Confusion, density, constant rush and consumerist temptation, craved and surrounded by branded ‘solutions’, our ability to ‘read’ / understand/ perceive the everyday world we live in is being challenged.  Our ‘fragmented’ lives are more and more deprived of any understandable context and we desperately look for the power to take control back. In an apparent ambivalent attitude, we therefore become insensitive while still in the dire need of more sense. Mirroring our society, the artist’s work is at the heart of this and we thought Hong Kong was one of the best ‘laboratory’ to show how art can be the eye we need. It’s not about changing the world, it’s about twisting our perception of it, with the aim of reshaping reality and infer a clearer perception of our environment.

Hong Kong Island is a huge city, submerged with noise, brash lights, bustling with people and overwhelmed with information. In this chaotic context, it is harder and harder to embrace reality in its entirety as it is getting more and more complex. Since the senses are constantly tempted, one loses one’s capacity to respond to the perpetual enticement of the environment and becomes more or less insensitive to it.

Many artists in Hong Kong are tackling this issue. Devising codes and translations, they try to offer alternative ways of seeing the world. You might think that artists always do so, indeed they do, but here they go so far as to resort to using logical and / or mathematical relations to convert one reality into another. The five Hong Kong based artists’ works presented hereafter have been developed as new visual languages and aim at reshaping reality to let it come back within the reach of everyone.

For his installation Phaeodaria (2008), Teddy Lo used the invisible frequencies and radiations that dominate our life, from GSM to Bluetooth, 3G to Wi-Fi signals, and connected them with Light-emitting diodes (LED). Each signal interacts with a colour or a degree of intensity of the light, giving life to this huge organic machine that embodies the underlying energy and wireless technology flowing through the heart of Hong Kong. The artist worked in collaboration with a programmer, a designer and a structure engineer to conceive the hardware of the work in order to make it as accurate as possible.

The shape of this information-based lighting installation has been inspired by a drawing of a marine bacterium. Teddy Lo, born in Hong Kong in 1974 used to go fishing with his dad and reminds us that Hong Kong was a fishing village before. Phaeodaria, in a sense, is thus a portrait of the island, considering the city from its unseen point of view. The work was first exhibited at the Macro Interactive Media Arts Exhibition held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and stayed for a long time as a public art at Hong Kong Science Park. The artist has been using LEDs as his medium for art since 2003 and keeps conducting research on LEDs, challenging the limits of technology. From creative video panel installations to interactive art, he wishes to create different contents to testify of today’s society.

Keith Lam, another New Media artist (b. 1980), is also looking for a new approach to reality, which would both reveal and express its invisible part. His language is based on motion and sound rather than focussing only on light but the artist is tracking the visualization of signals just as well. For Morphor Signal (2011), a 3 meters high robot, he devised a program connecting the public’s mobile phones to the movement of the machine, involving mechanical engineering such as gears, actuators and motors. Even when the phones are off there are signals emitting all over us that make the robots react. There are three kinetic sculptures, each with different sensitivity degree to the surrounding information level.  Keith Lam is not particularly critical of the spreading of digital information; rather, he wishes to underline its omnipresence as the mobile phones or laptops are becoming very familiar objects. The artist explores the complex relationships between human and urban surroundings: developing the understanding of the new reality of cities enables people to adapt better to such environment.

His studio looks like a lab and, as he said, the artist cannot work alone anymore. He needs the help of scientists, engineers and technicians even though he himself has a master degree in engineering. All together they search for a new way of grabbing reality, redesigning “the real” so that it regains some meaning for the ordinary people.

If pixels, digital data or wireless frequencies were the base for today’s society’s language, we would need to transform reality in order to conform it to our new way of perception.

This is why Florian Ma is rereading the Masterpieces in painting, trying to find the accurate form they should conform with. With his method called op-scape from op-art and landscape, his Mona Lisa is all but lines after getting through his computer program. This series of works are actually 5-minute moving images stemming from computerized manipulations and leading to very abstract and regular flickering lines. The artist, born in HK, received the “LVMH Young Creative Artists Award” in 2009 for his video work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon that shows dark to pale brown vertical lines fading to pastel blue. Like Picasso for Cubism, he proposes a reinterpretation of the visual world, widening our possibilities thanks to the filter he invented.

