Ora-Ora Live — Episode 12: Interview with Hong Kong Artist Kingsley Ng
This week Ora-Ora Live speaks with artist and assistant professor Kingsley Ng on his art education experiences abroad in Canada and France, and how they have shaped his career today.
Dr. Henrietta Tsui-Leung as Henrietta
Kingsley Ng as Kingsley
Henrietta: For those who have been following us last week, you would have probably listened to some really heartfelt conversations amongst my colleague, Odetti, and a few young artists. These young artists are actually connected to my guest today because they are all, in a way, students of Mr. Kingsley Ng. Thank you, Kingsley, for joining us.
Kingsley: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Henrietta: Do you mind telling me a bit about your childhood?
Kingsley: First of all, it’s my honour to be here and thank you very much for joining us. To respond to Henrietta’s comments about our earlier episode, at the Academy, I see the young artists as acquaintances. We are more like mentors to them, we’re not in a traditional teacher-student relationship. I see them as friends. We are always here to learn together, so that’s the attitude I embrace.
Back to my own childhood and upbringing, a lot of my current work is inspired by great teachers that I had met through schools. The most important person that affected me the most is my grandfather, who passed away when I was quite young.
Henrietta: Was he an artist?
Kingsley: He wasn’t so much an artist, but even when I was a young boy, when I was around 4 or 5, he would tell us a lot about the art of living. He would use a lot of metaphors to tell us that life is like a piece of paper, very simple things like that. To a 4-year-old, 5-year-old, it doesn’t really mean that much, but thinking back, it has quite affected my lifetime endeavour as well. When I was young, even in daily and mundane situations like family dinners and gatherings, my grandfather would say ‘this is the art of having a meal together’. When we go to places in his car, he would say ‘this is the art of driving, we have to be aware of everyone’s body gestures, as your driving style can affect anyone inside the car’.
Henrietta: This is unique. I have never heard of a grandfather speak like this.
Kingsley: He didn’t really elaborate too much about what is art, but it is very mysterious to us when we were young. We asked ourselves ‘what the art of this and that’. I was very fortunate to be enrolled in a very good high school relating to the arts that is in Toronto, Canada. The high school is called A.Y. Jackson.
Henrietta: I know A.Y. Jackson.
Kingsley: As you probably also know, A.Y. Jackson is one of the Group of Sevens members. He is kind of the equivalent of the impressionist of Canada. It is very interesting; they have an enrichment art program there. Not even only in the arts, they have interesting ways to conduct education. For example, for students who excel in mathematics and physics, they may not need to follow the curriculum of the Education Board. It is the teachers who decide what they do and also, it’s a very small, tight group of students for each of the disciplines. Maybe around 5 students per year are selected to join this enrichment program. What’s great about the program is that you’re mentored by a number of teachers together with students of the senior year. When I was in the enrichment art program, I had 3 mentor teachers in a class of 5. I was also mentored by other students who were also in the program. So that would be 10 students in the senior year. We were learning from a lot of peers who were also very excited about art practices. I think that was very transformative when I was in the program. At the time of adolescence, you become more reactive to everything. At that time, I was very much impressed by the usefulness of art in a way.
Henrietta: You mean the function of art?
Kingsley: Of course, there is great debate for art for art’s sake and so and so forth. But what I was very much inspired by was, along with other subjects at that time, was how art is such an interesting method to learn about: how to be a human being, how to have the attentiveness to listen, how to acute our sense of awareness, how to be patient, how to deal with grief and anger, how to really react to what is around us. At that time, I thought maybe that could be a lifetime journey and endeavour to essentially learn more about arts. For me, since the very beginning, I was not so much interested to be an artist. I never thought of being an artist but it was always in my mind to learn about arts.
Henrietta: Interesting. Let’s talk about your education in Le Fresnoy — National Studio of Contemporary Arts in France. I know for you that that was an important part of your education as well. What happened there?
