Dining at the deli? Check out the Dali
The trend of hosting art shows in privately owned spaces with public access is catching on in HK. Is exhibiting in malls the future in a city where galleries are struggling to cope with depleting footfalls? Chitralekha Basu reports.
bank executives in business suits and high-profile art collectors.
By hosting art shows in its various open-access private properties all the year round Hongkong Land continues to play a significant role in democratizing high culture. However, says Stefan Al, who teaches urban design at the University of Pennsylvania and edited Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption (HKU Press), the trend of “making elite art more accessible” is also “a sign of art being increasing commercialized”. “It’s a reflection of shrinking public budget for art and also of people’s growing taste for high-end products,” he adds.
The existence of K11, founded with a view to marrying shopping with art appreciation, says Al, is “especially symptomatic in Hong Kong where culture has been so much underfunded and developing platforms to showcase art is so much more expensive”.
It’s almost as if K11 materialized because of a gap created in the realm of conventional exhibition spaces. Tired of waiting for museums closed for long-term renovation work to reopen even as others take longer than anticipated to build, audiences are open to exploring alternative venues to see art. Malls seem like a natural choice in Hong Kong where people like the idea of getting more value for the money spent. Art resonates better with the affluent citydweller when presented as part of a composite consumer experience, with dining, shopping and an afternoon at the spa thrown into the package.
Expectedly, not everybody is happy to see art piggybacking on Luis Vuitton bags, especially when the two are thrown together arbitrarily. Critics of the consumerist impulse to appropriate art, says Al, “call it co-op art, referring to art placed in sites — malls, corporate office spaces and public plazas — with which they do not have a relationship.” Al’s personal view, however, is that “if it’s done well there is nothing wrong with having art in a mall. It provides opportunity for the artist to display and finance his work. It also is an opportunity for the public to see art.”
At a time when gallery owners complain about spiraling rents and depleting footfalls, “shopping malls can make for a great, at least interim, solution to bring art to as many people as possible”, says Lee Ho-yin, director of architectural conservation programs at the University of Hong Kong. Even architecturally speaking, malls make for sensible, user-friendly choices, he says.
“Modern high- end shopping malls have a huge atrium space with the flexibility of displaying art of different sizes, hung from the ceiling, free-standing on the ground or displayed on the wall,” explains Lee. “Also these are airconditioned, comfortable for the visitor, have good security. Climate control guarantees a degree of protection against wear and tear and humidity.”
But is there a chance the juxtaposition of art and merchandize might deflect attention towards the flashier one of the two? Could malls be the right space for a serious connoisseur of art?
Lee doesn’t quite see a conflict of interest as “ultimately it is about drawing people to the shop fronts”. And neither does he anticipate malls turning into a gallery for mediocre art by pandering to popular tastes. “Commercial enterprises are profit-oriented. And to be able to make money out of a project, commercial players would want to bring in the very best,” says Lee. “Shopping and accessing art could be very compatible.”
Interestingly, quite a few art projects mounted in K11 were a tongue-in-cheek comment on the idea of consumerism and its trappings. One of the most striking examples of using elements from pop art and kitsch to subversive effect was a series of photographs by the South Korean-born artist, Lee Jee-young, shown at K11 in 2014. Matchboxes, dices, Lego blocks and other tokens of a consumerist culture were magnified and photographed against closeted, distorted psychedelic backgrounds, showing the lone woman figure as cowering in their menacing presence. In one of the 18 images she is seen drowning in a vortex of hand-painted Chinese fans.
The series was a dig at the way the goods of desire often take up more space in people’s lives than they had bargained for. Like Shen’s balloon sculpture and Song’s monument of mirrors, Lee tweaked elements borrowed from a consumerist culture and had the show in a space where consumerism thrives to underscore the irony.
“Having pop art exhibited in a mall is sort of art coming full circle,” says Al.
Zawitz and Lee won’t rule out malls devoting more spaces to art in the future, taking a share of the market that has conventionally belonged to art galleries and museums. Zawitz says such a trend would be particularly welcome in a city like Hong Kong since “there are hardly any galleries at the street level here because it’s so expensive”. Malls have a distinct advantage over galleries tucked away in the higher floors of industrial buildings, usually visited only by the invited aficionados on opening nights, he says, with less chances of attracting a potentially interested passer-by.
Al, however, wouldn’t want to see the galleries in Central and Sheung Wan go, or, at any rate, lose their influence in the city’s art ecosystem if indeed malls ate into a chunk of their business. “Walking from gallery to gallery is an outdoor experience, whereas malls are introverted, insulated from the city.”
He, for one, would miss the vibe an art gallery inspires in the street on which it is located if more of them shut shop and the art they dealt in ended up on a shopping mall display window.
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Song Dong’s current installation at Hong Kong K11 Art Mall is a comment on the “glamorous emptiness” in modern urban life.
A classic painting by Rubens (left) shared space with a playful sculpture by Yinka Shonibare (above) at Landmark Atrium in March.
Richard X. Zawitz’s show at the Rotunda, Exchange Square, last month, triggered a mixed bag of emotions in the public who passed by.
LeeL Jee-Jyoung’s’ photographsh t h exhibited at K11 Art Mall in 2014 were a comment on the overwhelming impact of consumerism.
Giant golden balloons installed in K11 Atrium last April threw up exaggerated reflections of the mall’s snazzy interiors.