In the 1990s, Hong Kong artist Ellen Pau began collecting video footage of lighthouses around the territory. Symbols of navigation, these structures project comforting illumination meant to guide journeys. Now, with The Shape of Light, her most ambitious video work to date, Pau transforms the expansive M+ Facade overlooking Victoria Harbour into a digital light house meant to comfort the city, serving, in her words, as ‘a guardian shining a light to all travellers and homecomers.’
The project, co-commissioned by M+ and Art Basel, is a fourteen-minute video created specifically for the LED screen embedded in the M+ building. Combining volumetric videography and a live-action performance, the work projects a message of healing to a city still reeling from COVID. Central to the work is a figure performing a Sign language interpretation of the Heart Sutra, a foundational Buddhist spiritual text. Core themes of the text, about light and darkness, form and emptiness, resonate with Pau’s longstanding engagement with the formal qualities of video, as well as the work’s physical presence in West Kowloon, amid Hong Kong’s famously illuminated skyline.
The artist is a long-time fixture of Hong Kong’s experimental art scene. A founder of both Videotage and the Microwave International New Media Arts Festival, she has also collaborated with Zuni Icosahedron, the boundary-pushing theatre troupe established in the early 1980s. A luminary who has helped shape Hong Kong’s visual culture for the past four decades, her iconic work Recycling Cinema (1998) is currently on view as part of Hong Kong: Here and Beyond.
Ulanda Blair (Curator, Moving Image) conducted an email exchange with Pau in advance of the commission’s launch.
Ulanda Blair: You accepted our invitation for the M+ Facade commission in November 2021, just as M+ opened to the public. How did you begin to think about the commission in those early days?
Ellen Pau: Upon my first look at the M+ building and location, I wanted to do something that was public and would bring positivity to Hongkongers. The extended battle with the coronavirus has loomed over us, sometimes causing stress and fatigue.
With the building forming a part of the Hong Kong skyline, I felt that the light it emits can be shared by everyone, connecting us all. It stands like a lighthouse, giving us direction and hope.
Blair: Can you explain the ideas and inspiration behind The Shape of Light video, formally and thematically?
Pau: The fact that the M+ Facade is outdoors means that its light is able to travel out into the universe, to join the ever-changing light from the sun, moon, and stars, linking us to nature. This is a juxtaposition of what we can control—the video facade—with what we cannot—the lights from the sky above and the windows of the M+ offices behind the screen, each of the latter signifying the presence of somebody who can appear and leave as they please. In fact, by the time we are able to see the light coming from beyond our planet, it has travelled for so long that what lit it up might no longer exist. This is the ephemeral nature of life, with the material elements reminding us of the immaterial.
The flip side of Hong Kong’s nocturnal brilliance is light pollution. That is why I wanted this work to be a breath of fresh air, quietly emerging from the colourful advertisements like white noise, while complementing its surroundings. The building’s shape also reminds me of the monolith from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odessey, a symbol of the future and technology among our prehistoric ancestors.
Blair: What inspired you to propose The Shape of Light now?
Pau: I read about the rising number of people afflicted with depression in the past few years. I always felt that we lacked something that carried a positive message during these difficult times, such as the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster from World War II. Hardships suffered by everyone during the pandemic drove me to create something that I hope could bring comfort, in the form of light. Light is what allows us to perceive obstacles, but it also brings us the necessary courage to overcome them.
Similarly, the performance is inspired by the Heart Sutra. Those who know it may be reminded of the line at the beginning of the text: Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. To those who do not know it, I hope this artwork can serve as an introduction to spark curiosity. Regardless, the combined focus of the audience may create a pure energy that lends itself to promulgate a form of peace and pain relief.
Blair: You have often addressed metaphysical and spiritual ideas through your work, especially when it comes to the relationship between technology and humanity. Still, I am not aware of you addressing spirituality in such an explicit way in your previous work. Where did your interest in the Heart Sutra from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition come from?
Pau: Despite my creative interpretation of the Heart Sutra, I did not intend for this work to carry a religious element. The text appeared in my mind because of its message about the virtual versus the reality. The message of the Heart Sutra illuminates and inspires, just like light.
I studied the Heart Sutra on my own after being inspired by Pik-yu, a longtime friend who happened to be Buddhist, whom I met back in the ’80s at Zuni Icosahedron. The Heart Sutra soothed her when she was in pain at the hospital. I hope that it can also bring peace to our city while we carry on in our journey, and enlighten us in our introspection.
Blair: Can you explain the process of translating the Heart Sutra into Sign language?
Pau: It was challenging. I first presented the Sign language translation in a performance at Para-Site in 2019, in remembrance of Pik-yu. We learned the Sign language version from two teachers, Parry Leung and Yoyo Fung, whom we found online. They told us that the translation was made by another Sign language teacher who is also Buddhist. It took her over a year to complete the translation. The difficult part is that the Sign language used among the Deaf community is tied more to everyday experiences rather than abstract ideas.
The translation of the M+ project’s name was difficult too. I wanted to involve the very first word of the Chinese version of the Heart Sutra, 觀, but was not able to find an English equivalent that bore its double meaning of ‘watching’ for the show and ‘introspection’ for the self.
Blair: The Shape of Light is both light and dark; calming and energetic. What is the significance of these dual sensibilities, and how do you expect the audience will feel watching the fourteen-minute video, from start to end?
