Tuesday 23 May 2017

We Are The World

Written by Alma Tischler Wood

We Are The World

Notes from the 57th Venice Biennale

After a late arrival from London and a brief taster at the Giardini we work our way around a succession of artworks until we arrive by boat at the Arsenale. Whereas in London, New York and Hong Kong new buildings sprout up all the time, Venice stays the same. The view from the Rialto Bridge down onto the Canale Grande is exactly the same as in Canaletto’s paintings of the city almost 300 years ago.

Opposite the main entrance of the Arsenale, we find the exhibition ‘Songs for Disaster Relief’, by Hong Kong artist and composer, Samson Young. The artist represents Hong Kong this year in Venice. He has created a new body of work that deals with the genre of charity singles produced for charitable causes and their popularity, as historic events and as culturally transformative moments in time.

Our circular journey begins as we enter into a small, intimate courtyard. My attention is immediately drawn to a large, bright, colourful empty stage. It appears to be waiting for something to happen. 

The first room is silent and bright. Inside a glass vitrine rests an, apocalyptic 3d print sculpture, a ‘mash-up’ of Pythagoras, Ronald Reagan, the Greek goddess of victory and a spaceship. All have collapsed, or seem to have fallen over and are held in place by a single bugle horn. The references to the destructive elements of ‘progress’ make me think of Walter Benjamin’s essay about the ‘angel of history’, who looks back in horror at mankind’s recurring good intentions while the debris of past actions piles up at his feet.

Aided by a courteous attendant, we pass through a heavy, hardly noticeable, slow-moving curtain into the second room that resembels the darkened space of a casually furnished bar, or nightclub. Computer-generated images of tiny, coloured figures are spinning endlessly on domestic-sized screens. All around us we hear a musical soundtrack of unusual sophistication. For quite a few artists at the Biennale, sound seems to have been this year’s ‘must-have’ accessory to their work. But Samson Young manages to allude to a medley of iconic pop anthems with a powerful blend of enchantment and sarcasm.

Continuing to the adjacent, dimly lit room, a large video projection shows a performance by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir (HKFTU). We can see the tension on their faces as they follow the artist’s instruction to whisper, rather than to sing, the pop song, ‘We Are The World’. It is worse noting that they are members of China’s oldest labour union, which continues to address the rights and welfare of workers including age discrimination.

Finally, we are back in the courtyard, where visitors have begun to sit down on the empty stage. Behind it, a neon sign tells us, “the world is yours, as well as ours, but basically yours’ a translation of the famous quote by Mao Tse Tung’s that reminds us that any hope for the future is in the hands of forthcoming generations. Later on that evening, Young’s German friend, the brilliantly eclectic jazz vocalist, Michael Schiefel gave a powerful, passionate live performance.

As an emerging artist, Samson Young is facing the future, rather than the past. His show at this year’s Venice Biennale has a verve and brilliance that makes it outstanding. The musical elements share equal billing with the computer graphics, the 2D and 3D artefacts. Each play a sophisticated role in his strange and beguiling narrative. Guest curator Ying Kwok also deserves credit as a sensitive ‘producer’ (in the movie-making sense of the word) of this complex and ambitious work.

Songs for Disaster Relief’ at Campo della Tana,
Castello 2126-30122, Venice Biennale
until 26 November 2017 Further information

Photo by: Simon Vogel

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