Friday, March 14, 2014

'Particle Waves' by Kian-Peng Ong at arebyte Gallery, 13th March 2014

290 miles northwest of San Francisco, way out in the California desert lies The Hat Creek Radio Observatory. Across the scrub, among the tumbling tumbleweeds sit 42 radio telescopes, their huge faces gazing up into the universe carefully listening for the song of the stars.  These are the cosmic ears of planet Earth, the sieve through which we sift the tangle of interstellar radio waves and so learn about our place in the universe.  It was this array that immediately leapt to mind when I walked into the arebyte Gallery; Kian-Peng Ong's Particle Waves installation swaying like seaweed, emitting the soothing sound of wind, water and space.

Ong is a Singaporean artist with a multi-disciplinary focus. Lauded by art world luminaries in Japan, China and Singapore and chosen for inclusion in numerous art festivals he's the very model of an international artist, exhibiting in Brazil, the USA, Slovenia and South Korea. This is his first time exhibiting in London; or for that matter even being in London - so I'd imagine he wants to make a good first impression on us.

Particle Waves consists of twelve small mechanical sculptures, a small moving arm that holds aloft a clear plastic bowl that contains a hundred or so tiny metal balls.  As the arm moves the bowl tilts and the balls shift inside. Cumulatively they make a rushing sound, like a calm sea lapping the surface of a beach, wind rustling through leaves or a gentle hum of radio static.  Wires connect these sculptures to an exposed 'brain'; a circuit board bristling with tiny wires that governs their movement. Though everything is roughly in synchronicity each dances to their own tune, the work in constant motion as the electrical signals ripple out from the brain, the bowls tilting in subtly different ways giving the illusion of a kind.

It's a very chilled out installation; you see people around the gallery sitting around with their eyes closed, drinking in the soothing sounds of nature, a faint smile tickling the corners of their mouths as they picture a relaxing seascape, perhaps dredging up some long forgotten childhood memories of sandcastles, ice cream and sunbleached blue skies. It's easy to get lost in a meditative daze, something about the rolling, swaying analogue fuzz tickling a primal part of the brain - people instinctively taking pleasure in this sound in the same way a cat can't help purring as it's stroked.

But there's a perversity at the heart of this. arebyte is decked out in pretty typical gallery fashion: concrete floors and plain white walls, a cold minimalism designed to focus attention on what's inside.  The gallery itself sits at the centre of the run-down industrial labyrinth of Hackney Wick, the asphalt and cement of London stretching out for miles and miles in all directions. The sculpture itself is consciously mechanical, turning gears, exposed circuits and twisted wires underlining it as artificial, industrial and fake.

So Ong has brought a slice of the natural world into this cold, urban space - not recreating it with water and sand, but with technology and programming. There's a subtle satirical element here; an argument that we're so divorced from the rhythms of nature that we're reduced to appreciating an artificial simulation.  There's a smidge of Baudrillardian philosophy within this; the installation seeks to "bring an outdoors natural experience indoors" but makes no bones about it's own artificiality.  We clearly see the technological methods by which the sonic illusion of a seascape is created, and yet nobody seems to care. And why would we?

the 'brain'
To really experience the sound of waves crashing against a beach would involve stimulation of all of your senses: the vast blue sea stretching out to the horizon with white breakers lapping the beach, the sun beating down upon your skin, the sand scrunched up between your toes - even the faint tang of salt on your tongue.  By comparison, this simulation takes place in a sterile, climate-controlled and unnatural place, and yet we can't deny the vivid, deeply felt pleasure that it creates. Again I think of the radio telescopes that the piece visually recalls; science and art both trying to make some sense of this crazy, jumbled up world.

A lovely installation; food for ear, eye and brain, and one that slots in perfectly with arebyte's current exploration of how the squishy organic chaos of the human anatomy intersects with the cool digital precision of technology. As we become more intertwined and attached to the devices we surround ourselves with do we become more digital, or do they become more analogue?  Ong's piece stands at this crossroads, the digital instructions and construction of the work rubbing up against the 'natural' analogue sound it creates.  Well worth a look.

Particle Waves is at arebyte Gallery from 11th March - 10th April, Tue-Sat 12-6pm.

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