A brush with the

A rich va­ri­ety of art from home and abroad ar­rived on the city’s streets in 2016. But is HK ready for a pub­lic art rev­o­lu­tion yet? Chi­tralekha Basu writes.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS - Basu@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

Hong Kong has prob­a­bly cov­ered some dis­tance since the time gilded drag­ons, mas­sive AIDS rib­bons and glazed bronze fig­ures of chubby-cheeked chil­dren read­ing in parks were among the most vis­i­ble ex­am­ples of art in its open spa­ces. 2016 was a par­tic­u­larly event­ful year for pub­lic art in Hong Kong. The city got to sam­ple works by some of the world’s finest — the ex­ag­ger­at­edly cur­va­ceous bronze fig­ures by Fer­nando Botero, the spear-headed, geo­met­ric, semi-ab­stract sculp­tures by Lynn Chad­wick, the neon-il­lu­mi­nated images by Vhils erected in Pier 4 in Cen­tral, mim­ick­ing the iconic build­ings along the har­bor front.

It is a good year in terms of lo­cally pro­duced pub­lic art as well. The Hong Kong MTR com­mis­sioned well-known artists from the city — He­ung Kin-fung, Lam Tung-pang and Ben­son Kwun — to spruce up some of their sta­tions. Univer­sity of Hong Kong’s (HKU) Cen­ten­nial Cam­pus ac­quired a Danny Lee sculp­ture — his fun take on the clouds and moun­tains in tra­di­tional Chi­nese ink paint­ings. Be­tween late De­cem­ber and Jan­uary 2017, Oi! Street Art Space will run a pro­gram in which four Hong Kong artists will each ma­nip­u­late the spa­ces in­side a cen­tury-old struc­ture as­signed to them, cre­at­ing site-spe­cific art on the ba­sis of re­search and an ap­pli­ca­tion of per­sonal aes­thet­ics. The au­di­ences who step in these made-over spa­ces will, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, be a part of the art project even as they ex­pe­ri­ence it.

Ev­i­dently, there is no dearth of pub­lic art events in the city’s cul­tural cal­en­dar. But then, is Hong Kong ready for a pub­lic art rev­o­lu­tion yet?

Meg Mag­gio, direc­tor of Pékin Fine Arts gallery, cred­its the city’s prop­erty de­vel­op­ers with pre­par­ing the seedbed for arts ed­u­ca­tion by al­low­ing pub­lic ac­cess to art ob­jects from their col­lec­tion. “In some places the gov­ern­ment of­fers a dis­count if you make space for art, but in Hong Kong prop­erty de­vel­op­ers do it with­out any such in­cen­tive,” she re­marks.

Some do this with flam­boy­ance, flaunt­ing their prized ac­qui­si­tions from the atri­ums and pas­sage­ways of their prop­er­ties, as New World Devel­op­ment seems to do with their Damien Hirst and Deb­o­rah But­ter­field sculp­tures at the K11 art mall. Some oth­ers pre­fer to keep it more un­der­stated. Hong Kong Land, for in­stance, has put Sal­vador Dali’s Wo­man Aflame in a rel­a­tively in­con­spic­u­ous cor­ner be­side the es­ca­la­tors in Alexan­dra House, and a generic Henry Moore, The Dou­ble Oval, in the pa­tio of Jar­dine House. And yet oth­ers have a more light­hearted ap­proach. Tracey Emin’s neon sculp­ture, My Heart is With You Al­ways, for in­stance, was tem­po­rar­ily pinned to the façade of The Penin­sula Ho­tel in 2014, forc­ing clas­si­cal 19th-cen­tury ro­coco style ar­chi­tec­ture to co-habit with kitsch.

And yet, pub­lic art is so ubiq­ui­tous in Hong Kong, they of­ten fail to get a no­tice from the passersby on the run. “It’s ac­tu­ally quite dif­fi­cult for pub­lic art to be no­ticed at all in Hong Kong,” says Ste­fan Al, who had taught at HKU’s school of ar­chi­tec­ture. “There are sky­scrapers, so many LED screens, busy traf­fic, hun­dreds of peo­ple, and all the shop fronts. And art has to com­pete with all of these. Maybe it’s not so much an is­sue of whether Hong Kong res­onates with art. The choice and place­ment of art is not al­ways op­ti­mal for notic­ing these.”

