“As an artist”

“…an artist’s intention is utmost important in his/ her artmaking...” said my advisor, Prof Ken Ueno in his lecture. Before detailing the technical and informative aspects of my works, I should make a confession.

I always consider myself a classically-trained musician. I read music composition and electronic music in my undergraduate study, and my artistic practice was to compose music in a traditional way: putting musical notes onto a piece of staff paper, delivering the paper to musicians, and letting them perform my pieces. Traditional concert music compositions were my chief creative output. A single musical note at a split second makes no sense; meanings are generated only when you can perceive the relationship between consecutive musical notes. I was trained to put my artistic thoughts into a time-dependent medium. Through music, I deliver ideas, express emotions, construct narratives, touch others, and create meanings. This was still an major component in my art practice when I was pursing my MFA at CityU. However, my curiosity turned to other media, especially those in which time plays a less important role: photography, installation and sound art. I am also curious in other forms of artworks which are driven by concepts, algorithms or narratives, outweighing mere sensational impulses.

When I first encountered contemporary music in my early studies, I was shocked that “music” does not necessarily sound pleasant and appealing. Later I was told, in short, that those are the conditioned expectations for the brain, not just for the ears. It is hard to ignore the deep-rooted, if not innate, expectation that music ought to sound pleasant and appealing, regardless of the centrality of the medium-carried message. During those  days, I often failed to perceive the relationship between the music and its meaning. I still find music by, for example, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Helmut Lachenmann difficult to decipher, as I can hardly find something to grasp in the auditory aspect (Yet, I still respect those great composers).

I very often had a similar feeling when I looked into new media artworks: an empty canvas, a block of broken bricks, a screaming performance, an out-of-focus image and so on. Those artworks are commonly and publicly considered as art even when they are not appealing at first glance and leaving mere vagueness for viewers to grasp. The more arts I studied, the more confused I am of what constitutes art, or to be precise, what constitutes good or bad arts. Referencing many existing new media artworks, art may not necessarily be appealing or meaningful at first glance. Even the artist considers his or her artwork as meaningful, viewers may fail to perceive the relationship between the artwork and the meaning it is said to convey. Hence, the artwork is meaningless to the viewer. Can it still be called an artwork if it is so personal that no one else could understand and appreciate it?

In contemporary art, many masterpieces are personal. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Candy Spills, Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performances, for example, are very personal works, at the same time very engaging and impressive. They utilize art as a medium to express personal narratives, and they touch me deeply since I felt I can experience what the artists have experienced. I feel connected with the artists through their works. I can grasp the meaning via the medium, so-called art. What embarrassing is that I am not sure to what extent my personal narrative could constitute art. The conflict draws me into a self-contradictory trap: making something that viewers may fail to perceive or appreciate it and naming it as an artwork.

Every Small Sky is a work that is meaningful to me at least, and hopefully to my choir members. It is based on my memories with the choir members of The Greeners’ Sound singing the song, Small Sky, in our tour to Japan in 2018. The work is dedicated to the choir, a community which allows me to express and be my truest self. I always feel blessed when I have a chance to create something for someone I know, cherish, and love. For example, composing music for friends was something I frequently did back in the days: It is not just about knowing which register my friends can play best so that I can create the best-suited music for them, as I know my friends well; it is more about intimacy, as I build deeper and stronger connections with my friends through a musical exchange; it is more about trust, as I believe my friends can commit to my music; it is more about honesty, as I open myself up to let my friends access my emotions and narrative mediated in my music. Strange as it may seem to express this as an artist, I often consider these subtle experiences more significant and meaningful than the creative work itself.

In the technical and informative aspect, Every Small Sky is like an audio documentation of each choir member singing the song Small Sky, recorded a year after our tour to Japan. In the auditory and musical aspect, the quality of the singing is far from perfect, as most of the members have already forgotten technical details they achieved a year ago. But what does that further imply? Their unfamiliarity with the song to which they were so attached points to an inevitable circumstance: the past is the past; which is not something we can grasp. Just as Roland Barthes described every photograph exhibits a dead, irretrievable moment. Similarly, every audio recording of our singing certifies the death of the moment we were singing together.

“…so you are a nostalgic person?” asked Ken during our advisor meeting in a coffee shop in late November 2018, when I finally confirmed Every Small Sky was the work I would like to create after the year-long struggle. Perhaps I am just a nostalgic person with a bit of stubbornness and determination, who tries my utmost to preserve our good old times, to transform our collective memory to something retainable, to emerge from my personal melancholic narrative, and to convince my viewers that my narrative is meaningful.

After reading my confession, do you consider me as an artist?