Sound sculpture – The felt experience of sound

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Kian-Peng Ong flips a switch on a circuit board crammed with wires. Behind him, in the centre of the room, a bowl suspended on a gear box, looking for all the world like half of a futuristic globe, begins to turn and swivel. Inside the bowl a few dozen ball bearings – particles – roll across the surface with every movement. The sound is low and rumbling, a slow shhhh. The more I listen, the more the sound of the gears turning fades away as a pattern emerges – the unmistakable to and fro of waves.

An algorithm mimicking the movement of waves will move this bowl and eleven others like it when Kian-Peng’s exhibition Particle Waves opens at the Arebyte Gallery in Hackney Wick next week. His excitement is restrained but clear as he talks about the work.

It’s a sound sculpture – “the felt experience of sound,” Kian-Peng calls it. The multi-form medium experienced a rapid rise in popularity in recent years. “I think in the past two or three years there has been growing interest in including sound sculptures. I think it’s a worldwide phenomenon as people get back to producing physical art in general. Or it might be because of a few artists who are really active like Zimoun.”

Kian-Peng Ong
Credit: Frankie Goodway

However, there are still not many custom media arts galleries that focus on the numerous ways of experiencing sound.

“One of the things that’s very interesting to me is how sound is perceived by a multitude of senses, but it’s always talked about as something that is heard. I look at sound as a phenomenon, as vibration. A lot of my work tries to reconcile that physicality with sound.”

Certainly the strange half-globes begged to be looked at as they pivot and the sound of the waves is deeply evocative – close to physical in the force it exerts over the mind. I mention that I used to fall asleep to the sound of waves and he enthuses over the similarities of pattern between waves and white noise and the sudden effect it can have on us.

“People don’t really think about the production of the sound,” Kian-Peng says. “I know people use a lot of digital synthesis or play back recording to produce the sound, but my kinetic installations actually produce the sound.”

Credit: Frankie Goodway
Credit: Frankie Goodway

Kian-Peng is a slight, 33-year-old Singaporean man. His fingers are covered with white paint, his face concealed behind an enormous pair of black framed glasses. When not exhibiting across the world – he’s had residencies in Korea and Japan – he lectures at Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore.

The rich arts scene of Hackney and the Arebyte gallery in particular has charmed him. “The gallery reached out to me. In Asia there are no media art galleries. There’s so much going on here. There are so many galleries and spaces. The first day I arrived, I just thought, wow. I heard it’s one of the biggest concentrations in Europe.”

Kian-Peng first became interested in media art when he studied design. He decided to do a Masters in design and media in LA. Then, a few years ago he started making electronic music, but he was fascinated by the physicality of sound. In particular an experience on a Californian beach brought him face to face with the intensity of sound:

“On one occasion I went to this beach called Coronado and there was this amazing soundscape. You could feel the vibration of sound coming from different directions. There was this gale wind that was blowing and there were mountains that refracted the sound to make this really intense soundscape that got me really intrigued by sound.”

Coronado from Ctrlsave on Vimeo.

“I try to create sound formations that relate to nature,” he adds. A previous installation of his mimicked rain clouds, with sound rumbling through the floor, and he recalls the strong reactions to the piece. “Everyone was lying on the floor and afterwards people told me that it had brought back really strong memories, which was fun to hear.”

For this installation, he hopes that people will try to listen “microscopically” to the shifting particles. “I hope people squat down and really try to hear it. That’d make me happy.”

Kian-Peng Ong
Credit: Frankie Goodway