A flag is so much more than a piece of cloth. Flags can represent many different concepts, from identity and history to religion and politics. In Northern Ireland, of course, flags have a particular resonance.
This summer, as part of the London 2012 Festival, the German sound artist and composer, Hans Peter Kuhn, will be coordinating the artistic installation Flags at the Giants Causeway in County Antrim.
It's an ambitious project that features a series of flags – red on one side, yellow on the other – which will rotate freely in the wind, randomly positioned along the cliff face at the bay of Port Noffer. Unusually for Kuhn, Flags involves no traditional audio accompaniment. It is, instead, a visual metaphor of the digital experience. The only sound is of the wind.
Flags was commissioned by the London 2012 Festival, with partnership funding from Northern Ireland Tourist Board. When Kuhn was initially approached by Belfast gallerist, Hugh Mulholland, of Third Space Gallery, to undertake the project, he soon found that, due to the location's remoteness, his usual means of production would not be possible.
'When we speak about digital technology,' Kuhn explains, careful to get his idea across in plain terms, 'it’s a translation from analogue to mathematics. For instance, when you work with a computer, it’s a digital device, but the keyboard that you use is analogue: based on transistors, which are switches.
'In order to deal with something in the digital realm, then, you need to translate the analogue into a digital signal, a system of numbers. Every letter has a series of digits...' Here Kuhn excuses the technical jargon, but maintains that Flags cannot be understood without it.
'Sound moves, and the quicker it moves, the higher the tone,' he continues. 'A microphone has a membrane, a magnet and a coil, and this coil translates the movement into electricity. The computer then translates this into computable words and numbers. So Flags is kind of like this analogue digital converter, because the wind is blowing [through the flags]...'
Kuhn’s work is spread across various spectrums of the artistic world. He started off his career in German theatre in the late 1970s as a sound artist; collaborating with the avant-garde American director, Robert Wilson, who celebrated the idea that every single element in theatre is just as important as the text. This gave him a platform to explore various techniques in working with experimental sound.
Discovering the important role that lighting can have in representing artistic abstraction came out of Kuhn's desire to hide his musical equipment from the theatre audience. The result was the discovery of a new art form.
'I didn’t want people to see my equipment, but then people didn’t know what was going on, so I did a simple trick,' he explains. 'I put the loudspeaker on a little pedestal, and put a little light on the loudspeaker. This for me became a sculpture.'
These small sculptures grew into large installations, and eventually moved out of theatres and into various museums around the globe, including the Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, PS1 in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Kuhn's displays became so colossal that they could no longer fit indoors, and he began to use public spaces. His resulting public, post-modern light installations have included a display of metal tubes hanging from the Esplanade Bridge in Singapore, and a mammoth light-focused spectacle on the lower West Side of pier 32 in Manhattan.
It’s difficult, in the end, to define the one artistic field that Kuhn actually belongs to. As an ambivalent artist, Kuhn favours interpretations of his work, rather than making definitive statements about them himself.
'I always find it difficult to be direct in my work,' he adds. 'Because I’m a very abstract person. So you can create situations without being totally defined about things.
'I believe you can deal with these situations in an indirect way, by showing pictures that induce feelings rather than telling people, this and that is happening.'
Historically, conflict in Northern Ireland has often been represented through the various colours and emblems that flags represent. Is Kuhn’s latest project, then, somehow a subtle celebration of how, in recent times at least, both the Tricolour and the Union Jack have waved peacefully side by side?
To commit a fixed meaning to his work would indeed be to defeat the purpose of it, he says. 'My work is not political. I never stand for one side or the other. I’m not interested in these positions, because I don’t usually believe they are worth fighting for. Sorry to say that. I know in Northern Ireland there has been this big conflict, and it’s difficult for outsiders to understand this animosity and fighting.
'My interest is to do something that is independent of these troubles, and to allow people of both sides to appreciate it. I also hope this work will show people why nature is so much more important than all of the human problems that we have. We are totally depending on nature; this is what we have to take care of. We should learn to understand it a little bit better.'
Flags will be in situ at the Giant's Causeway from August 20 to October 28, 2012.