A site-specific project by Kingsley Ng and Stephanie Cheung.
By Tessa Moldan.
Standing in the dark belly of Hong Kong’s oldest floodwater storage tank is without doubt one of the more powerful ways in which to contemplate the impact of rapid development on the city. Such was the experience granted by Kingsley Ng’s site-specific project after the deluge (January 1–31, 2018) in Sham Shui Po, which provided viewers with an all-encompassing experience consisting of undulating fabrics weaved through the tank’s pillars, illuminated against the dark with UV light and set to a minimal soundscape created by Angus Lee. The multi-disciplinary performance called attention to the monumental nature of the tank, which was inaugurated in 2004 as a means of coping with severe flooding in the area as a result of land reclamation. Although it bears Ng’s name, this was a collaborative project, curated by Stephanie Cheung, involving disparate elements coming together as a vast, layered experience that reminds viewers of their scale against the great forces of nature and the passage of time. Wearing headsets that emitted ambient soundscapes, groups of visitors were led along the side of the nearby Tai Hang Tung Recreation Ground and over to the entrance of the storage tank, removing the headsets before entering. Cheung also created poetic writings for the work, which were inscribed along the wall on the way into the tank, acting as a reminder of after the deluge’s local context.
Artomity: How has this project been received by the public?
Kingsley Ng: Many of our previous projects have been built for a smaller audience, so this has been new. We were not expecting many people to be interested and come, and we thought that a lot of people would come just to see the tank itself. We were completely shocked and surprised how many people wanted to come and see it.
In a way it serves as a memory container, because it recalls a time before its inception in 2004, when the area suffered from intervals of severe flooding. Has the work received a response from the older generation?
Stephanie Cheung: Before it opened we did some interviews with locals, which provided us with some stories to share about the local setting. There was one that was particularly profound, of an old gentleman who used to pass by the sewer every day and said that he regularly saw the bodies of unwanted babies that had been abandoned floating in it. A sewer is something that is usually buried underground but has so much to say about what the city has witnessed or gone through. And after we opened and had people coming through, there was this old lady who came here several times and tried to walk in, but the tours were all full. But then on the third time she managed to join the tour and we learned that she was coming because her daughter used to go to kindergarten right by where the tank is now, and when the old lady was younger she would carry her daughter on her back when there were floods. So it’s a part of their memory. I think what’s most touching about this is that these are people who don’t usually go to art
exhibitions; they do not have that vocabulary. So they are not really talking with you about the concepts or the art work, but about their lives. To me this kind of conversation is one of the things that our art can trigger.
There is a universal visual vocabulary in this work, particularly in relation to ephemerality and transience, as in the fabric’s simulation of water. How does this notion of ephemerality tie in to the context of Hong Kong as a whole?
Kingsley: Well, this is very much like any big city. Many big cities start up as small villages, then a lot of people come and an identity is built through time. Obviously Hong Kong is such a place. This transience is a part of everyday life. We want people to consider themselves as drops of water and to see their surroundings as if that’s what they were. We constantly try to imagine: if we were drops of water, we would have been here through all these times and have witnessed the great fire that happened in 1954, and gone through this drainage in the 1990s and then into the tank and back into the sea. Very quickly you can see how one’s self-perception in relation to the rest of the world can be changed through this kind of hypothesis. We don’t want to dictate a way of viewing, but the hope is to show how we can open our senses. Our wish is that everyone’s consciousness and senses can be expanded, and things seen from more than one perspective.
Stephanie: Regarding transience, I was thinking about the Chinese and maybe the Buddhist idea of wu chang, which is that things are always in a state of flux and nothing is certain. In a way it’s like what Kingsley said about ever-changing perspectives: sometimes what you see and where you stand change over time. So to me the idea of flow and how things are never in a constant disposition is a very important part of how we conceptualise the work, in terms of how it is experienced as a flowing journey, along with the fabric, the headsets and the music, which create this kind of envelope but then also open the senses to the surroundings.
There is an interesting interplay between this notion of flux and transience, and that of solidity, in that you are standing in an immense concrete tank but observing
something extremely light and fluid. How did you configure your use of the space? Did the space dictate how you used it, or did it change along the way?
Kingsley: Well, regarding the fabric, there were quite a lot of safety considerations. For example where we have our audience standing had to be very close to the exit, also because the work requires ventilation.
