The Moon is Leaving Us: A Scientific Exploration of the Arts

Feature Story

On view at Tai Kwun during the 2021 Art Basel, HKDI lecturer Phoebe Hui's installation "The Moon is Leaving Us" is deemed a thought-provoking experience. Commissioned by Audemars Piguet, the installation is the fifth contemporary art commission of the renowned luxury watchmaker. The Audemars Piguet Art Commission is a biennial competition under the auspices of Audemars Piguet Contemporary, the manufacturer's contemporary art programme. "The Moon is Leaving Us" is the first Art Commission to be exhibited in Asia. We sit down with Hui as she shares her experience and insights on the creative project.

Despite Phoebe Hui's international education background including London and California, she finds her most inspired times in Hong Kong. The City University of Hong Kong graduate concentrated in Editing and Sound Design at school, where all her advisors were working artists. Making arts while delved into academia widened Hui's horizon, and made her realise the importance of research, both as a tool to broaden her perspectives, and a solid foundation to every creative project.

The concept of the latest commissioned work came from Hui's visit to Audemars Piguet's Swiss headquarters in winter. As she was taking her post-dinner gala stroll, the moonlit night and the snow-covered land in complete silence reminded her of a famous ancient Chinese poem on the moon by poet Su Tungpo. People come to snowy mountain for having a meal together when it is a full moon date. Taking the moon as her subject, Hui began her long research journey, including reading about ancient astronomers' observations and explorations of the moon, and interviewing former astronauts of our time who have physically travel in the space.

During her research, Hui found out that the moon is departing from the Earth at an annual average speed of 3.78cm. Fascinated by this finding, it became the source of concept for her project. The method of artistic expression, on the other hand, was inspired by "Selenographia, sive Lunae descriptio", an exceptional book by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, in which the moon was described topographically based on the astronomer's exploration of the moon with his self-invented telescope.

Having the 370-year-old Hevelius illustration of the moon as a core blueprint, a self-developed drawbot named Selena produces drawings based on NASA's open source images in the style of Hevelius. Another work in the exhibition, named Selenite, displays new moon images, generated based on 151 moon representations in the last 300 years in science through machine learning. Hui displays these illustrations through dozens of computer screens assembled on a giant dome structure, reminding visitors of satellites in outer space.

For a different viewing experience, each visitor will be given a polarised lens for looking at the screens on Selenite. The idea came from Hui's research where she found that without polarizers, screens of digital devices appear all blank, as if the experience of viewing the moon through the telescope, revealing the invisible world through instrument.

Hui does not shy away from expressing her interest in technology and machinery as she constantly adopts these concepts in her artworks. On oftentimes being mistaken as an engineer or scientist, Hui comments: "The 20th century was the age for specialisation. Yet, I think of the Renaissance period where artists who would consider questions in both art and science perspective, a holistic way of understanding our world. Our society increasingly faces problems that call for interdisciplinary ways of thinking. Maybe it's because of my avid curiousity, I always want to explore how a machine works, which is why I chose computer studies and programming as my elective in middle school when my teacher was so certain I'd choose art."

In fact, apart from learning programming, Hui also already began drawing manga, writing poems and contributing to culture magazines in middle school, and continued to do so until she moved for university. "The Moon is Leaving Us" is a sound representation of the artist herself. The exhibit explores the Arts with Science and expresses emotions through rationality. The historical yet innovative installation reinterprets Mother Earth's true companion, in the hope that it will leave a beautiful trace before departing forever.