Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour is a new presentation following Hong Kong’s participation in the 57th Venice Biennale, in which Samson Young created a body of work that attempts to reframe the popularisation of ‘charity singles’—purpose-made recordings for specific charitable causes. Since the early 1980s, charity singles have been used to raise funds for specific cases of international disaster relief and famine relief, memorials, and medical and social welfare. The charity song is a genre in its own right, with its typically uplifting spirit and positive messages that motivate our emotions. The long list of celebrities who perform charity singles all but guarantees air time and a place at the top of the charts, which usually bring commercial success.

The success of charity singles in the 1980s was a global phenomenon with a lasting effect in our memories. In 2014, Bob Geldof and a large group of artists attempted a remake of the classic 1980s single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ to support West African nations in their fight against Ebola. As a musician and composer, Young was not convinced by this replication of a great song, which sounds similar to the version recorded three decades earlier, and is accompanied by an emotional performance in a music video reminiscent of the original video. Young felt that the remake was obsolete and out of time, and this reaction set him on a journey to explore issues that arose through the recording of charity songs. He produced a rich body of work for the exhibition in Venice. Additional newly commissioned works have been incorporated into the Hong Kong version, as Young creates a more holistic experience in a more contextualised setting.

The exhibition can be viewed as a musical album unfolding in a physical space. Connecting rooms serve as host to works with different characteristics. Through deliberate repurposing and creative misreading of the well-known charity singles ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984), ‘We Are the World’ (1985), and the Cantonese version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ (1991), Young has created objects, performances, and sound installations that together constitute a distinct audiovisual experience.

The first two rooms of the exhibition form the Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth-maker who fell to earth). This is a video and sound installation that takes its point of departure from the artist’s discovery of a fake news article on the internet about a South African musician named Boomtown Gundane, who reportedly made a song titled ‘Yes We Do’ in response to ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ This satirical song act would have provided a much-needed voice from the developing world, to challenge the image of the West as passionately philanthropic. Young determined to realise the myth by creating the song and the world tour. In Young’s fictional recreation, Boomtown Gundane is a musician making his living as a miner in an oil town. He loves jazz and Christmas songs, and is a big fan of Tom Mix, the most iconic cowboy actor of early-twentieth-century Hollywood Westerns.

As we enter the foyer that sets the scene for us, we are immediately greeted by a large statue inside a vitrine. It is a digital collage of disparate elements, including the Winged Victory of Samothrace with its wings seemingly melted to the ground, busts of Pythagoras and Ronald Reagan, and a military bugle intersecting a space station. The giant trophy-like sculpture can be seen as the key promotional visual for Boomtown Gundane’s non-existent single. This strange composition, acting as a preface to the exhibition, reflects the breadth of the artist’s research, which combines an array of different sources and concepts that at first glance are unrelated to the subject of charity singles. Ronald Reagan was one of the leading politicians in the 1980s, pushing for a market-driven society along with privatisation and deregulation—a policy now called neoliberalism—in a period that coincided with the unprecedented success of charity singles. The presence of Pythagoras refers to acousmatic sound—sound one hears without seeing the source. Pythagoras is said to have taught from behind a curtain so that his students could more easily concentrate on his teachings.

By mixing various objects, sound, video, and a fictional narrative with his own personal histories, Young gives shape to the fake-news protagonist Boomtown Gundane. Connected by a curtained room, a phantasmagorical music video of the fictional figure, recorded in the once-booming American oil town of Williston, North Dakota, near the United States– Canada border, is shown with a selection of complementary objects and furniture that portray the life and interests of this imaginary character. Meanwhile, a television shows animations of a boy and a girl taken from the original ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ album cover, dancing endlessly and attempting to perform magic, with neither target nor audience. No matter how hard they try, their effort and energy seem to be in vain—a failed aspiration.

The next doorway leads us to the artist’s appropriation of another iconic charity song. Titled We Are the World, as performed by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir, this work features a muted performance of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s ‘We Are the World’. The technique of muted performance entails suppressing the sound-producing part of the act of performance while nevertheless performing with the usual energy, so as to reveal the concealed layers of sound. Young handpicked the Kwan Sing Choir of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) to perform the iconic title. While the gesture itself carries a subversive undertone, given the HKFTU’s history, its sonic qualities suggest a gentle tenderness.

Passing through a glass door, we enter a recording studio that contains two works. Lullaby (World Music) is a video piece in which the artist’s performance takes its cue from the long tradition in Hong Kong of calling in to televised charity shows. As callers make pledges, their details are displayed as scrolling names and numbers that fly across the bottom of the television screen. To the people of Hong Kong, Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is the melody of one of the city’s most iconic charity songs, ‘Many Hearts Prevail’, released in 1991 as a response to the eastern China flood. Recording the video at the confluence of China’s and Hong Kong’s marine territories, with his back facing the camera and his gaze apparently directed towards a distant lighthouse, Young attempts to capture the tension between the two unreachable territories. The song, meanwhile, points to a bygone era in which natural disasters in China invariably triggered heartfelt charitable responses from the people of Hong Kong.

Before leaving the space, we are confronted with Carillon, a self-playing piano, which echoes the muted choral performance in the previous room. Our attention is drawn to the bodily act of piano playing, and the transfer of energy from movement to sound.

Inspired by a famous quotation from Mao Zedong, Risers is a neon sign in the courtyard that reads, ‘The world is yours, but also ours, but basically yours’. In contrast to the works inside the exhibition space, which provide a sonic experience, this muted piece offers a thoughtful break from the audio sensations, but again reminds us of the misalignment of original intentions with eventual outcomes. It invites the viewer to reflect on and rediscover the past, as well as to reconsider present associations and aspirations.

Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour is a project that started from curiosity and the desire to better understand something that did not seem right that troubled the artist’s feelings. A rigorous, elaborate research process and reinterpretations of the subject matter allowed Young to create a body of work that prompts reflection, reimagining, and rethinking of our past and our current ways of life. It may be that no results or conclusions are reached, as this could be just one small piece of a larger puzzle. We hope viewers are inspired to initiate their own research, and to find other missing pieces of the puzzle.

Ying Kwok
Guest Curator