A multimedia artist and designer, Ng Tsz-kwan (b.1972) proposes various and reflexive modes of artistic experience based on a poetics of language that unfolds at the borderline of performance. Ng graduated from The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and later earned his master’s at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. In 2006, he co-founded multimedia design company Yucolab. His artistic practice draws from these experiences yet also departs from them. It mainly develops in two experimental directions: immersive, multisensory installations and space-oriented installations based on decontextualised, fragmented moving images. For Ng, “What we see is how we see”. His installations often question and explore the medium of the cinema and the relationships that the audience entertains with moving images in order to open up the space between them. Recently, he created an automated mobile chair that travels along a railway track within the exhibition space, a way for viewers to encounter his works while in motion, on a journey he controls. He disengages from narratives and linear modes of thinking in favour of open-ended experiences that trigger and nurture imagination.
Caroline Ha Thuc: Solitude is one of your most important series of work. It provides a very original cinematographic experience, in which an automated moving chair navigates between the works so the viewer sees the installations from specific angles and distances and for specific durations. How did you come up with such a device?
Ng Tsz-kwan: I began my art journey as a painter yet quickly I tried to include 3D and time on the canvas: I used to project small images in the corners of my paintings to give them depth and to add a temporal dimension. I realised that these projections changed my relationships with the images I projected; according to the medium and the frames that I used, the perception and meaning of the images changed. This is perhaps the point of departure for my later research on screens and the cinema, and on how modes of viewing impact the audience’s experience. When you watch a movie on the tiny screens of a plane, on your mobile phone or in a movie theatre, the physical distance from the screen is often optimised.
However, what if you sit far from the screen or very close? I started my experiences with very small screens that I displayed very far from the viewer; all you could see were vague images, and you could only guess what was happening on the monitor. I was wondering if such an apparatus would trigger the audience’s curiosity.
CHT: Did it work? Did you notice any changes in viewers’ perception and understanding of moving images?
NTK: I am not so sure yet and it takes time; I am still testing different modes of viewing. When I first implemented my moving chair device, I realised that some settings did not work. It was in 2018 for Solitude 1 at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre. The viewer was sitting on the chair, which stopped seven times along the journey. At that time, I worked with old Hong Kong movie footage, displayed variously on different supports and projected in different sizes. In the last part, entitled Ending that Never Ends, I juxtaposed many screens featuring the last scenes of these movies, which are all happy endings. I wanted to play with this idea: since there was no narrative in the experience of cinema I proposed, what could a happy ending mean? The projections were huge and offered an immersive experience within this “happiness”, yet it seems that the audience took it literally and did not understand that I was challenging their habits of watching movies and their usual expectations.
CHT: You leave the audience alone in front of the works, hence the title. Where does this idea come from?
NTK: I noticed that in Hong Kong people do not go to the movies alone and seldom watch a movie at home on their own. I like being alone and I am a bit claustrophobic so I had this idea of a singular experience of cinema, in which I would have the space just for myself.
CHT: Paradoxically, as viewers, we are left alone but we are not free to wander among the installation since you are controlling our viewing experience. By strengthening these constraints, are you emphasising the gaps that inevitably separate spectators from moving images?
NTK: I actually did not think too much about this issue of freedom before the recent Hong Kong protests. Since then, all works related to any kind of surveillance and control can be interpreted politically, but this was not my intent. When you see a movie in a theatre, you are in fact trapped for at least two hours: you cannot stand up, pause or walk around. You cannot zoom in and zoom out. When you sit in my automated moving chair, it is true that you have no choice but to look at the works the way I envision it. However, under these constraints, you may discover another relationship with moving images that brings another form of freedom.
CHT: After Solitude 1, you did not use movie footage any more but your own images. Why?
