspirational — when combined with textiles.

In an intriguing new installation specially created for the UBS VIP Lounge at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, Ng ably demonstrates this viewpoint through “Nexus,” a compelling trio of interactive textile and 3D printed organic forms. Visitors can select information on air quality collected from 71 different cities in 14 different countries between 2016 and 2018 using an easy-to-use digital interface to activate the visual performance of a virtual cloud that flows through the textile-clad curvaceous sculptures.

“Of course, numbers are very important, but when they take the form of texture, colour, light intensity and velocity they become even more meaningful to people because then we can focus on — and visualise — their impact,” says Ng. Even more importantly for the designer, Nexus also creates an interactive personal contact between the sculptures’ digital connectivity and viewers through multiple senses including sight and touch.

Ng, who studied at Central St. Martins before establishing an independent studio in Hong Kong in 2014, has a growing portfolio of works where she combines interactivity with textiles, programming, technology, and craft. Much of her work features kinetic sculptures that appear to be alive, such as “Sundew,” a collection of three jellyfish-shaped robotic and textile structures presented at Art Central 2016 and which gathered data as sound made by the fair visiting audience to mimic the movements of a carnivorous plant. In “Sensus,” surreal forms inspired by bioluminescent sea-worms responded to the presence of visitors in a dance-like movement when the installation was unveiled at Milan’s Triennale in an exhibition with the Hong Kong Design Centre in 2017.

The following year, another project by Ng, “The Conversation,” caught the eye of UBS curators. Ng says she was intrigued to discover that the Swiss bank was looking for new, creative ways to present information on a wide range of issues, including the environment, which its own Evidence Lab had collected and analysed. The information is then shared with the bank’s clients.

The conceptualisation stage with paper models

The idea of sharing air quality data with the wider public especially appealed to Ng, because it raises important questions about how and why changes in air quality affect a wide range of human activities. She admits that initially the sheer quantity of the original data she received from UBS was overwhelming. “It is difficult to relate immediately to how it is relevant to human activity and global lifestyles when faced with an Excel file.”

Ng decided that her sculptures should bridge this gap, allowing visitors to perceive the information in a more poetic way, making it easier to understand. “The greatest challenge was to translate something very complicated into something visual, clarifying all the layers of date, time, country, city, highs and lows, into colour differentiation and movement,” she says. “The more we try to simplify our presentation so that people can create their own interactive experience, the more complicated it becomes.”

Original sketch on Jacquard paper and potential yarns

Wanting to devise a beguiling form that would encourage visitors to interact with the information, Ng turned to nature, inspired by tree trunks and simulating how communication of trees in a forest works through roots and mycelium. “Nexus,” originally derived from the Latin word nectere — the act of binding together — reflects according to Ng the connection, connectivity, transfer of information between the three pieces within the family, with one kinetic piece acting as the queen.

If nature inspired the form, technology was at the forefront when it came to the making and operation of the three sculptures. Ng used 3D-printing technology to laser-cut the core metal structure of the kinetic components. Mechanical elements were digitally programmed and the textiles digitally designed, then hand woven on a TC2 Digital Jacquard loom.

The high-tech weaving machine is made in Norway and Ng recalls her excitement even when it arrived flat-packed and she realised that she had to put it together herself before learning how to operate the new program. This and the studio’s in-house hand and semi-digital looms mean that her team can micro-produce a wide range of different grades of textiles for projects, and are invaluable for custom-design projects such as “Nexus.”


Elaine sitting in front of a computer, preparing the files for digital weaving.

The textiles, which include a detailed Jacquard paper and a metal weave, were nevertheless very labour intensive and took over 500 hours of weaving, not counting the mechanical engineering and programming. “We wove over 80,000 picks, which means we moved the shuttle back and forth across the loom more than 80,000 times in order to create those particular textiles,” says Ng.

As environmental considerations are at the core of the project, Ng decided to use natural materials such as paper pulp and metals refined from natural minerals. The 3D pieces were all composed by hand and then pieced together, a process that Ng says reflects how the UBS Evidence Lab mines data sets using AI technology, yet still requires an analyst to explain how the information can help clients improve their lifestyles or invest in a smarter way.

“This human relationship and tactility cannot be replaced by robots,” she says. “There should be a beautifully balanced relationship between humans and technology. We complement each other’s potential when, for example, CNC creates a much higher quality material in a much shorter period of time, which enables us to prototype designs much faster.”

Ng sees this marriage of the digital and handmade as possible only by taking a cross-disciplinary approach to software in terms of programming and making, and hardware in terms of 3D printing, liquid to solid, and playing with how soft textiles can become a hard material. “We are also very proud of having developed a way to work with Photoshop to create the specific artwork that works with the digital loom.”


In just four weeks the team developed the concept, came up with the design and generated the first 3D sketches, using advanced technology to produce detailed prototyping. “During this process of collaboration with UBS, because of our very different backgrounds, even the words we used to refer to the research process and analysis did not have the same meaning,” she says. “I felt it was very interesting how, even when the same word and description were being used, our approach was entirely different.”

Particular care was given to the design of the interface between sculptures and audience, so that visitors intuitively grasp the reasoning behind the project. Clear instructions show viewers how to interact with the data on the screen to design their own virtual clouds and understand the results of the kinetic movements. Lighter colours correspond to better air quality while darker colours represent poorer air quality. Simple infographics minimise confusion.

Ng believes that requiring the audience to actively create a command instead of using a sensor to record their movements helps highlight that the data is real. “The audience can actually read the different levels of pollution over the past two years in details, from 2016 to 2018, before creating their own comparative study on the monitor, which is then sent out to the sculpture and can be seen in a 3D form,” she explains.

Art Basel will be the first time this work is seen in three parts. Modular elements of the installation were previously presented at the Greater China Conference in Shanghai last January and featured at Taipei Dangdai, a new international art fair in the Taiwanese capital. The complete family will appear in the UBS Lounge at Art Basel Hong Kong. Ng sees this current installation as a family because the pieces interact with each other. For this she feels it is important for all three pieces to share a common language, similar curves, and how the information is read.

It also means that the audience is able to compare two data sets from two different countries together. The visual comparison of the two countries’ data sets will then command the mother, a kinetic piece that was made in Hong Kong.


Nexus family is in action assembling air quality pixel into a virtual cloud pattern

Ng sees the process as a journey. “The moment people start clicking with the kiosk, they start engaging with the information,” she says. “The performance of the sculpture is almost a process helping to digest this information while they are looking at the screen and understanding how the data is turning to pixels, and how the pixels are turning to particles to create their own light show.” She says the imprint she wants to leave “is not just about the playfulness, but also the experience and the information they can take away from the kiosk.”

She hopes the installation’s greatest achievement is to make people think about the relationship between human activity and global air quality. “There are limited resources around the world so we need to ask ourselves how we can really act upon them,” she says. “I want to create a holistic spatial experience for visitors through data visualisation, to improve awareness and also to open up dialogues so we can understand and therefore discuss these very serious matters in a more open manner.”

Nexus is on display at the UBS VIP Lounge in Art Basel Hong Kong from 27 to 31 March 2019. Click here for more information.

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