As with Teddy Lo and Keith Lam, we are dealing here with a real language as the process operates through a system which does not leave anything to chance. Just like language, it allows repetitions as well as a teaching method. However, these languages are arbitrary and the artists specify each time the meaning to be assigned to particular signals or sequences, creating original methods for synchronization and representation.

In some case, this accuracy can allow the audience to decode the language in order to trace back its original shape. For example in Beethoven Piano Sonata (2010) by Samson Young, one could recognize the number 14, Moonlight Sonata, supposing one could follow its rhythm on the panel. The work represents a conversion from the 14th first sonatas, the ones that Samson Young actually studied, into a light and sound installation consisting of 47 open style broadband circuits marking the tempo of the movements from Beethoven’s work. The multimedia artist (b. 1979), whose formal training is classical music and composition, is going under a “detox” process from its background, searches at putting music out of its frame and finding a unity between sound, arts and music. His work is neither chaotic not provocative: he likes keeping a sense of harmony and is obsessed with lines and beauty. More than a reinterpretation of Beethoven’s work, the artist aims at hypnotizing the public with the frenetic movements of lights, forcing its brain to let go. In opposition to the rigidity of institutions and weight of classical history, Samson Young brings out some reckless energy and freshness, trying to democratize music so that everyone can enjoy it.

In a very different field, sculptor Sunny Wang is also playing with language and translation. In Poetic Stones (2011), she converted a Buddhist poem into a very original glass sculptures installation. Born in Taiwan in 1972 the artist is currently completing a PhD in Hong Kong on the theme of “Be/coming”. Looking for happiness but also for a harmonious way to cohabit with reality, her glass sculptures embodies her will to find a universal language able to comprehend everything and yet remaining open for freedom of thought. Based on the tones of the Chinese characters and on the rhythm of the old poem Ten Ox Herding Pictures, her installation consists of 28 stones-like sculptures in glass arranged in a methodic pattern of four lines and seven pieces, and displayed on the floor. The stones are marked with a calligraphic line “–” for the level/flat Chinese tone and a circle “○” for the oblique one. Therefore while walking all around the installation one can read this:


The poem relates the search for enlightenment of an ox herdsman and so is Sunny Wang searching through her practice. In an attitude close to Zen philosophy, she connects the gesture of the calligrapher to the one of a glass blower, as both capture the instant in a spiritual experience.

Through these five pieces of work we can see Hong Kong artists invent new languages to apprehend reality from new perspectives. Their practice is very concrete and connected to daily life. They do not wish to transcend the real but, on the contrary, they are searching methodically practical responses to their new environment, shedding light on the invisible sides of reality and actualizing their culture, for people to feel better in the world they are living in.

Caroline Ha Thuc.
Hong Kong – August 2012.

pictures credits:
1.   Teddy Lo. Phaeodaria, 2006. Courtesy of I/O Input / Output gallery.
2.   Keith Lam. Morphor Signal, 2011.
3.   Keith Lam. Morphor Signal (detail), 2011.
4.   Florian Ma. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 10mins loop, Full HD LED TV, BluRay Disc, 2009.
5.   Florian Ma. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 10mins loop, Full HD LED TV, BluRay Disc, 2009.
6.   Florian Ma. Creation of Adam from Michelangelo’s Fresco Sistine Chapel, 2009.
7.   Samson Young. Beethoven Piano Sonata, no. 1 – no. 14 (senza misura), 2010.
8.   Samson Young. Beethoven Piano Sonata, no. 1 – no. 14 (senza misura), 2010.
9.   Samson Young. Beethoven Piano Sonata, no. 1 – no. 14 (senza misura), 2010.
10. Sunny Wang. Poetic Stone, 2011. Courtesy of Koru contemporary gallery.
11. Sunny Wang. Poetic Stone, 2011. Courtesy of Koru contemporary gallery.