Stephanie: With regards to the sound walk, there were a few practical measures that we had to take into account, such as we couldn’t walk across a nearby football pitch. But in the process there has also been a lot of freedom of
discovery. Initially we thought about walking around the other side of the pitch so that you could hear the sound of the electricity from overhead wires, but the walk would have been too long. So that practical decision sent us to the other side of the pitch, along a road, above where the old sewer used to be and where a petrol station is now. I remember one day when we were doing a site visit we were walking along that way and you could smell the petroleum from the station, and then right after you could smell the grass on the pitch, which was such a contrast. It was a whole process of being aware of the place and also re-examining the space and bringing it into another language. Angus did an excellent job of emphasising these elements through the minimal music.
There is also a literary dimension to the work, both in the title, which in Chinese is a reference to the ancient Chinese ruler Yu the Great, known for his introduction of flood control, and in the poetic writings that form part of the work. How do you see the latter contributing to the overall experience?
Stephanie: I must apologise first because for a non-Chinese reader, you really are reading a different text.
How does it differ?
Stephanie: Mostly in terms of the reader’s experience – we didn’t want to make it too wordy – but also the way it was conceptualised. I quite like circular poetry, and the poem is something for you not to read but to walk, so it ties in to the walking experience. And of course people come in at different times so we have to show it as a loop. It’s the first time we have done a literary loop and it’s so difficult because of the linear nature of language. For me, this is a new way of thinking about language. I really like Jorge Louis Borges, and it’s kind of like The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) – how logic is not linear, how one thing leads to another and how you can’t really figure out the beginning or the end. So, if you read Chinese, the stanzas are just flowing, and I tried to create this loop where it can begin or end anywhere so it also parallels the cycle of water, the state of flux and the indefinite nature of things. And the poem’s content is deliberately abstract and minimal. We are very interested in Borges’ idea of introverted storytelling. Borges believed there are two methods of storytelling, the introverted and the extroverted, and the introverted category is more needed in society. To him, it’s a kind of writing about mysteries that are not resolved, with protagonists who are survivors and not performers.
So the story is written in that way: it evokes more than it tells, and the references include the poetics of the geography, scenes of flooding, human stories of flooding, urban development and also there’s this allusion to the myth of Yu the Great, as well as stories we heard from the Drainage Services Department engineers. In Cantonese we call them sok sok, which is a very affectionate way to address an older man. All of those sok sok have had to work very hard in that stinky tank. A memorable tale that I put in
the text is that they came across a mattress inside the tank, and the hypothesis was
homeless people had placed their belongings there at the entrance of the tanks, and when there was a flood everything would vanish. So to me that bed says so much about what the city is going through in a very extreme situation. At the point when you enter the tank there’s a line that says, “At the end of the pier it takes a leap”, which is reference to something we heard in an interview with an engineer. All these engineers talk a lot about numbers; whenever you ask them about their feelings, very quickly they change the subject. So I invited them to be a little more imaginative. I asked them to imagine if they were a drop of water, how would they find their journey in the tank? And immediately one responded that when he jumped off the pier, it would be the greatest moment. I asked him why and he said, “Because it’s the time that I can be free, finally”. So there is this layer of how people think we can control land, and how we appreciate the rule of nature. It’s almost like an unattainable desire for freedom. All these layers are compressed in this text.
Are there any particular environmental issues related to Hong Kong that you are thinking about tackling in future works?
Stephanie: Our next project is in Chuen Lung Village, a 400-year-old village on the slopes of Tai Mo Shan, which is still vibrant, unlike most old villages in Hong Kong. Artists are going to be presenting works in a deserted village school, and Kingsley is one of them. There are a lot of issues that came up about us as urban people going to this village; for me that experience is how we will learn about our relationship with the land as a way of life.
Kingsley: We’re still thinking about it, but we thought since in this project we don’t allow anyone under the age of 12 to enter, we should compensate, so the coming project should just be for children. And of course the context would be this abandoned primary school. It’s also a kind of roaming experience, for the children to go and touch the earth and walk outside. It will be about the time and space between Chuen Lung (川龍), the village in Hong Kong, and Longchuan (龍川), the area of the northeastern Guangdong
province where the ancestors of the villagers came from 500 years ago.