In partnership with: Audemars Piguet
  • The Big Question
  • Meet The Artist
  • Of Myths And Poetry
  • Now Science
  • More Than Meets The Eye
The Big Question
What is it about the moon that has continually captivated humankind through the centuries and even into modern times? The answer may just lie in the mind and imagination of Hong Kong-based multidisciplinary artist Phoebe Hui, whose upcoming exhibition will mark the first Audemars Piguet Art Commission to be shown in Asia, and its fifth globally.
By Fairoza Mansor and Maciej Slomczynski
Apr 30, 2021
At this very moment, the moon is slowly moving away from Earth. This movement, experts estimate, is happening at the rate of about 3.78cm (1.5 inches) per year – roughly the same speed that our fingernails grow, as Hong Kong-based multidisciplinary artist Phoebe Hui says.
While that measurement may sound inconsequential – even negligible – this small difference over a long enough period of time could affect life on Earth.
“Scientists ‘guestimate’ that 1.4 billion years ago, a day on Earth would last just over 18 hours,” says Hui, whose upcoming exhibition focuses on the moon, the brightest and largest object in our night sky.
Earth is seen rising over the moon's horizon in this shot taken from the Apollo 11 space mission, which first landed humans on the moon. Photo: Nasa
“The moon leaving us makes our days longer, at a rate of approximately 19 hours every 4.5 billion years. Every year we get older, we also generally gain 0.00001542857 seconds for the coming year.” 
So what exactly is causing this phenomenon? The answer is simple: tidal interactions between the Earth and the moon.
The moon is kept in orbit by the gravitational force that the Earth exerts on it. At the same time, the moon exerts a gravitational pull on our planet, resulting in the movement of the Earth's oceans to form a tidal bulge – this is visible to us as high tides.
The moon exerts a gravitational pull on the Earth, causing its oceans to form a tidal bulge.
As the Earth rotates, some of the energy generated by the spinning planet gets transferred to the tidal bulge via friction. This propels the bulge forward, keeping it ahead of the moon. The tidal bulge, in turn, feeds a small amount of energy to the moon that pushes it into a higher orbit.
It is this marvel of the moon – among many others – that fascinates Hui. It also has motivated her to place the moon and all of its visual representations at the centre of her exhibition, which opens at the Duplex Studio in Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun cultural complex in April. Aptly titled The Moon Is Leaving Us, it will be the first Audemars Piguet Art Commission to be shown in Asia.
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Meet The Artist
In 2019, Hui was selected to present the next Audemars Piguet Art Commission, in the fifth edition of the competition under the auspices of Audemars Piguet Contemporary, which fosters and supports a creative community of contemporary artists working today.
Speaking to the South China Morning Post’s Morning Studio team from her studio in the Hong Kong Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre – which she has considered to be her second home for the past 10 years – Hui recalls how her inspiration for the installation came from a trip to Le Brassus, Switzerland, to visit the headquarters of Audemars Piguet.
During the trip, Hui was invited to have dinner at a family-run restaurant in the village nestled among snow-covered mountains, and took a walk after the meal.
Hong Kong-based artist Phoebe Hui is presenting her works in the first Audemars Piguet Art Commission to be shown in Asia. Photo: Audemars Piguet
“For an artist who was born and lives in Hong Kong, the experience of walking on snow at night was unique and awe-inspiring,” says Hui, who graduated from City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media before earning a master’s degree from Central Saint Martins in London and later completing the design media art master’s programme at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I felt so close to the Earth because of the soundscape of the tranquil forest – it was completely different from my daily experience,” she adds. “The shimmering light from the moon illuminated the snowy mountains.”
Since then, her imagination has often returned to the moon.
“I feel that our complex emotional ties with it are yet to be fully explored and reflected on,” Hui says. “I have aspired to transform the space that we will be occupying at Tai Kwun into an urban sanctuary for audiences to explore, reflect, build or rebuild their relationships with our universe.”
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The guest curator for the Art Commission, chosen with the support of Audemars Piguet Contemporary, is Ying Kwok, recently appointed as senior curator (digital and heritage) at Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, and who notably curated the Hong Kong presentation at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Kwok says that she thinks of Hui as “a visual poet” who researches and dissects information in order to present an interpretation – or, at times, a reinterpretation – of information.
Ying Kwok, senior curator (digital and heritage) at Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, is the guest curator for the Art Commission. Photo: Audemars Piguet
Indeed, research is fundamental in Hui’s creative process. For the exhibition, she says inspiration was drawn from a broad range of areas that include “literary theory, quantitative research methodology, system aesthetic, media archaeology and the philosophy of science”.
Of Myths And Poetry
A major installation within Hui’s exhibition is named after Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, who is often depicted on a chariot pulled by two snow-white horses.
This deity was worshipped in Greek mythology for pulling the moon across the sky with her chariot to provide a bright light in an otherwise dark nighttime sky. She was considered “the all-seeing eye of the night” from whom no one could hide or run.
Selene also represents constant change, just as the moon goes through different phases each month.
Inspired by this mythological figure, Hui built a drawbot, which she calls Selena, by hand and based on a CNN, or convolutional neural network, type of machine-learning programme.
“I built the [drawbot’s] stand using reappropriated fine artists’ tools including a wooden canvas and an easel, and programmed it,” she explains. “The machine produces beautiful visualisations of the moon with an incredible level of detail.”
Detailed visualisations of the moon created by Hui using a drawbot she has programmed. Photo: Audemars Piguet
Parts of The Moon Is Leaving Us take references from both Western and Eastern literary works, too.
