“Little one, I have dreams to sell,” begins one of a parcel of two-part choral songs by Alfred H. Hyatt and E. Markham Lee “especially suited for ladies’ schools, the higher classes in girls’ schools, and well-trained boys’ voices,” purveyed at six for a shilling. “There is tender and genuine feeling in these pieces, and they are calculated to raise the musical taste of all who sing them,” reads the advertisement in the Musical Herald on July 1, 1904. In “The Dream Seller,” a figure entices the listener with the promise of things that sparkle in the night, weaving together notions of self-improvement, consumerism, and a life of ease in the sky. Its refrain, “Silver moon or golden star, which will you buy of me?,” forms the title of contemporary Hong Kong artist Samson Young’s first American solo museum exhibition, at the Smart Museum in Chicago, which considers the danger, wonder, and optimism of the utopian drive as characterized by the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and experienced in the present day.
A Century of Progress, the city’s second World’s Fair, convened nations on the lakefront and Northerly Island to celebrate the theme of technological innovation under the motto “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” Featuring the latest in automobiles and futuristic architecture, the fair was conceived in part as a vindication of capitalism during the depths of the Great Depression and described afterward as a “utopia . . . founded on democracy and manufacturing.” The century was Chicago’s: the event marked the centennial of the city, and the fair endowed the city’s flag with its fourth star. When the fair opened, 12 million Americans, a quarter of the labor force, were unemployed.
The House of Tomorrow, a 12-sided glass-clad edifice designed by George Fred Keck, was the most popular of the 12 futuristic domiciles featured at the fair. Replete with a hangar for a tomorrow when every household had a jet, the house was a mesmerizing failure from the start, with a passive solar heating system that rendered the structure an oven in summer. Currently situated with four other surviving “Homes of Tomorrow” in Indiana Dunes National Park, it stands vacant and dilapidated, awaiting a private tenant willing to assume responsibility for an estimated $2 million restoration.
Young’s film Houses of Tomorrow, premiering at the Smart alongside other films, sculptures, drawings, and archival materials, opens with a drone’s-eye view of the dark dodecagon, transformed into a manic Ferris wheel from our sky-high vantage, accompanied by the peppy electronic jingle of a slot machine or video game. Inside, a man (Michael Schiefel) stands in gloves and coattails with brilliantined hair, an iPad, and a microphone, crooning in a ruined kitchen with nothing but Miracle Whip, the cheaper, beefed-up mayonnaise of 1933, in the cupboards. The jars are labeled for international sale, English and Chinese. “It’s so strange, and it’s so divine,” the man sings, before an elliptical series of images flashes forth—automobiles, amphorae, animated figures doing calisthenics and grand jetes. A banner the color of a Chinese flag reads “If we / burn / you / burn / with us”—the Hunger Games tagline spray-painted on the walls of Hong Kong by protesters demanding democracy.
Labor Day is the American holiday commemorating the Pullman strike of 1894, which ended with deadly intervention by federal troops and competed with the first Chicago World’s Fair to make our city an international focal point for discovery and democracy. Generally marked by a day off from work and a barrage of exhortations to buy clothes, cars, and electronics at cut-rate prices, this Labor Day, students in Young’s home Hong Kong began a strike following 13 weeks of prodemocracy demonstrations.
Hong Kong has been a port, a colony, a special administrative region—it is an island and a peninsula, independent and bound, with boundaries named by roads rather than topological features and an indeterminate, constantly shifting area of reclaimed land. It hems in the harbor, though it rests in the ocean; it does not know its borders, even as it is the China that speaks.
Young is also hybrid—a musician, composer, performer, visual artist educated in music, philosophy, and gender studies in Hong Kong, Australia, and the United States whose works take the form of drawings, sculptures, music compositions, performances, and films. He has represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale and assembled audiences to walk on the streets where the 2014 Umbrella movement occurred in an immersive performance that ended with Young singing personally to each participant over their mobile phones. “I think it is important to have an aspiration for a better future,” he says. v