The Gorm­ley nudes

The 31 life-size bronze fig­ures by Bri­tish sculp­tor Antony Gorm­ley, in­stalled on the rooftops and pave­ments of Hong Kong for three months in 2015-16, how­ever, jolted Hong Kong’s res­i­dents out of their ap­par­ent in­dif­fer­ence to pub­lic art. The Gorm­ley nudes cre­ated a res­o­nance al­right, although there were one or two dis­cor­dant notes as well. The lo­cal po­lice sta­tion in Ad­mi­ralty re­ceived quite a few calls from peo­ple who as­sumed the dark fig­ures stand­ing on un­walled ter­races in the dead of the night needed help. A tem­po­rary bar­rier had to be erected around the fig­ure stand­ing on a side­walk in Cen­tral af­ter some­one com­plained it was ob­struct­ing pedes­trian traf­fic. At the end of the day, the Gorm­ley nudes had, how­ever, suc­cess­fully started a con­ver­sa­tion about the inter-re­la­tion­ship be­tween pub­lic art and civic re­spon­si­bil­ity and their mu­tual ju­ris­dic­tions.

It was not the first time naked life-size fig­ures placed in pub­lic view had stirred mixed feel­ings in Hong Kong. The artist Lam Tung-pang re­mem­bers pub­lic out­rage over nude sculp­tures a store owner had put in a dis­play win­dow in the 1990s. In 2016 the protests were not on ac­count of ob­scen­ity.. This time peo­ple were of­fended be­cause art got in their way, try­ing to shake them out of a com­fort zone of hav­ing to deal with the rou­tine and fa­mil­iar.

“Peo­ple have cer­tainly be­come more ac­cept­ing, but these changes are hap­pen­ing slowly,” says Lam. “I think it’s good to have even peo­ple who find nude sculp­tures of­fen­sive to be talk­ing about it. Such ar­gu­ment pro­vides more per­spec­tives on pub­lic art, es­pe­cially if the ar­gu­ments are con­struc­tive ones.”

Pauline Foes­sel, who runs the non-profit Hong Kong Con­tem­po­rary Art Foun­da­tion, thinks the tem­po­rary fencing got the Gorm­ley sculp­tures more at­ten­tion, which was a good thing even if it were for the wrong rea­sons.

But didn’t the yel­low rail­ings ruin the in­tended look of the sculp­ture?

The pos­si­bil­ity of such un­fore­seen con­se­quences, says Foes­sel, is writ­ten into the con­tract for those in­volved in pub­lic art pro­grams. Hav­ing cu­rated two sig­nif­i­cant street art shows, by Shep­ard Fairey and Vhils, in the re­cent past, Foes­sel is only too aware of the ephemeral na­ture of such projects. “If you want to put a work of art out in a space that does not have con­trol of an or­ga­ni­za­tion or an artist, you have to know that the piece will be more vul­ner­a­ble and ex­posed to po­ten­tial dam­age. Any artist cre­at­ing a mu­ral knows it is not go­ing TheDou­bleO­val to last very long, cer­tainly not for ever and that’s the beauty of it as well.”

Up, close and phys­i­cal

Lee Ho-yin, head of ar­chi­tec­tural con­ser­va­tion pro­grams at HKU, would in fact not call some­thing “pub­lic art” un­less view­ers are able to get up, close and some­what phys­i­cal with the piece. He re­calls how the gi­ant spi­der-es­que sculp­ture of a danc­ing fig­ure erected at the en­trance of Lang­ham Place on Ar­gyle Street would be jeal­ously guarded by se­cu­rity men un­til re­cently, which didn’t seem to make sense. In Lee’s opin­ion, even the Bruce Lee sculp­ture in Tsim Sha Tsui, prob­a­bly the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Hong Kong’s pop cul­ture his­tory, would have been more ef­fec­tive placed closer to the ground level, for peo­ple to put an arm around the mar­tial arts hero if they so wanted.