NTK: After testing the vocabulary of this setting, I wanted to create my own sentences and own sceneries, so I began shooting the images myself. For Solitude 2, the work had to dialogue with another installation by Japanese artist Tsuda Michiko which pertained to flight travel, and I shot some images in two MTR stations: Prince Edward and Tuen Mun. In Hong Kong, we were in the middle of the protests and it was difficult to think of something else: these two stations were important sites of the movement, yet I did not wish to refer directly to the street violence. I chose to shoot the exact moment when the stations were closing, when the gates are closed but when the lights are still on. I was interested in that moment of transition. For me, the monitors’ screens become like windows, as if someone were peeping outside: the images constantly zoomed in and out to express these movements.
CHT: For Solitude 3 (2020) at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the first stop of the journey was titled The End of the Road, which I found rather amusing, if not totally cynical. Because of the moving chair, we inevitably create connections between all the discontinued and isolated elements of the installation, as if we were following the wanderings of our own minds, including the gaps and confusions. How did you conceive this journey that started from the end?
NTK: There is no linearity, no narrative. This road refers to a road near my place, and I liked the idea of beginning with a small corridor made from projected images. Although they might look like various works, they function as a whole and the different parts cannot be separated. The visual experience that I propose is fragmented yet all the images are somehow connected, and I hope that they can form a consistent set. At first, I tried to respond to the specificities of the site, and this is why I decided to include a moon on the large wall that is above the balcony railing. I do not like so much relying on intuition, yet this is how I started. For example, the small dark room triggered my desire to lighten everything up and this is why I created a fire room, with images of a fire burning. I worked from these initial intuitions to create the different sets that probably reflect my psychological state.
CHT: In the middle of the space, there are old-fashioned monitors with small screens featuring images of Buddhist statues. They look marginalised because they cannot be reached by the moving chair.
NTK: Yes, you need to walk back into the space to see them. I felt there could be no time limit to meet these gods. I did some research about Chinese stories pertaining to gods: if you are one of them, you must have a duty. For example, the god of the kitchen protects the food, and the goddess of the sea protects fishermen. However, when they are abandoned, they lose these duties and somehow become free. I was wondering what they could do with such freedom and imagining how they might hang out. In the Chinese language there is even a term for that: 散仙.
CHT: One could say that you are more interested in the language of the cinema when it is deprived of its communication and narrative features. Is it the texture of images that interests you the most, or perhaps their imaginative potential?
NTK: I try to stay away from any forms of narrative in order to explore different modes of language. In literature, American writer Raymond Carver does that very well: his fragmented pieces are usually uncompleted, but they are very strong and remain with you for a long time. In my installations, I feel fine if people just catch some impressions and leave with a feeling of frustration.
CHT: Is this poetics of language that you are exploring the very antithesis of what you are doing as a designer with Yucolab, your commercial company
NTK: Sure, I guess I am reacting to my commercial work too. When you design advertisements, you need to include a message every second. The usual use of tight framing, enhanced contrast in composition, fast rhythm and shorter shots are conceived to keep the attention of viewers who otherwise are constantly distracted. This is probably why I am focusing on different forms of language that are not merely instrumentalised for communication purposes. Ideally, I would also love to have only one person as an audience.
CHT: The curator, in his statement, refers to Plato’s cave in describing the installation: what is your relationship with reality? Do you feel that we have lost contact with the real world?
NTK: To be honest, I don’t feel comfortable with virtual reality, although it is a powerful technology which can generate more complete spatial experiences. Sure, somehow we have lost this contact with reality and I won’t pass judgement on this lack of interest. However, for me, physical forms or spatial experiences remain much more intriguing.
CHT: You also created installations such as Breathe IN Breathe OUT (2019) and One Minute of Void (2019) that seem to offer the pure pleasure of being transported into a multisensory environment. What is your drive for such creations?
NTK: These two immersive installations are indeed quite different from Solitude, and I am still looking for a way to connect them. They focus on experiences of mindfulness. For instance, I conceive One Minute of Void as the external embodiment of a meditation process, when someone scans his or her own body. The mind focuses on each part of the body while breathing regularly and deeply. Similarly, in the installation, waves of light are browsing the space. The soundtrack suggests that heavy rain is pouring outside so that the audience feels protected in this intimate and ethereal space.
