The bohemian-ethnic Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin is rich in art galleries and Turkish döner kebap shops. Formerly a working-class residential area in East Berlin, it retains its character today despite two decades of gentrification.
I met Singaporean artist Song-Ming Ang in his temporary studio-home at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. The 19th-century hospital building was thoroughly refurbished in 2008, and Ang is the first artist invited to occupy one of the 25 spotless residences. His quiet, one room with shared bathroom space on the fourth floor, overlooking a courtyard, is a good size for a conceptual artist. Books, stationery, digital equipment and small components of various works-in-progress were laid out with a conspicuous neatness that belied Ang’s extraordinarily creative mind.
Ang spoke modestly and warmly about his often wondrously simple art, calling what he does “slightly futile,” and claims never to have studied music. His interests lie more in “using music as a subject,” including found sounds, and the relationship between music and society. Although he has produced rule-based compositions, he subscribes to the postmodern view that music should not simply function as a tool of individual self-expression.
We first discussed the upright piano standing at the studio entrance. For Parts and Labour (2012), Ang found a piano workshop in Berlin willing to apprentice him for four months, to realize a project that involved completely disassembling and reassembling a piano, which he had purchased for 200 euros. There was no unnecessary “destruction” involved, rather the fastidious step-by-step unhinging, unwiring, unscrewing and unbolting—by Ang—of hundreds of pins, wires, keys and hammers, followed by their methodical reassemblage—although a few highly specialized procedures were carried out by workshop masters. Ang’s piano-playing technique, incidentally, only stretches as far as the first, elementary prelude from JS Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, which he learned as a child and is now teaching himself to play retrograde on a new harpsichord.
But Ang’s intimacy with the keyboard lies in other dimensions. He documented his four-month piano project with a video camera and a sensitive microphone, reducing the footage to a 26-minute work, which is as much a musical composition, in the mode of John Cage and Alvin Lucier—about all the sounds a piano can make whether played by trained fingers or a wire cutter—as an overview of an artistic intervention and learning process.
Another “instrumental (de)composition” Ang is about to begin involves reducing a viola by about one quarter of its size to produce a violin, which will require collaborating with a luthier. The finished product will, he says, retain all the wood shavings of the larger instrument. This will be followed by the metallurgical transformation of a trombone into a trumpet, which, like the viola-violin, perhaps hints slyly at obesity, and alchemy.
But Ang also works outside the workshop, with people. In Be True to Your School (2010), created during a residency at Arcus Project, in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture, the artist challenged a handful of now middle-aged graduates of a no longer extant local primary school to sing what they could recall of their school song, in front of a video camera. The poignant, face-saving (and “losing”) results of each individual are recorded, along with a final group performance by ten graduates—one of whom had the lyrics stuck on his back as an aide-mémoire for those behind him—concluding with humorous results. This work was shown as a five-channel video at last year’s Singapore Biennale.
Ang was also eager to show me a video of his 2003 work, Piece for 350 Onomatopoeic Molecules, in which he arranged half a dozen switched-on electric guitars, belonging to a band he was in at the time, in an array in a gallery, encouraging visitors to throw plastic balls at the strings, resulting in an ensemble of decidedly un-rock-and-roll cacophony and much conventional feedback. He said one inspiration for this work was his love of ping-pong, and indeed, the music produced was an onslaught of pings and pongs.
In a wry aside, referring to the way he likes to take things and ideas apart, before putting them back together again—and not always the way he found them—Ang called himself “perhaps something of a geek.” More to the point: he’s a Bach of all trades.
For more images, click the Project link below.