Pau: The core meaning of the Heart Sutra is emptiness and formlessness. To convey this idea, I kept the linear time structure throughout the video, keeping the choreography of the time-based Sign language. But visually, I applied the elements of duo modulations, like the yin and yang, breathing in and out, black and white, darkness and lightness, chaos and control, blurriness and focus, noise and silence. I hope the audience who knows the prose can follow the flow to the end. The rest of us can experience the darkness and the light. It isn’t unlike the screen of our smartphones, which is, like the lights of M+ and the city, something that we cannot escape but can be used for inspiration.
Blair: The Shape of Light can only ever be shown on the M+ Facade—it is a spatial and architectural response to the M+ building. Can you explain how your video is site-specific?
Pau: The building would not bear its current meaning if it did not form a part of the Hong Kong skyline, in the outdoors, connecting with the sunlight and city lights.
To me, the work is a duality, with the layers acting as screens, while merging as one with its surroundings. Its wall is like an ordinary room, transforming into a cinema once you have the light from a movie. At the same time, the work is a point in a network of its surroundings, just like our smartphones. We as the user of the smartphone is a dot; the time we spend on it is a line; the world that the screen opens up is a depth.
Blair: In much of your previous work you have used sound, with little to no dialogue, for emotional effect. Was it challenging to create a silent video for the M+ Facade?
Pau: It is different. Instead of a sound that generates an emotional response, it is rather similar to star-gazing, an experience that comprises a multitude of moments. Hearing is one of the five senses that the Heart Sutra refers to. Like all other sensory stimulation, sound is a formless emptiness. But it is not really silent: the chanting of the Heart Sutra may not make sense to people who don’t understand the concepts of it or who speak different languages, but the work is still addressed to everybody. It can be a transparent background noise, or it can open up the senses.
Blair: The Shape of Light contains both live-action performance and digital special effects, both of which have been important hallmarks of your artistic practice. Can you walk us through your creative process for this work?
Pau: Light is the material I wanted to explore: light on the screen and on a body. Movement can be traced as pixels on a body that is lit up and extinguished. I also thought about each pixel on the screen against the liveliness of the light penetrating from the background and the surrounding ambience.
In the live performance that I have made to complement the Facade commission, I play with these electromagnetic waves from nature and from our machines. Light will change along with elements we cannot control, like a glitch in the system, impacted by the office lighting, people going home, and turning on the living room lights, for instance. Not only does the city’s people form a part of the work, but also the audience, who are immersed in the work. That is why I timed the performance to occur against the sunset, from 5pm to 8pm.
Blair: Indeed, The Shape of Light is a two-part commission. The M+ Facade video will be complemented by a live, durational performance happening at the museum, which will feature digital and light-based visualisations of soundwaves, along with a sound-bath using singing bowls and gongs. How will this performance augment the images and ideas presented in the video?
Pau: The video is best viewed after the sun goes down. Video light travels through darkness, merging with reflections and the ambience. The performance evolves around the ideas of the video. It plays out the concept of light and sound as waves of energy and as material for enlightenment. The performance expands the experience from daylight, through sunset, to the evening. The impermanence and existence in our cybernetic universe are seen through cycles of temporalities. It is a journey of light and sound, natural and artificial. It is a bardo, a liminal state between light and darkness, between sensing and knowing.
We will be live-coding throughout the performance, weaving the impact of every moment into the work, which is then live-streamed. That is why this work can never be repeated or prefabricated like an image or object.
Blair: You are a cross-disciplinary artist best known for your video and new media art. Still, over the years you have collaborated with experimental theatre-makers at Zuni Icosahedron; with choreographers like Dick Wong; and with multidisciplinary sound artists like Samson Young, to name just a few. What attracts you to these cross-disciplinary collaborations?
Pau: I think it is just natural to human beings. I come from a science background, but I was touched by the arts. I see reality as multi-disciplinary. In the age of social media, this current generation lives through two worlds: the virtual and the real. Both realities run on our beliefs, desires, and dreams. I think the arts create a space to meditate on these realities and our existence as human beings.
Blair: You are a co-founder of Videotage, Hong Kong’s oldest video art collective and archive established in 1986, as well as the co-founder of the annual Microwave International New Media Arts Festival, established in 1996. What role do artist communities play in your practice, and in your life more broadly?
Pau: I treasure the experience working with the art communities in Hong Kong and internationally. I learn a lot through them—they are my teachers. I am happy that art has shaped me into what I am today. For instance, when I encounter international artists at an event, and see what their concepts are and what they have created, it brings me great joy.
Blair: How do your dual careers as an artist and radiographer inform each other?
Pau: As a radiographer, I know how to produce an image, collect data, and interpret them. I think being an artist requires similar knowledge. However, art does not have an objective interpretation. Both aspects of my professional life fulfil different parts of my aspirations, but the art is always dearer to my heart.
The Shape of Light is co-commissioned by M+ and Art Basel. Image at top: Screening of The Shape of Light on M+ Facade, 2022. Photo: Lok Cheng, M+, Hong Kong
Ulanda Blair is Curator, Moving Image at M+.
Ellen Pau became one of the earliest pioneering video artists in Hong Kong. Beyond artistic creation, she has also been a leader in the promotion, curation, and education of art and culture in Hong Kong, through the founding of several important initiatives, including the city’s oldest video artist collective and archive for media art, Videotage in 1986. Pau also founded Microwave International New Media Arts Festival in 1996. Her works have been exhibited locally and worldwide in film festivals and art exhibitions. In 2001, Recycling Cinema, one of her most significant video installations, was presented at the Hong Kong Pavilion in the 49th Venice Biennale.