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Young's People Perspective: A Review of 'Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour'

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Young's People Perspective: A Review of 'Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour'
Installation view of Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour, M+ Pavilion, 2018

Every odd-numbered year, the city of Venice, Italy, lends its slower and more serene pace to the usually urgent discussions on global politics at the Venice Biennale.

In its earliest renditions prior to WWI, the biennale had only 7 national pavilions. But today it enjoys strong participation from across the globe and an elevated importance amongst the plenty biennials, triennials and other ‘–ennials’ that have mushroomed across the world in the recent decade.

An evening in Venice, 2017

The most recent 57th International Art Exhibition in 2017 saw representations from Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Japan, Republic of Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong who each showcased works to a global audience at their national pavilions. It is a rather Olympian affair, except all the noise is made in private events rather than in vast open stadiums.

With the premise that a Venice Biennale work has an inherent political nuance attached to it, it is notable that Hong Kong has been participating since 2001 and in 2017 presented her 9th edition. Keeping in mind these political undertones, works presented in the designated spaces either inadvertently or advertently become a broaching of political issues each country is happy to raise, albeit more in the form of a monologue than a discussion.

Samson Young’s Songs for Disaster Relief was a bold choice for the Hong Kong pavilion in 2017.

Young’s works were exhibited from May till November last year. This work is an examination of the charity singles that were incredibly popular in Hong Kong in the 1980s at a time when the region was exploring a newfound appetite for neo-liberal ideas. To ensure that the Hong Kong audience has the opportunity to appreciate Young’s work, M+ and Hong Kong Arts Development Council have collaborated to create the Hong Kong version of the same exhibition, titled Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour.

Installation view of Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth- maker who fell to earth), 2017, Silk-screen print on vinyl cover, felt tip pen on vinyl records, 3D- printed nylon, vitrine of found objects, movable curtain system, neon, video, animation and 10-channel sound installation. Courtesy of the Artist. 

The installation that took the lion’s share of my visit duration is Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth- maker who fell to earth) (2017). This is a room with two monitor screens and a video projection on a plush velvet curtain. The curtain (or rather curtains) are looped around the center of the room walls, rotating slowly and embroidered with lyrics from the charity single that is one of the audio components here. There are also multi-media objects and fresh flowers on a coffee table, so if you are sitting in any part of the room all your senses save for your palate are engaged in the experience. In other words, it is a lot to take in.

Palazzo Gundane is a visual feast, from the textures of the materials to the imagery to the feature’s calculated movements. The video projection on the curtain shows footage of a real man, while the two monitors have distorted and avant-garde animation playing on loop.

Viewers in the 1980s might have missed the sinister nature of displays of power through charity singles, but here it is simply undeniable if you watch the entire footage performed and sung by Michael Schiefel. When Schiefel whispers ‘do they know its Christmas at all’ a feeling of unrest and dread about the undoable nature of the past – the same past that has shaped our present - can creep up upon the viewer and remain there.

Young is cynical and skeptic, but his works show that these emotions come from having critical awareness of the messages constantly being delivered to us. Whether the messages are from an authority figure, from a collective or from a combination of both, there is a constant slew of them. How capable are we as individuals, especially in an era of fake news, to receive these messages and remain objective when processing them?

Video stills of Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth-maker who fell to earth), 2017
Video and 10-channels sound installation. Courtesy of the artist.

A first message informs how we receive a second, and the two combined inform how we receive a third. With this continued aggregation of ideas, a thought pattern develops so rapidly that conscious effort is required to step back and review it. Young shows an ability to explore the forces beneath those messages via his treatment of charity singles. This ability cannot be undervalued for current and future generations of young people (and for my own generation) especially.  

The version at the M+ Pavilion is for the Hong Kong audience, and therefore informed by what they have gone through. While in Venice it is convenient to focus on those that preached the messages of charity, in Hong Kong it becomes about those that accepted and welcomed that message, popularising it in a way that theoretically must have (as least in part) been the intention of the performers seeking to raise funds for disaster relief. For the needy children, am I right?

We Are the World, as performed by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir, 2017, Video and 8-channel sound installation. Courtesy of the Artist.

The next room is where you find the work We Are the World, as performed by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir
(2017). The footage is from an actual performance, and the audio is manipulated such that one only hears ‘silent screams’. It is exactly as eery as the phrase implies, but also almost humorous when combined with the perceived sincerity, naiveté and intentness of the choir member’s faces. This naiveteé unfortunately manifests itself as a superiority complex in the confidence of the singers.

The individuals are real and relatable and the manipulated sound has the ability to make you believe you are witnessing an internal moment rather than the one happening on stage.

What are the forces that shaped them to be this way, and to what extent is that still true of our current collective? Similarly to the above discussed Palazzo Gundane, this work We Are The World… becomes especially relevant as a trigger for self-reflection.

Watching the choir perform is an immersive experience – a phrase that is thrown around in the art world a lot more now with developments in audio-visual technology but Samson Young does it very crisply.

Installation view of Lullaby (World Music), 2017, 
Video, stainless steel, soundtrack 

It is in the final room that you get a glimpse into the importance of research in Young’s work, and his education in music in a technical and classical sense.

I started off making a comparison to a Western audio-visual artist with a strong market presence, but after experiencing the works in this room I resisted this habit because it is difficult to pigeonhole Young’s very multidisciplinary work. Rather than one insightful survey, guest curator Ying Kwok has assembled a tessellation of insights that come together in a single body of works designed for a particular cultural audience.

I doubt this is still controversial to say: I feel simultaneously stimulated and starved for creativity while living in Singapore…as if it is always my birthday but I am only allowed a morsel of cake at stipulated hours decided by an automated process. A visit to Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour offers respite from that feeling. It is a very exciting thing to witness this level of originality, intention and critical theory from a contemporary artist close to home.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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