Hong Kong Venice Biennale show comes to city’s M+ Pavilion, and amplifies history of charity songs and concerts with extra exhibits
Samson Young’s ‘Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour’ exhibition at M+ takes a swipe at the niche musical genre of charity singles, while additional exhibits not shown in Venice highlight the poignant history of Hong Kong’s own efforts
It is all “hail the conquering hero” at the West Kowloon Cultural District’s M+ Pavilion as it hosts the homecoming of Samson Young Kar-fai’s Venice Biennale exhibition. But who is the real hero here?
A clue can be found in the exhibition’s pop-up shop, where replicas of a jacket worn by one Boomtown Gundane during his “world tour” are for sale. Indeed, most of Young’s show seems to be a tribute to this imaginary character with a crazy backstory.
Gundane, according to Young, is a singer-songwriter from Cape Town who wrote the song Yes We Do in retaliation to Do They Know It’s Christmas?, the 1984 song by US charity supergroup Band Aid written in reaction to the Ethiopian famine. That was the high point of Gundane’s career.
Now, he is schizophrenic and out of work, let down by his belief in Pythagoras logic and Reagonomics, and performs to an audience of gas flares in a remote American oil town where the local shale industry has imploded.
You can visit his living room and sit on his couch while watching a video of his performance (in which he is played by singer Michael Schiefel), surrounded by personal paraphernalia such as busts of Ronald Reagan.
That’s just one section in Young’s fecund “exhibition”, a multisensory experience that is about cultural imperialism, humanism versus cynicism, celebrity culture, and the power of songs, to name just a few.
Since Young is a composer, music bounds everything together in the exhibition, titled “Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour”.
The title refers to the niche musical genre of charity singles. A distorted version of Do They Know It’s Christmas? plays in the background, with Gundane’s living room curtains decorated with animated figures from the original album cover and snippets of the song’s more laughable lyrics.
Next door, a mini theatre shows the Kwan Sing Choir of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions perform We Are the World, by United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa in 1985. But they whisper it rather than sing it, which mutes the melody and fills the space with a disquieting sibilance.
In another room, set up to resemble a recording studio, a video shows Young singing a version of Bridge Over Troubled Water in which he has replaced the lyrics with numbers in Cantonese. He strikes a lonely figure sitting on a boat in the middle of the sea, singing nonsense to himself.
At the far end of this room is a self-playing piano whose hammers are muted by a collection of objects stuffed inside: the familiar wrapping from a loaf of Garden Life Bread, a green-covered certificate of identity (the pre-1997 travel document for China immigrants in Hong Kong) and a VCR tape of Do They Know It’s Christmas?. On top of the piano are books with titles such as The Music Between Us and To Our Friends, and a vinyl album cover of a charity single made by Canto-pop superstars for victims of the Eastern China flood of 1991.
That piano, and the rest of the room, were not in the original Venice show. They help to bring the show “home” by amplifying the poignant history of Hong Kong charity songs and concerts. From the 1989 Concert For Democracy In China, when stars like Anita Mui Yim-fong and Jackie Chan performed at the Happy Valley Racecourse in support of the Tiananmen Square students, to the 2008 concert in aid of the Sichuan earthquake victims, they show Hong Kong people galvanised into action by events in China.
Today, such rallying cries are less likely to receive the same unquestioning support as Hong Kong struggles to redefine its relationship with China – and that is as heartbreaking as Gundane’s solo performances in the wilderness.
Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour, M+ Pavilion, West Kowloon Cultural District, 11am-6pm, Wed to Sun and public holidays, closed on Feb 16 and 17. Until May 6.