CHT: For Breathe IN Breathe OUT, you filled the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre’s art space with inflatable balloons, as if emptiness could be filled with empty forms. You often seem to refer to the void and to the importance of breath.
NTK: I have been influenced by former classmates who became monks. The balloons represent waves breaking and, metaphorically, they embody the intimate struggles one is engaged in against his or her own mind. I wanted to reflect on this moment, when one can let go his or her thoughts, so all the balloons are flying yet, from their intrinsic forms, they still bear the traces of these struggles. I am interested in the creation of spaces where people feel like taking a break, meditating or even hanging out. They would function like shelters.
CHT: What is your next project?
NTK: I am working with visual artist Ivy Ma on a theatre project that will take place in City Hall this year. We are trying to experiment new ways of framing art, working between performance, cinema and visual arts.
Caroline Ha Thuc：《Solitude》是你其中一個最重要的作品系列。自動移動的座椅在作品間導航，讓觀眾可以從特定角度和距離，以及在特定時間內觀看裝置，營造了非常創新的電影體驗。你是怎麼構想出這個裝置的？
吳子昆： 實驗需時，目前我仍在測試不同的觀看模式，暫時還不能下定論。第一次安裝移動座椅裝置時，我發現有些設置的效果不如所想。那是2018年於上環文娛中心展出的《Solitude 1》，觀眾坐在座椅的旅程有七個站。當時我透過不同支架並以不同大小投影出各種香港懷舊電影的鏡頭，在命為「請看下回分解」的最後一部分中，我並排放置了許多播放著這些電影最後一幕的屏幕，畫面中全部都是大團圓結局。我想帶出的是既然我設定的電影體驗沒有任何敘述，那麼大團圓結局又代表什麼？那些投影非常巨大，並讓觀眾切身體驗到這種「大團圓」。不過觀眾似乎只是看到字面的意思，不知道我正在挑戰他們看電影的習慣和平常的預期。
吳子昆： 其實在香港近期遊行示威活動前，我對自由這個議題並沒有思考太多。從那時起，所有與任何監視和控制有關的作品都會以政治角度詮釋，但這不是我的目的。在戲院看電影時，你其實會被困至少兩個小時，無法站立、暫停播放、放大和縮小畫面或四處走動 ；坐在我的自動移動座椅上時，你別無他選，只能按照我的設想觀賞作品。但在這些約束下，你可能會發現與移動影像的另一種關係，帶來另一種形式的自由。
CHT： 為什麼你在《Solitude 1》後你不再使用電影鏡頭，反而用上自己的影像？
吳子昆： 測試了那裝置的詞彙後，我想建立自己的句子和場景，因此我開始自己拍攝影像。《Solitude 2》要與日本藝術家津田道子一個關於航空旅行的裝置對話，於是我在太子和屯門的地鐵站拍攝了一些影像。因為香港那時正值示威時期，腦海中很難想到其他地方。這兩個站是運動的重要地點，然而我不想直接提及街頭暴力，我選擇了拍攝車站閘門關上但燈仍亮著的關站一刻，我對那一刻的過渡很有興趣。對我來說，屏幕就像窗戶一樣，彷彿有人在外窺看，影像不斷放大和縮小就是要表達這動作。
CHT： 在香港藝術中心的《Solitude 3》（2020年）的第一站名為「末境之路」，就算不是諷刺意味，亦饒有趣味。由於座椅會移動，我們很自然會為裝置所有斷續和獨立的元素建立聯繫，彷彿我們正跟隨自己的思想遊走，包括缺口和困惑。你如何構思這段由尾開始的旅程？
CHT： 你正探索的語言詩學是否與你於你的商業公司yU+co. [Lab]做的設計工作恰恰相反？