“Songs for Disaster Relief”
Artist: Samson Young
My favorite work from the entire biennale - a a video and multi-channel sound installation of a performance, features the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir. Encountered inside a small home-theater-like space, the viewer must first walk through a dimly purple and pink lit room with funky chairs, three screens playing bright animations and videos, and a circulating set of curtains. “Circulating set of curtains?” you ask. Yes, the set of curtains are set onto a electric track by which the curtains move together along the perimeter walls of the room.
Moving further through the room, the viewer enters a theater space. On a large screen, men and women choir members are seen gathering themselves, preparing themselves for a performance. They are quaint and charming - smiling, clearing their throats, adjusting their glasses, and appear to be in their 50s and older. Aged, but not old, my parents age. AI duly prepare myself for the choir’s performance. What comes next is entirely unexpected -
Breathy, coordinated, musical, orchestrated, rehearsed, heaved and practiced... whispers!
The performers are animated, giving their all to the performance but all that comes out are whispered lyrics that at once captivate and calm. Puzzled and transfixed, I watched the video loop at least 6 times. Sort of hypnotized.
“I figured out the song,” said a sweet and beautifully dressed elderly lady (with two purposefully different but harmonious shoes) from New York. She was excited. “It’s ‘We are the world!"
For the performance, “[Young, a multidisciplinary artist with a background in classical music and composition]requested that the singers suppress the top ‘layer’ of the composition’s sonic fabrice, i.e., the sung notes,” explains Ying Kwok, the curator. The stripping of the “top layer” of the popular song makes the tune feel like a familiar stranger. I knew the song but could not put my finger on it.
“While the gesture itself carries a subversive undertone, given the HKFTU’s history, its sonic qualities suggest instead a tenderness,“ writes Kwon, only hinting at the complex and arduous relationship between China and Hong Kong.
According to a quick wikipedia search, “Being one of the oldest existing labour unions in Hong Kong, the HKFTU has a long tradition of following the command of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the ruling party of the People's Republic of China (PRC). It took a leading role in the Hong Kong 1967 Leftist riots against the British rule and was suppressed by the colonial government… The relations between the HKFTU and the colonial government remained tense. The union activities were under strict restriction from the government. Inspired by the Cultural Revolution, the HKFTU escalated labour disputes into the anti-colonial government riots in 1967. Many labour activists and HKFTU cadres were imprisoned and deported. Due to its violence and bomb attacking campaign, the HKFTU suffered serious setbacks in both public esteem and official tolerance. Presently, It is the largest labour group in Hong Kong with over 390,000 members in 189 affiliates and 62 associated trade unions.”
Subversive, Tender. It amazes me to think that the elderly men and women of the choir, whose animatedness reminds me of my own grandparents entertaining my brother and I as children, are part of a choir with such a strong political past.
Throughout the exhibition, Young plays with the manifestations of iconic charity songs, “purpose-made recordings for charitable causes, popular during the 1980s”. By “re-appropriating” these culturally well-known tunes, he has us reconsider the purpose and dynamics surrounding such popular songs. Young presents us with a kind of media we have become desensitized to, popular music aka Pop music, by considering specific pop songs with political groundings. However, because of a charity-song’s ability to blend into our general auditory sensorial experience as another-catchy-tune, we forget the political push and pull it has us under.
Photograph by Robert Battersby