Meet Phoebe Hui, The First Solo Female Artist To Present The Audemars Piguet Art Commission In Asia
Phoebe Hui fishes out a screwdriver from her jumbled toolbox and uses it to connect wires to four tiny sockets on a robot’s arm. She flicks a switch and the arm suddenly animates, bringing life to a room filled with other mechanical curios, including electronic gadgets, figurines and musical instruments. She may at first look like an engineer but, based in just one of the workshops in the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a former industrial building-turned-artists’ village in Shek Kip Mei, Hui is the first solo female artist to present the commission, and the project marks the first art commission in Asia.
Hui’s upcoming installation, The Moon Is Leaving Us, is the fifth commissioned by the Swiss luxury watch manufacturer, which founded its biennial contemporary art competition in 2014. Audemars Piguet Contemporary invites an established curator to guide the commissioned artist to realise their most ambitious concept; the more complicated the better. Hui’s contribution features a sculpture of a satellite and robot-generated art based on the origins of science’s understanding of the moon, created with the guidance of independent curator Ying Kwok.
The competition prioritises international diversity and Hui is the first artist to present in Asia. Previous commission recipients include the British artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, aka Semiconductor, who created a chiming time sculpture inspired by matter formation in the early universe in 2018, and Los Angeles- based artist Lars Jan, who in 2017 installed floating model buildings on the Miami beachfront to explore the notions of civilisation and chaos.
Hui’s commission in Hong Kong is inspired by Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo’s famous poem Prelude to Water Melody, which the artist learnt as a child. In the poem, Su looks up at the moon to lament being separated from loved ones. Hui also looked into literary, artistic and technological documentation of the moon across civilisations to explore how its historic and scientific interpretations are influenced by visual representations. Hui’s installation will be on display for a month at the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts from April 23 through to Art Basel, which runs from May 19 to 23.
In early 2019, Hui found herself thinking of Su’s poem during her trip to Audemars Piguet’s headquarters in the Swiss village of Le Brassus as a shortlisted artist. “[The team] organised a dinner in a cosy restaurant on a snowy mountain. I was walking in the dark [afterwards]. It was so dark that you couldn’t see whether you were at the edge of the mountain or not,” Hui recalls. “It was very peaceful. [The others] talked about how the full moon was going to be very beautiful; how the light shone on the snow, and how there would be a lot of people who would come to see it.”
During her research, she learnt the moon is moving away from the earth at a rate of 3.78 cm per year, a hypothesis first posited nearly 300 years ago by the British astronomer Edmond Halley after he studied records of ancient eclipses. His theory was finally confirmed in the 1970s by scientists who fired laser beams at mirrors that had been placed on the moon by American and Soviet astronauts. It prompted her to consider the many ways the moon is represented in science, art and folklore.
Hui also investigated Chinese poetry about the moon, interviewed former astronaut and studied photos he took while working on the International Space Station, and dug into the online records in both the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven and the Library of Congress in Washington DC. She found the original 1647 edition of Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius’ Selenographia, sive Lunae descriptio, the first book to include a map of the moon based on his lunar observations from telescopes he built himself. What stood out was how much visual media is taken for granted today, says Hui. “Visual culture in the 17th century was very different from our current culture. Hevelius’ employment of visual representation like maps in scientific research was, for that time, groundbreaking.”
Hui via Audemars Piguet Contemporary recruited the help of Francois Conti, co-founder of Force Dimension, a Swiss robotics, aerospace and research company, to build a mechanical sculpture in the form of a satellite dish. She named it Selenite after the moon dwellers in HG Wells’ sci-fi novel The First Men in the Moon. Hui and Kwok will transform Tai Kwun’s Duplex Studio into a dark space lit only by lunar images from Nasa’s open-source data, projected in fragments by Selenite across dozens of screens. As viewers walk through the gallery’s corridor, they will see sketches drawn by a second robot, Selena, named after the Greek word for moon. Imitating Hevelius’ classical drawing style, Selena will copy Nasa’s images of the moon using machine-learning based on codes written by Hui for the exhibition.
Hui says that there is art in scientific renderings of nature and that her work explores that. “Technological devices often generate innovative images that have both scientific and aesthetic value. In producing those images, scientists need to think of which information to include and which to leave out as irrelevant. In a way, the scientist is like an artist who has to understand the importance of visual literacy.” She hopes her work stimulates discussion around how scientific or artificial representations can filter our perceptions of nature. She cites the Cantonese saying: “If there is a picture, there is evidence.”
“We always believe that [when pictures are taken with] machines, there isn’t any manipulation of the result; that the moon we’re seeing is the closest to reality,” she says. “But ... when you make machines, there are a lot of limitations on the material or technology incorporated into the observations and recording [of the moon]. Selenite and Selena highlight that there are a lot of unexpected elements.”
Kwok adds: “Phoebe’s work artistically reinterprets highly technical scientific research into tangible and relatable experiences. She presents installations with a humanistic approach that allows audiences from various backgrounds to connect to complicated scientific ideas.”
Hui experimented by mixing fountain pen ink with a shiny paint material and ingredients from acrylic and watercolour paints, which Selena uses to draw on Japanese paper with a texture that reminds people of “dragon clouds” patterns. Hui then treats the drawings with a technique that helps the paper absorb thicker ink. When viewers look at the moon drawings from different angles, the shimmering colours shift from emerald to blue or maroon to brick red. “This experience is designed to capture what Terry described to me when he looked at the moon in space,” Hui says.
It takes 14 hours for Selena to complete one drawing and the machine is not without its quirks. Once, Hui set it up and went for a nap. When she woke up, she found what she describes as “an angry drawing”. “The funny part was, it wasn’t like the machine was broken,” Hui says. “The moment it finished the drawing, it lifted up the pen to reveal an unexpected result from the programme. Somehow, she developed her own character.” The strokes were drawn accurately within the boundary of the moon’s sketch, but they were scratched on to the paper with undue force. “She doesn’t like people rushing her to finish stuff,” Hui says with a laugh.
Kwok says that Hui’s work not only enhances the role played by representation in scientific and cultural comprehension of the universe; it also brings more of a spotlight on female Hong Kong artists. “Sometimes people will have the impression that female artists don’t have the same commitment as male artists because of different social or family reasons,” Kwok says. “It’s hard to believe in this century, but if you look around all the major solo exhibitions in different international institutions, [male dominance] is very obvious.”
Hui hopes to set an example with her show in Tai Kwun, and encourage other young female artists. Her show is both a small step for man’s perception of the moon—and one giant leap for women in the Hong Kong contemporary art scene.
See also: 4 Female Investors Who Are Using Their Capital To Drive Positive Social Change