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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS - Con­tact the writer at basu@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

Last April it was the gi­ant bal­loons. This month it is mir­rors and glass. Last time it was a 17.5 -meter high in­stal­la­tion by the ar­chi­tect James Shen, shooting up sky­ward from the base of K11 Atrium at Tsim Sha Tsui, re­flect­ing and trans­mo­gri­fy­ing the never-end­ing stream of shop­pers rid­ing the escalators on its golden PVC coat­ing. This time it is all about in­te­ri­or­ity.

Shen’s gleam­ing cylin­ders and spheres have given way to an oc­tag­o­nal tower made of re­cy­cled win­dow panes and mir­rors, cre­ated by Song Dong. The in­te­ri­ors of the glass cap­sule are awash with lights stream­ing down from a com­pli­cated chan­de­lier over­head. Placed strate­gi­cally, the mir­rors throw infinite re­flec­tions of the light bulbs, near-oblit­er­at­ing the viewer stand­ing in­side, even as they ac­cen­tu­ate and mul­ti­ply the “glam­orous empti­ness” within.

These two works of art, mounted in K11 Atrium within a few months of each other, ex­plore how our per­cep­tions of in and out might change with­out warn­ing. In a way they also serve as a me­taphor for pri­vately owned pub­lic spa­ces, such as K11 is. Hong Kong’s only “art mall” was founded with a view to mak­ing art and com­merce a si­mul­ta­ne­ous ex­pe­ri­ence. Vis­i­tors to K11 are ex­pected “to ap­pre­ci­ate art while shop­ping”.

When a pri­mar­ily profit-driven, cor­po­rate-man­aged prop­erty gives up part of its space to ex­hibit art for free, the ges­ture is both rad­i­cal and beau­ti­fully imag­i­na­tive, much the same way as Shen’s gi­ant bal­loon and Song’s bot­tom­less glass “well” are in the way they re­sist the idea of the out­side-in­side bi­nary as be­ing ab­so­lute and ir­refutable.

Hap­pily, K11 is not the only com­mer­cial en­ter­prise in Hong Kong to put art un­der the same roof as re­tail trade. Hongkong Land hosts art shows pe­ri­od­i­cally in its Ro­tunda at the Ex­change Square and Land­mark Atrium, where mu­seum-worthy pieces by classic West­ern master pain­ters, Peter Paul Rubens and Pierre-Au­guste Renoir were on show along­side works by heavy­weights of Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary art, Luis Chan and Chu Teh-chun, in March. In July Pa­cific Place held an ex­hi­bi­tion of Hong Kong land­scapes by city artists to raise funds for a char­ity.

The great lev­eler

The day when a Zhang Xiao­gang or a Liu Wei com­petes with Gucci bags and Louboutin heels for au­di­ence at­ten­tion from the same store win­dow may not be that far away. The sculptor Richard X. Zawitz, whose show Civ­i­liza­tion and the Mon­key con­cluded last month at the Ro­tunda in Ex­change Square at Cen­tral, prob­a­bly won’t mind such an even­tu­al­ity. In March, Zawitz’s shiny, idio­syn­cratic me­tal­lic loops which play­fully im­i­tate the hu­man form were part of a dis­play show­cas­ing pouch bags by JW An­der­son at Co­lette in Paris. The Zenin­spired “tan­gles”, which is Zawitz’s trade­mark style, were repli­cated in the de­sign of the bag han­dles.

Zawitz seems un­fazed by the fact that many in the au­di­ence came to check out the fash­ion ac­ces­sory and got to see his sculp­tures by de­fault.

“What I like about ex­hibit­ing in malls is that there’re a lot of ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­er­ies by peo­ple per­haps less in­clined to art,” says Zawitz. “Here you are reach­ing peo­ple who never go to mu­se­ums, reach­ing a broader au­di­ence, bring­ing cre­ativ­ity to them.”

He fondly re­calls school chil­dren troop­ing down to his last show at the Ex­change Square and how they made sketches of his sculp­tures, some of them scrib­bling “I love you, Richard” notes on the draw­ings. There was also a gen­tle­man who walked up to the cen­ter­piece, Zawitz’s ab­stract ren­di­tion of a tree. “He started pray­ing to the tree, to the in­vis­i­ble en­ergy it seemed to dis­sem­i­nate,” says Zawitz, still quite over­whelmed by the power of his own cre­ation.

It also felt like a vindication of his artistic goals. “I want my au­di­ence to en­gage with my art, look at it, feel it … smell it. I very much cre­ate art hop­ing they would evoke pas­sion in peo­ple and in­spire.”

The Ro­tunda seemed like a per­fect fit, not only be­cause “its 30-meter di­am­e­ter and the amaz­ing dome which re­flects the positive en­ergy from around the en­vi­ron­ment” matched Zawitz’s Zen-in­spired sculp­tures in spirit, but also be­cause of the amaz­ing cross sec­tion of peo­ple it drew. There were bus driv­ers, Filipino maids, bank ex­ec­u­tives in business suits and high-pro­file art col­lec­tors.

Pig­gy­back­ing on lux­ury goods

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 in­ter- im, 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, free­stand­ing on the ground or dis­played on the wall,” ex­plains Lee. “Also these are air-con­di­tioned, 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 prof­i­to­ri­ented. 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 tonguein-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.

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.

Lee Jee-young’s pho­tographs 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.

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