Seeing coda (written by Holly Lee)
When Ka-sing started to gather vocabularies from his past photographs, to compile and portray a hefty volume of poetic images dedicated to Hong Kong, I was curious about the weight of the project, taking into consideration the present antagonistic climate there, it would, undoubtedly, not towards the light.
He calls it CODA, a visual poem.
CODA has a colour, or two. The word, first of all, is assigned the Pantone colour of a slightly reddish - the lighter grey 409. Actually, I would hesitate between 409 and the deeper grey 410. I cannot pinpoint the exact colour because colours look inconsistent under different light sources. I am now sitting underneath a narrow, long bank of LEDs, which give out a warm yellowish light. When I walk over to the big window, with a lot of daylight flooding in, I might have to choose another number of grey, say 431. Now we consider the next part, the background colour, where the alphabets are set upon. Normally I would call it a very dull dark blue. How dull? the Pantone 539? No, it looks too primary. I would perhaps mix a slightly purplish blue 2965 with a medium grey 430. Again all these are just to give you an idea of the cover design of the book Ka-sing calls coda, which by this time, you've already got a sense of no matter how free flowing and open the work seems to be, still contains sentiments of fairly unbearable weight.
Ka-sing is the kind of person who talks little, but stays in focus. He could listen to Beethoven’s symphonies many times over without being bored. When I raised a surprise look at him still listening to the same play list weeks ago, he’d say, “This is a version by another conductor, a different orchestra.” I agree that he will always find something new, or a different interpretation in the same piece of music, but I also believe that the emotion, rhythm, ebb and flow in the musical language must have played an important part in influencing him, paving him the way to compose the work, fully informed by his photographs, as an unabbreviated visual experience, emerged new, as a narrative, a sensorial alternate form, a symphonic poem that one listens with the eyes.
I had an indescribable feeling, almost overwhelmed with emotions when I first saw CODA on the computer screen. A body of 227 images, set in a slow-moving temple which would take about 20 minutes to sit through. A meditation. A slow down of a hurried life. For certain, having sat patiently and gone through the twenty minutes visual epic, anybody would feel, or even be touched by one thing or the other, and despite their vastly different circumstances, some images are always universally understood and resonant with. That’s the beauty of the work. You cannot help but echo with some of the images you’re drawn to, there is a sense of familiarity, something long hidden in the secret corners of the mind that lure you step into their shadows…
The first image in CODA is a stunning fuzzy impressionistic black and white shot from Kowloon overlooking to Hong Kong Island, vaguely visible as mountains of lights. It starts with the celebration of the first night after the 1997 Handover in July. A night drizzling with light rain but nevertheless fireworks were still shooting off to light up the sky. The action was spontaneous, the photographer a wandering soul, following and searching the moods of the city. The image, like everything else, was never meant to be clear. The second shot shows a seemingly melt-down clock, which haunted me immediately as an object found after explosion, which then pursued by a sort of whirlwind, a quiet round object with pencil marks to a wreath of barbed wire twirled in the air, like a crown of thorns. The poetics of the images are so strong, we are being led into the dark wood round and round, sometimes quiet, smooth, sometimes rugged, dense and impenetrable.
Next we're ushered in pictures showing old, rephotographed negatives, perforated film strips that recorded images visually and mentally invoke sound vibrations, striking different cords in our hearts. Following pages of texturing and layering we are slowly entering Hong Kong life in the 80s and 90s, the rose garden, memories of the lives of glamours celebrities and common folks, arrows always asking the question come or go, this way or that way. And, trailing behind so many staircases, steps, writings and layerings of events the city comes to reveal itself - a wet football field, skyscrapers, trees, roads, grids in myriad forms. Sometimes it feels like a prison one needs to break out. But there are more knotted roots, more entangled wires and obstacles. Is that the state of mind of the artist?
Perhaps it means what it means. CODA is a soft sigh exhaled gently to something past. A good-bye (again) to a close friend and the city they both left behind. It is a dialogue and a funeral song - something that’s so frequently heard in Mahler’s symphonies. The famous Adagietto in his Fifth, a love song replete with the yearnings of living and the inevitability of dying. In making CODA, Ka-sing deliberately converted most of the colour photographs into black and white, with just a few exceptions - the colour he still sees and ingrained in his memory, the photograph “I promise you a rose garden”, which he created as an editorial assignment for a magazine in 1990. Hong Kong, seven years into heading back to the hands of China, was full of optimism and a number of mega constructions were being proposed. They called it the Rose Garden Project. The future looked rosy, thus the title Ka-sing gave to his picture, not without skepticism. Today we are still intrigued by the thought and the picture, even so the sky has already turned grey; the promise, like the magnificent, breathtaking cloudscape, remains but a scene, just flew past the window of an aeroplane.
Can you live in the clouds, beautiful as it is, asked Ping-Kwan in his poem. Ping-Kwan was thinking about temporal, terrestrial and earthly matters at the time when he wrote the poem in 1981. He was seeing his city distancing, disappearing under the clouds after the plane took off. Or, perhaps he was suggesting more? Forty years later, Ka-sing responded with CODA, his jolts of feelings largely expressed through images, his love and memories of the vanishing city, a melancholic departure that lingers like a slow, at times turbulent tune that keeps looping itself - a mirage of desire, a smoke screen to despair. This city, often considered, undermined as transient, has become indispensable, a home resides faintly in the heart. CODA is but another chapter, a book made after another book in the same year*. The end shot is a small Big Bang. The ending is another beginning.
*Lee Ka-sing domestic-life-colour-book was made prior to coda. It was made during the lock-down months of Covid in 2020 (with touches of optimism and a lot of colours). Unlike coda, which recycled old images, all 227 images in domestic-life-colour-book were new. The book has 480 Pages, the same number of pages and images as in coda. As Ka-sing puts it, a duo.