For example, visitors will be greeted by a large-scale mechanical sculpture named Selenite, which also serves as the sole source of light in the main room of the exhibition. Its name is taken from the science-fiction novel The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells. In the novel, a young explorer discovers an underground civilisation on the moon where insect-like creatures called “Selenite people” live.
Visitors to the exhibition will also become acquainted with a popular poem by Li Bai, an acclaimed 8th-century Chinese poet known for developing written concepts related to the moon. Li’s poem is among a handful of Chinese literary works that have moved Hui.
The first literary piece that inspired her was Su Dongpo's Prelude to Water Melody – a classical poem from the 11th century that has long been used to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival. This poem pays homage to the moonlight and how it reminded the writer of home and family – that feeling of homesickness resonates with Hui after having been away from her loved ones while pursuing her studies, she reveals.
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Now Science
Moving beyond fiction, Hui’s works for The Moon Is Leaving Us are also heavily influenced and driven by scientific facts and technology. Hui once told the Post that she sees art and science as one, rather than as separate entities.
“During my research process, I immediately felt a particularly strong affinity for the working process of the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Hevelius,” Hui says.
Hevelius spent many years designing the instruments he used to systematically document his observations of the moon, and produced a detailed atlas of it over four years. The Polish astronomer also attempted to get perceptually closer to the moon by building a 150-foot-long telescope.
“Of course, visual culture in the 17th century was very different from contemporary culture, but Hevelius’ visual representation was groundbreaking at the time,” Hui says. “Immersing myself in the science of an unfamiliar past is a way to understand and reflect on our present culture.”
Johannes Hevelius, a 17th-century astronomer, produced a detailed atlas of the moon using instruments he designed. Photo: Getty Images
Open-source documentation from US space agency Nasa provided inspiration and images that have been incorporated into Hui’s artwork as well. She also spoke to a former Nasa astronaut who regaled her with his experiences in outer space and shared with the artist photos that he shot from the International Space Station.
Craters on the rugged terrain that is typically seen on the far side of the moon. Photo: Nasa
Hui also received guidance from Force Dimension, a company based in Nyon, Switzerland, that specialises in haptic devices and human interface design applied to robotics, aerospace, research, ocean and space exploration, and entertainment.
Visitors to the exhibition can expect to see the results of Hui’s research and influences via a series of moon drawings inspired by the history of scientific observation throughout the baroque period, when scientists started to use new tools such as the telescope to study the moon.
Hui’s detailed moon drawings are inspired by scientific observations throughout history. Photo: Audemars Piguet
“These technological devices often generate innovative images that have both scientific and aesthetic value. In producing these images, scientists need to think of which information to include and which to leave out as irrelevant,” Hui says.
“In a way, a scientist is like an artist who understands the importance of visual literacy.”
More Than Meets The Eye
For everything that has been documented about the moon before and after Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on its surface in 1969, there is still so much more to be seen and discovered.
After all, only one side of the moon faces Earth – and its mysterious far side looks significantly different than the near side that we see in the night sky. The time it takes for the moon to spin on its axis is almost exactly the same amount of time that it takes to orbit the Earth. Hence, the same side is always pointing towards us.
A close-up view of a bootprint in the lunar soil on the moon that was first captured in a photograph. Photo: Nasa
The world has remained curious.
In January 2019, China’s Chang’e 4 lunar probe – named after the Chinese moon goddess – made the world’s first soft landing on the far side of the moon, marking a major step in the country’s ambition to become a space superpower. The probe also carried germinating seeds, which resulted in an emerging sprout – the first plant to grow on the moon.
The successful mission by the Chinese space programme has led to renewed interest in lunar exploration from the US, Russia and Europe. All are intent on putting humans back on the moon, creating an outer-space renaissance of sorts.
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Hui counts herself among those looking ahead with the most curiosity.
“There is a special place in people’s hearts for the moon,” Hui says. “Uninhabitable and remote, the moon is a symbol of the future and an imaginary place that encourages exploration and suggests open possibilities.”
Hui puts a spotlight on these possibilities in her exhibition. Her mechanical sculpture Selenite, for example, shows images obtained from Nasa’s current open-source data as well as ancient astronomers’ drawings, which are all projected onto 48 screens, overloaded with a polariser and attached to each robotic arm.
Hui (right) and Kwok work on Selenite, a large-scale mechanical sculpture inspired by the science-fiction novel The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells. Photo: Audemars Piguet
The message behind this art installation is clear. Society’s understanding of the moon, beyond its mystical appeal, comes in a fragmented manner mediated by technological instruments – but its mysteries will only continue to be revealed and unravelled further.

The Moon Is Leaving Us by Phoebe Hui will be on view by invitation only due to the Covid-19 pandemic from April 25 to May 23 at Tai Kwun – Centre for Heritage and Arts. The installation can also be accessed remotely through a virtual exhibition tour and digital curator walk-throughs. It will be presented as the fifth Audemars Piguet Art Commission, an initiative under the auspices of Audemars Piguet Contemporary, a division of the Swiss fine watchmaker.

Each Audemars Piguet Art Commission is awarded through a competition held every two years, in which an artist – who has not yet been internationally recognised – is selected with the guidance of a renowned guest curator to develop a large-scale artwork that amplifies their practice at a scale that is a “first” in their career.


How The Moon's
from Earth inspires
a Hong Kong Artist
The Moon is leaving us at a rate of 3.78 centimetres per year