“As an artist”

“…an artist’s intention is utmost important in his/ her artmaking...” said my advisor, Prof Ken Ueno, in his lecture, and paraphrased according to my limited memory on his words. Before detailing the technical and informative aspects of my works, it is better I confess myself, and to explain the intention of them for a more in-depth understanding to it.

I always consider myself as a classically-trained musician. I read music composition and electronic music in my undergraduate study, and my main artistic practice was to compose music in a traditional method: Putting musical notes onto a piece of staff paper, delivering the paper to musicians, and letting them perform my pieces was 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. Therefore, I was trained to put my artistic thoughts into a time-dependent medium, music, and through this time-dependent medium to deliver ideas, express emotions, construct narratives, touch others, and give meanings. This still constitutes the majority of my artistic coordinates in my art practices when I pursue my MFA in CityU. However, my curiosity turns to other media, especially those media which “time” plays a less important role: photography, installation and sound art; and to 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 so shocked that “music” does not necessarily sound pleasant and appealing. Later I was told, in short, that those are the music for the brain, not for the ears. However, when music is the medium, 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 (you need to use your brain but not your ears to appreciate the music in this case). I fail to perceive the relationship between the medium and the message mediated. 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 have a similar feeling when I look into new media artworks: an empty canvas, a block of broken bricks, a screaming performance, an out-of-focus image and so on which are not appealing at first glance and leaving mere vagueness for viewers to grasp, are commonly and publicly considered as art. 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 to existing new media artworks, art may not necessarily be appealing or meaningful. 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?

It is no doubt that an artwork with an utterly personal meaning does not prevent it from being a masterpiece in contemporary art: 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 can experience the artists’ grief and determination. I feel connected with the artists through their works. What is embarrassing is that I am not sure to what extent my personal narrative could constitute art, which draws me into a self-contradictory trap: to make something that viewers may fail to perceive or appreciate it as, or name it 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 the memory of myself 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, and it always has a unique impact to my feelings and emotions. Take composing music for friends as an example, which I always do back in the day: It is not just about knowing which register my friends can play best so that I can create the best-suited music for them, utilizing their abilities 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 arts student, 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’s voice singing the song Small Sky, recorded a year after their tour to Japan. In the auditory and musical aspect, the quality of the singing is far beyond perfect, as most of the members have already forgotten the 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; it is not something we can grasp. 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 utmost to preserve our good old times, to transform our collective memory to something retainable, to emerge my personal melancholic narrative, and to convince viewers that my narrative is meaningful with the aid of labelling this documentation as an “artwork”.

After reading my confession, am I still be considered as an artist?