If this rings any bell to you: an interview with Samson Young

by Elena Scarpa
May 28, 2015
Elena Scarpa

Inaugurated as the collaboration between Art Basel and BMW to recognise and support emerging artists, the first BMW Art Journey was awarded to Samson Young with am space (born 1979, Hong Kong) for his work, For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Journey Into the Sonic History of Conflict.

BMW, the long-standing global partner of Art Basel’s three shows in Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, has previously shortlisted Trevor Yeung (with Blindspot Gallery) and New York-based Mika Tajima (with Eleven Rivington) as well at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong Discoveries section. The judging panel includes Richard Armstrong (Director of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), Claire Hsu (Director of Asia Art Archive), Matthias Mühling (Director of Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus), Indian curator Shwetal Patel and M+ Curator Pauline Yao.

According to the artist, cannons and bells are made of essentially the same materials – melted down to forge as either form in times of war and peace throughout history. Given his longstanding fascination with military technology and his training as a composer, Young will focus on bells that give form to the idea of “conflict in a variety of ways”.

While the next BMW Art Journey will be awarded during Art Basel Miami in early 2016, My Art Guides caught up with the artist as he embarked on his an artistic journey around the globe.

Alex Yu: Exactly how would you track down “exceptional and historically resonant” bells to notate and record as sound archive – from Myanmar, Kenya, Austria, Cologne, Morocco, Sicily, South Korea, Australia, the U.K. to the U.S.?

Samson Young: For my upcoming journey, I will meet with bell craftspeople, bell ringers as well as bell history scholars. I will also visit bell foundries. I began drafting an outline for this journey with the image of the broken, silenced Tsar Bell and its decorations of angels, plants, militants, and saints in my mind (which I had the pleasure of visiting in 2014). By the end of this journey this image will be gone, and with it, hopefully, the contours of a reason that led me there.

AY: I do see your point as your proposal was selected for “its depth and clarity, its multi-layered approach and its ability to bring a simultaneously contemporary and historical dimension to notions of place”. But how would it be like for the audience?

SY: That is too early to call – I need to spend some time with the bells first. But my sense is that this will need to be a substantial piece in terms of duration.

AY: So while many of your previous installations employ sophisticated expressions – technologically and poetically – to interweave sound and image, how would you imagine all these to come together this time?

SY: I cannot yet tell you, with any precision, what it is that I am going to make as a result of this process I call a journey. Some more predictable outcomes will probably include sound drawings, bell recordings, bronze bells, interview transcripts, peal manuscripts, and the ability to perform change ringing – but the point is to name a process, so that one day I may exhaust all its possible permutations and an antiphonal song may emerge.

AY: Given your particular interest this time in the historical use of bells as material for canons in war times, are there any references that you turn to?

SY: Alain Corbin is a leading scholar in micro-histories. His monograph Village Bells in the 19th Century French Countryside provides an original approach to historicizing through lost sounds, which opened a window onto the age in which they rang.

AY: While categorisation by media for artists has been an outdated concept, what material and creative breakthrough you would like to overcome for sound as a medium – and what are the technical difficulties of your particular work this time?

SY: There are many institutions and individuals involved in this journey. One of the major challenges would likely be scheduling. Indeed some of the bells I hope to ring also belong to the collection of museums that BMW has a working relationship with, so I hope that BMW will help me facilitate access. Field recording and the subsequent acts of sound transcription for me is a kind of ritual, a process that allowed me to hear or see the bells as they are, but also to leave my marks. I approach transcription methodologically, but the results are not scientific representations.

AY: Given your diverse academic background from philosophy, gender studies to a Ph.D. in Music Composition from Princeton, is there an additional personal side to it – or emotional attachment even – apart from your intellectual inquiry?

SY: I am not sure if I make a distinction between personal expression and objective, intellectual inquiry. Ideas stem likely from obsessions. Research is a form of reason, as ways of understanding or undoing the obsession in question.

AY:So do you have a creative routine at all?

SY: My composition process always begins with listening – and then when it comes to the actual writing, it’s pretty much a 9-5 job of artistic labor, in the sense that I try to stick with a regular schedule and make sure that I spend a certain amount of time with the manuscript everyday.

AY: What other concurrent exhibitions and unrealised projects you would like to complete in the coming year?

SY: I am currently working on piece called “Dream FM 993 (While the daylight lasts)”, for which I have built – inside of a museum – a radio booth for live reading sessions and hypnotherapy. This exhibition opens on June 2 at the Heritage Museum in Hong Kong. In the last week of June I will present a work at the Moving Images Museum in New York, as a part of the New York Electronic Art Festival. Aside from these, I am also working on a new set of works in preparation for my first solo exhibition in New York, which is tentatively scheduled for November – December of 2015.

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