May 28 2014

Carsten Nicolai’s “Alpha Pulse” Lights Up the Hong Kong Skyline

by Kitty van Leeuwen

View from Hong Kong Island of Carsten Nicolai’s Alpha Pulse (2014). Photo by Kitty van Leeuwen for ArtAsiaPacific.

What could be a better canvas to work on than Hong Kong’s iconic skyline? For this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, German light and sound artist Carsten Nicolai did just that with Alpha Pulse (2014), a huge installation powered by the light system of the city’s International Commerce Centre (ICC). For three nights during the fair, the 484-meter-high building, which sits across the harbor in Kowloon, sent pulsating light signals for just under an hour. With an app created by the artist available for download, participants could also receive the light and audio signals from the tower on their own phones, and experience a new way of interacting with the city.

On the opening night, Nicolai gave an exclusive live performance on one of Hong Kong Island’s piers against the backdrop of the illuminating view across the water. Six light installations, each standing about 1.5 meters high, and a voluminous sound installation, completed the effect. In a highly technical performance, Nicolai, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, managed to sync the sounds from his DJ booth with the pulsating lights from both the tower behind him and the light installations. The flawless act gave the hour-long set a bizarre cinematic and apocalyptic effect, a feeling that was intensified when the orange moon appeared above the pier.

The Berlin-based Nicolai, who has a background in landscape architecture, is best known for his works in the field of audio and visual art. Recently, he has been interested in the crossover between art and science. Alpha Pulse is based on the principals of neural feedback and part of the aim is to experiment with how the pulsating light can affect the mood and attention of the viewer.

Large-scale works do well in Hong Kong, where competing with the city’s spectacular skyline is in itself a feat. Last year, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant inflatable Rubber Duck (2009) rolled into the harbor to great acclaim and, though it engages viewers in a slightly more obscure manner, Nicolai’s installation for Art Basel in Hong Kong proved a successful heir.

Carsten Nicolai’s Alpha Pulse was on view for the duration of Art Basel Hong Kong this past May. 

Kitty van Leeuwen is a writer based in Hong Kong.