For Whom the Bell Tolls, an interview with Samson Young

by Elena Scarpa
December 14, 2015
Elena Scarpa
Young Samson

Samson Young is the first artist to be awarded the Art Journey commissioned by BMW, as main sponsor of Art Basel.

The artist’s project, titled For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Journey Into the Sonic History of Conflict, builds on the Hong Kong-based artist’s longstanding fascination with military technology and his training as a composer. In this project, he turns his attention to bells, which bring together these two related areas of interest. Cannons and bells are made of essentially the same materials. In times of war, bells would be melted down to create cannons, and when peace returned, bells would be recast from surplus weapons.

I met with Samson at Art Basel Miami Beach, once he had finished the journey.

Elena Scarpa: Could you tell me how you decided which cities and countries to visit during this journey?

Samson Young:  First of all the bells that I visited would have to fit the theme so that’s the first concern but I also needed to be quite strategic because the trip is funded and so I wanted to include bells and locations that otherwise would either be too logistically difficult for me to visit or too expensive. For example if it wasn’t through institutional negotiations with BMW I wouldn’t have access to the Hermitage to record the Great Peacock and also other places I visited really needed a local person, a translator which otherwise would be really expensive for me as an individual artist. I think that was part of the concern but other than that I also tried to pick locations that would cover a wide terrain, different cultures so the choice was a combinations of these factors.

ES: Let’s go back to the theme of your Journey, how did you choose it?

SY: I was researching the sound of explosions in my last project and also at the time when I was developing the proposal for the journey I was reading a book by Jonathan Goodman titled Sonic Warfare in which he makes a mentions of the relationship between bells and weapons historically, then I started reading about bells and organically I followed that line of research.

ES: Which was the most fascinating bell you saw and heard?

SY: They were all really special but I think the one in Australia was very personal for me because I used to study in New South Wales and the bell in Australia is very much about how the bell embodies the history of racial conflict in the country and I personally, as a school kid in , experienced a level of racism when I was growing up so I think that involved some personal untangling that was quite important for me; the bell itself is quite modest, actually the smallest bell I have recorded.

ES:  What are you going to be working on next?

SY: I’m going to generate a couple of pieces from the bells that i have recorded but for Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 specifically I am probably going to be producing a piece that is a combination of sound and a sound kit that you can take outside.I will be taking the people outside the fair; there will be numbers that you can call so you check out the kit and then all the sound files are available for you so you also develop your journey. It’s very interactive.

ES: Do you work on this projects by yourself or do you have a team that works with you?

SY: I work mostly by myself, I have one assistant but she deals mainly with the admin stuff. The artistic production is just myself.

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