Kingsley: Absolutely. Le Fresnoy was a very interesting place. It’s called the National Studio of Contemporary Arts so it’s more like a studio than a proper school. A lot of the participants in the program are already very involved in the arts, like one of my classmates, his work is collected by the Tate Modern or another one participated in Documenta.
Henrietta: To name a few. You are not even naming your teachers!
Kingsley: It’s a very excellent program in dealing with how different media and art forms collide. There’s also a strong emphasis on arts and technology. I spent 2 years there at Le Fresnoy. One great thing about the program is that you’re given a budget to create a piece a year. It’s also quite a substantial budget as well for a young artist. The program provides mentorship, resources and production facilities for young artists to create and inspire one another.
Henrietta: Should we talk about this important piece during your time at Le Fresnoy — Musical Loom? I read about it and it was supposed to be one of the breakthroughs for your career back in 2005. You transformed this 250-year-old antique weaving machine into an interactive musical instrument. That’s all I read. How did you come with this idea?
Kingsley: Sure. For this project, like I said, a lot of my practices are quite reactive, it’s a response to a particular context. So in 2004, the North of France, particularly the city of Leon and the different towns around Leon, was named the cultural capital of Europe, together with Genoa in Italy. For those who are familiar with the cultural capital, it started quite early on. The first cultural capital city was Athens and then a lot of first-tier cities with a lot of cultural assets are given this title. It’s a little like the Olympics, you have a title and a series of programmes around it. Gradually it became a vital revitalisation engine for beta cities or regions.
For places like Leon, it’s not that internationally focused, but regionally it has quite a lot of assets. For example, it is the hub of transportation, it connects London to Paris to Brussels, there’s a lot of Flemish culture there as well. This area of Leon has quite a lot of potential, but it also has a lot of issues where it’s essentially in a post-industrial era where a lot of factories had to close down in the 60s and 70s. The North of France used to be the centre of textile, like Manchester in the UK. But of course, for the past few decades, a lot of the factories moved to cheaper places for production, like Mainland China and everywhere else. So the area is dealing with issues of unemployment and people have to deal with this transformation from the industry of age to the current situation. So that is the dilemma that took place there. The cultural capital is an opportunity for change.
But of course, there’s also a lot of debate about whether a programme like that is purely maquillage, like makeup, or for tourism. Is there something for the locals or is there some kind of incubation inside? So that was also one of the attractive points of why I wanted to go there during those years to look at this mega cultural transformation. How does it affect the daily matters, the people there? At that time, like you said, there was this Musical Loom project. But there were also other projects like la ville dans la baguette.
Henrietta: The city in the baguette.
Kingsley: Yes, it’s a long French bread. I worked with 40 children in a social centre in the peripheries of the town centre to ask for their response about the cultural capital in the form of drawing. We printed them on the baguette paper and the papers were distributed through the bakeries as a form of circulation of conversations: how can we learn from the children’s perspectives about this infrastructure?
Back to Musical Loom, it was, in a way, dealing with similar questions as well. As I was saying, it has such a strong legacy of the textile industry. How do we look into this part of history and create something that is really open? We want to tell stories about people, like women who had weaved their entire lives and sat in the machines and used the same gestures. We want to tell stories about what they have seen and turn their gestures into music. That was very inspiring to us, and also to the young kids. They may be not so attached to this history but still they have a new engagement to the machine through producing sound and music, so that openness was what we tried to achieve. At that time in Le Fresnoy, we had a creative team. We worked with quite a lot of people, like Musée du Jacquard, as we acquired the music from private museums. Also, we had quite a lot of technical support from Le Fresnoy and producers’ work.
About Ora-Ora Live
Each week, Ora-Ora’s founder Dr. Henrietta Tsui-Leung will speak with various members of the art community — including artists, curators, academics and other professionals working in the cultural sector — to address topics of interest related but not limited to Hong Kong’s art and cultural scene. The series aims to be an outlet for creativity and a means to connect with peers who share similar interests. The episodes will also available live on Ora-Ora’s Instagram (@galerieoraora), Facebook (Galerie Ora-Ora) and later on Ora-Ora’s YouTube channel.