By the light of the moon

Art & Culture | Cara Chen 14 May 2021

On a visit to Audemars Piguet's headquarters in Le Brassus in 2019, Phoebe Hui experienced a full moon while on an evening walk. The moonlight's pronounced reflection off the snowy slopes lit up the night.

This stuck with Hui and inspired her to take the moon as the theme of her work for the 5th Audemars Piguet Art Commission.

Upon her return to Hong Kong, she began her research on the celestial body and discovered an important fact which became the basis for her artwork: the moon is slowly moving away from the Earth at a speed of 3.78 centimeters a year - the same speed at which our fingernails grow.

"It matters to me,' she said. "Even though I know that during my lifetime, it won't have a great impact, I still wanted to respond to that."

Titled The Moon is Leaving Us, the large-scale, site-specific installation showcased at Tai Kwun's Duplex Studio was conceived and realized by Hui in collaboration with guest curator Kwok Ying and with the support of Audemars Piguet Contemporary curator Audrey Teichmann.

During an interview with a former astronaut, Hui learned that our understanding of the moon is incomplete and subjective - as its visual identity is mediated by scientific instruments and data, as well as scientists' personal beliefs.

This idea fascinated Hui and motivated her to think about the variability of the world in her new works. There are two aspects to nature, she said: one is the facts we presume about it and the other is the invisible world we cannot see - a concept reflected in her work.

The first major work, Selenite, which takes its name from the science fiction novel The First Men in the Moon by Herbert George Wells, is a mechanical kinetic robot that is the room's principal source of light.

Its 48 mechanical arms are arranged in a parabolic shape, with a screen affixed to each. The fragmented images of the moon, ranging from historical drawings to visuals from NASA and online open-source data, are displayed on these screens, which are overlaid with polarizers that only show a partial view of the lunar images. But when viewers look at the installation through the rotating acrylic plate, they will see different images that change all the time.

The journey continues upstairs with Selena, which means "moon" in Greek - a hand-built machine programmed by Hui that produces one-of-a-kind ink drawings of the moon's visible and invisible sides. It is situated in the artist's Research Room, along with objects used throughout the making process of the commission.

As part of her research, Hui also looked into how the moon has historically been represented by looking at online records, including the first book to include a detailed lunar map: the 1647 edition of Selenographia, sive Lunae descriptio by astronomer Johannes Hevelius.

This, coupled with contemporary observations of the moon, inspired the draw-bot Selena, which was built using reappropriated fine art tools, including a canvas frame and parts from an easel.

Hui said her focus while creating the works was coming up with the description of the movement, colors and shades of the Moon. This is precisely what Kwok thinks is unique about Hui: while female artists often leave impressions of being sentimental, Hui is also "very nerdy."

"In the beginning, I didn't understand the concept behind it, but the works are visually poetic and warm," Kwok said. "And later, I found that her work is not just mixing tech with interests, but is researched-based and presented clearly with references."

For Kwok, the work shows not just the different approaches of art and science, but also their similarities in terms of spirit. "I see from Phoebe that she, as an artist, has the faith of a scientist in capturing the information. We are at a difficult time in which we see how little we know and are trying to know more about the world."

On view by invitation only until May 23, The Moon is Leaving Us is publicly accessible through a virtual exhibition tour and digital curator walkthroughs via Audemars Piguet's website.



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