Samson Young is a composer and sound artist, whose work anatomises and manipulates the alchemical power of sound and film by revealing the way culture and context mediate our experience of it. For the Venice Biennale, Young occupied four rooms near the Arsenale with his work Songs for Disaster Relief, an installation that he describes as “an album unfolding in space”.
The show is an immersive investigation into the psychological, cultural and aesthetic mechanisms of the disaster relief pop song. The main room features a dissection of the song Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which gave birth to the Live Aid phenomenon, fundraising for the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. The lyrics – a saccharine mixture of phrases from the heartfelt to the bathetic – are embroidered in silver on to a theatrical curtain that stretches around the perimeter of the room.
The room itself is styled like the lounge of a knowingly kitsch, contemporary hotel, all mid-century modern furniture and neon lights. It is supposed to represent the fantasy palazzo of Boomtown Gundane, a fictional character whom Young discovered while investigating a “fake news” story. The story claimed Gundane was a South African musician whose response to the UK’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? song was Yes, We Do!, a parody of a disaster single, the proceeds of which were donated to the UK to “fund instruction in discipline, literacy and contraception at British schools”.
Young has decorated the lobby with various icons in reference to this fictional character, including framed fake gold and platinum discs. Snatches of melody saturate the space with a syrupy sweetness, switching from angelic choral voices and sweeping piano chords to lift muzak, highlighting both the formulaic - yet affecting - quality of these disaster relief anthems along with the banality of the lyrics.
In an adjacent room, a large film projection features a performance by the Hong Kong Labour Union choir, clad in formal black, singing the words to We are the World, but in an animated whisper, devoid of melody – which strips the song of its emotional punch. Just outside this room, in a small alley leading down to a Venetian canal, is another work, Lullaby (World Music), triggered by one of Hong Kong’s most iconic charity songs, Many Hearts Prevail, a response to a massive flood in eastern China in 1991. Its lyrics are sung in Chinese to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and, in the video, Young is depicted singing unaccompanied, wearing headphones and looking out from Hong Kong across the sea to China.
Young was born in Hong Kong in 1979 and grew up in Australia. He has a major commission at Documenta 14 and is producing a five-part radio series for the Manchester International Festival, inspired by stories of 17th-century Chinese travellers who made their way to Europe on foot. He has been nominated for the Absolut Art Award and in 2015 won the first BMW Art Journey Award.
Samson Young: Songs for Disaster Relief
Hong Kong in Venice
13 May – 26 November 2017
Interview by VERONICA SIMPSON
Filmed by MARTIN KENNEDY