A Chat with Samson Young About 'Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour'
You might already know the name of the artist behind Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour, the latest exhibition at the M+ Pavilion. But who exactly is Samson Young? What are ‘songs for disaster relief’? Why is the exhibition like a music theatre, and who is ‘Boomtown Gundane’? We sat down with Young to find out the answers, and get to know the artist behind the work.
Who are you?
Samson: I’m Samson Young. I make stuff and I sometimes write music. I was originally trained as a composer but at some point I branched out. These days I’m making videos, animations, installations, drawings, performances, as well as music. Recently, I’ve also been doing a lot of 3D sculpture printing.
What is the exhibition you currently have in the M+ Pavilion?
Samson: It’s called Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour and consists of five separate pieces. In terms of medium, the exhibition is quite varied, but conceptually, all of the pieces have a relationship with the idea of charity singles—the ‘songs for disaster relief’ in the exhibition title.
Why the focus on charity singles? What does it all mean?
Samson: Specifically, we’re looking at the time when these charity singles became popular, around the late 1980s and early 1990s. This time period also coincided with the rise of the global popular music industry and the cementation of neoliberalism as the most pervasive ideology. It also coincided with the rise of people like Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan; all figureheads of neoliberalist ideals.
I thought it was interesting that all of these things coincided. The charity single became a way for me to look at what that era symbolised. Looking back, we know some of the aspirations of that period have failed or are problematic, so it also raises the question of how we reevaluate failed aspirations or idealistic thinking that has gone wrong. The theme of charity singles is just a way into examining and processing the complexity of these themes.
Who is ‘Boomtown Gundane’ and what is their role in the exhibition?
Samson: The work Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth-maker who fell to earth) relates to a fictional character called Michael Kar Fai Young, who is actually playing another fictional character: singer and performer Boomtown Gundane. This character is inspired by a story about a group of musicians from Cape Town making a response version to Do They Know It’s Christmas? called Yes We Do. After reading about this on the Internet, I started looking for the musicians, but quickly found out that they actually don’t exist. The story had started on a satirical news website and made the rounds on the Internet.
So I thought it was a great opportunity for me to take over this situation and spin it out of control. I imagined Michael Kar Fai Young to be this persona, Boomtown Gundane, who made a response song to Do They Know It’s Christmas? and toured the world with it. All of the objects in the Palazzo Gundane piece are related to this character and the album that he made. The 3D printed sculpture that is resting under a vitrine, for example, is actually the main image of his album tour made into a 3D object. In Venice, we also had concert posters made for the entrance, and we actually brought them back for this exhibition to replicate how the poster board looked (including the graffiti it accumulated during the exhibition’s run), giving the impression that Michael had actually toured the world with the album.
What are the main differences between the Venice Biennale version and the Hong Kong version of the exhibition?
Samson: The Venice show was titled Songs for Disaster Relief, so this time we’re calling it Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour. The concept and the content will remain largely the same, but with a few changes here and there.
For example, one of the three pieces that we brought back to Hong Kong, Lullaby, was conceived for a very specific setting: a backdoor in the Venice space that opened up into the canal. When we brought it back to Hong Kong, it was a mental exercise for me to decide, how do these pieces exist independently outside of the site-specific context of the Venice show? As another example, for the multimedia piece Palazzo Gundane, I decided that in all subsequent showings of this work, the shape of the room itself will be preserved. So in the M+ Pavilion exhibition, we actually made a room that’s exactly the same shape as the Venice room.
The other main difference is that, because the venue of the Hong Kong exhibition in Venice was inside a residential building, I was imagining that Palazzo Gundane was the domestic setting of Boomtown Gundane, the fictional character. That sort of expanded into how we perceived of the whole venue. But with this rendition in Hong Kong, instead of that domestic setting, I’m thinking of the whole space as a music theatre. When you first enter, you’re in a kind of music theatre foyer. You get your ticket collected, then you enter. Going through the exhibition, you push another door, and then all of a sudden you’re in a cinema, and then you push another door, and all of a sudden you’re in a recording studio. This sort of characterisation of individual spaces is a new feature in the show.
The backstory of Boomtown Gundane has changed a little bit as well. We're dressing the space as though he has toured around the world with his album. The character is portrayed by my longtime collaborator Michael Schiefel, so I’m using production photographs from previous pieces that Michael and I have done of him performing. You see him performing in all of these different places, and it gives you the impression that the character really has made the rounds around the world.
What has been your experience in creating the products for the M+ Essential Editions pop-up shop on the ground floor of the M+ Pavilion?
Samson: I have absolutely no experience in making ‘spin-off products’ from my works, so it’s been very interesting. I learned a lot from the process, and I like the fact that the design team decided that the shop will be like a natural extension of the music theatre concept. The shop is designed to be Boomtown Gundane’s green room. In terms of colour scheme and design we also integrated it into the visual look of the whole show, which I’m very happy about.
One of the pieces that we made is a screensaver, which is a particularly weird piece for me, in a good way. It’s strange to think about people using my work as a screensaver, especially because it’s quite a weird video. We appropriated one of the animations from the Palazzo Gundane piece to make it, and I loved seeing it!
Do you have any tips for audiences about what they should keep in mind when visiting the exhibition?
Samson: I would just urge them to spend enough time with the different pieces. Of course artists say that all the time, but I actually really mean it, in the sense that each piece has been designed to be very comfortable to just lounge around and spend time in. There are literally couches and lounges that people can sit on. So I would urge people to spend a little bit of time in there and just rest. It’s not the kind of show that you just walk in and out of.
Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour runs until 6 May at the M+ Pavilion.
The above interview has been edited for clarity.
Image at top of post: Samson Young setting up the work Carillon in the M+ Pavilion. Photo © M+, Hong Kong