“Pub­lic art in HK is still treated as some­thing very pre­cious,” says Lee. “Usu­ally they are mounted in a way that you can­not or are sup­posed to not touch these. That sort of de­feats the point of pub­lic art. This sug­gests who­ever is in charge of man­ag­ing pub­lic art projects are not mak­ing a distinc­tion be­tween pub­lic art and art that be­longs in a mu­seum.”

The at­tempt to preser ve some of the few re­main­ing pieces of cal­lig­ra­phy by Tsang Tsou-choi il­lus­trates Lee’s point rather well. While he lived, Tsang would fill up ev­ery bit of clean sur­face he could lay his hands on by writ­ing down his tale of woe, blam­ing every­one in­clud­ing the Queen of Eng­land for his mis­for­tunes. And then he be­came some­thing of a pop icon whose work in­spired ag­gres­sive bid­ding at auc­tions and cal­lig­ra­phy was copied on tee-shirts. A need was felt to pre­serve the few re­main­ing ex­am­ples of his hand­i­work on Hong Kong’s walls. A pil­lar on the Star Ferry Pier, dis­play­ing one of his typ­i­cal rants, pro­claim­ing him­self as “The King of Kowloon”, was wrapped in a trans­par­ent plas­tic cas­ing to that end.

Lee agrees putting a pro­tec­tive sheath around street art is in­deed jar­ring. The whole project of try­ing to pre­serve, col­lect or put graf­fiti in a mu­seum is at odds with its orig­i­nal in­ten­tion.

“When he cre­ated these, Tsang Tsou­choi never meant them to be looked at as art in the first place,” says Lee. “Peo­ple could re­late to his anx­i­ety and griev­ances, ex­pressed in the form of cal­lig­ra­phy. It kind of be­came an al­ter­na­tive form of art. By turn­ing these into high art and try­ing to pre­serve them one would com­pletely ruin the na­ture of street art.”

He doesn’t mind the mer­chan­diz­ing of Tsang’s cal­lig­ra­phy though, by hav­ing them copied on mugs and cush­ion cov­ers.

“If it’s pub­lic art, it’s pub­lic prop­erty and peo­ple should have ac­cess to it to make what­ever they please with it,” he says.

Older modes don’t cut it

Both Lee and the artist Lam seem to agree that while Hong Kong peo­ple are be­gin­ning to wake up to the pres­ence of pub­lic art in their im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings — a happy devel­op­ment for which the Gorm­ley nudes were per­haps the im­me­di­ate cat­a­lyst — what’s prob­a­bly still lack­ing is not so much the ac­cep­tance of pub­lic art as a valid art genre but the imag­i­na­tion to come up with newer artis­tic modes of ex­pres­sion, be­fit­ting a can­vas that’s vast, in­tractable and de­pen­dent on pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion.

“There is al­ways a strong fo­cus on the aes­thetic side in Hong Kong,” says Lee. “That’s not the only thing art is about, in my opin­ion.”

Lam says there are just too many sim­i­lar projects be­ing passed off as pub­lic art, at the mo­ment. A way of work­ing round such a la­cuna might be in in­volv­ing “peo­ple from all sorts of back­grounds and in­sti­tu­tions, bring­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of sen­si­bil­i­ties and life ex­pe­ri­ences” to the ta­ble, he sug­gests.

Af­ter all, pub­lic art can­not only be about artists. It was never meant to be.

Any artist cre­at­ing a mu­ral knows it is not go­ing to last very long, cer­tainly not for ever and that’s the beauty of it as well.”

Con­tact the writer at


Antony Gorm­ley’s bronze nude drew flak for ob­struct­ing pedes­trian traf­fic in Cen­tral. The Gorm­ley nudes in­stalled on un-walled ter­races con­fused some peo­ple even as they served as an in­tro­duc­tion to pub­lic art. Wo­manAflame by Sal­vador Dali and by Henry Moore are among the works by 20th-cen­tury masters of mod­ern art that Hong Kong gets to see for free.

Putting Tsang Tsou-choi’s

cal­lig­ra­phy at the Star Ferry Pier in­side a pro­tec­tive cover is at odds with the na­ture of pub­lic art.

Pauline Foes­sel, direc­tor, Hong Kong Con­tem­po­rary Art Foun­da­tion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.