See­ing is Be­liev­ing

When it comes to build­ing sup­port for a cause, a pic­ture—or sculp­ture, in­stal­la­tion or pho­to­graph— speaks a thou­sand words. Madeleine Ross in­ves­ti­gates the rise of art as a tool for phi­lan­thropy

Hong Kong Tatler - - December -

It’s said that an im­age can speak a thou­sand words. We in­ves­ti­gate the rise of art as a tool for phi­lan­thropy


The dras­tic de­cline in shark pop­u­la­tions has been widely pub­li­cised over the past few years. In line with this growth in aware­ness, ef­forts to curb consumption of shark fins have soared. En­vi­ron­men­tal groups have been cam­paign­ing vig­or­ously to ed­u­cate Chi­nese con­sumers about the un­sus­tain­abil­ity of the trade and pres­sur­ing law­mak­ers to ban the sale of the cov­eted car­ti­lage. Laws to re­duce its preva­lence on the din­ing scene have also been im­ple­mented: in 2013, Main­land China for­bade the serv­ing of shark fin soup at gov­ern­ment ban­quets as part of a crack­down on ex­cess. De­spite such ef­forts, th­ese fish con­tinue to be ag­gres­sively hunted. An es­ti­mated 100 mil­lion sharks are killed ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group Wildaid, with fins from up to 73 mil­lion of th­ese used in shark fin soup. The sit­u­a­tion re­mains crit­i­cal.

On Sharks and Hu­man­ity is the lat­est at­tempt to curb the killing of sharks, but it takes an ap­proach very dif­fer­ent from pre­vi­ous cam­paigns. Con­cep­tu­alised and com­mis­sioned by Parkview Arts Ac­tion, the char­i­ta­ble arm of the property-fo­cused Parkview Group, the ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures more than 50 works by con­tem­po­rary artists that re­flect on the beauty and vul­ner­a­bil­ity of sharks, the bar­bar­ity of their slaugh­ter, and the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween sharks, other marine life and hu­mans.

At the ex­hi­bi­tion’s core is the con­cept of “so­cial sculp­ture,” a term coined by Ger­man artist Joseph Beuys for art that serves a so­cial pur­pose. Beuys, a pro­lific cre­ator and out­spo­ken mem­ber of the neodadaist Fluxus move­ment in the 1960s, be­lieved art is the most po­tent “evo­lu­tion­ary-rev­o­lu­tion­ary power” and should be used to re­shape pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety for the bet­ter. On Sharks and Hu­man­ity em­braces this idea, says Huang Du, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor. “We are try­ing to use the trans­for­ma­tive power of art to spur change in the com­mu­nity. By en­gag­ing the pop­u­la­tion on an emo­tional level, we hope to com­pel the au­di­ence to turn ap­a­thy into ac­tivism,” he says.

Anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tion by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has al­ready cut sales of shark fins, notes Huang, but he hopes this cam­paign will spark rather more per­sonal—and pro­found—changes of heart. “This is not about bans or tute­lage. It’s about fos­ter­ing in­ter­nal re­al­i­sa­tions.”

Huang knows the power of art. He was an ad­viser to the 2012 Echigo-tsumari Art Tri­en­nale, cu­ra­tor for the Chi­nese pav­il­ion at the São Paulo Bi­en­nale in 2004 and as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor for the Chi­nese pav­il­ion at the Venice Bi­en­nale in 2003. It’s lit­tle won­der Parkview’s phil­an­thropic chair­man, Ge­orge Wong, asked Huang to cu­rate On Sharks and Hu­man­ity.

Wong wields his own artis­tic brawn. An aes­thete with the largest col­lec­tion of works by Salvador Dalí out­side Spain, the ec­cen­tric, grey-haired ty­coon has driven Parkview’s pa­tron­age of the arts over the years and was in­stru­men­tal in the found­ing of Parkview Arts Ac­tion.

The man­date of the or­gan­i­sa­tion is to use art to raise aware­ness of crit­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and to en­cour­age de­bate about sus­tain­abil­ity in the arts, busi­ness and sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ties, as well as among ad­vo­cacy groups and the pub­lic. Af­ter this ex­hi­bi­tion, Parkview Arts Ac­tion plans to com­mis­sion works on the sub­jects of pol­lu­tion and waste. “Peo­ple love beau­ti­ful things and artists cre­ate works of great beauty,” says Wong when asked why he con­sid­ers art an ef­fec­tive means of ac­tivism. “It res­onates with peo­ple. You can see it, touch it, en­gage with it. It’s a direct ap­proach.”

He’s not the only phi­lan­thropist pin­ning his hopes on art. Over the past 12 months, so­cial sculp­ture has come to the fore in nu­mer­ous char­i­ta­ble cam­paigns. In Jan­uary, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion used art as the cen­tre­piece in a global cru­sade for im­mu­ni­sa­tion. Called The Art of Saving a Life, the project in­vited 30 artists to il­lus­trate the cru­cial role vac­ci­na­tion has played in wip­ing out fa­tal diseases. The cam­paign fea­tured work by pho­tog­ra­phers An­nie Lei­bovitz, Se­bastião Sal­gado and Alexia Sin­clair, and artists Ola­fur Elias­son and Vik Mu­niz, to name just a few.

Mu­niz, whose work fea­tured ex­ten­sively in the 2010 Acad­emy Award­nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary Waste

Land, do­nated what looks like a red flo­ral print, aptly named Flow­ers. It is, in fact, a mag­ni­fied pho­to­graph of liver cells in­oc­u­lated with the small­pox vac­cine.

Sin­clair cre­ated a stylised pe­riod tableau fea­tur­ing English sci­en­tist and small­pox vac­cine pioneer Ed­ward Jen­ner im­mu­nis­ing a young boy. An aris­to­cratic woman in the cen­tre of the im­age rep­re­sents the in­dis­crim­i­nate na­ture of the dis­ease, which af­fected both rich and poor, while the whim­si­cal gar­den ref­er­ences the Chi­nese term for small­pox, “heav­enly flow­ers”.

In­trigu­ing, vis­ually stun­ning and in­nately sharable, th­ese im­ages went vi­ral and be­came the stars in a pro­lific on­line cam­paign to in­spire con­ver­sa­tions about the value of im­mu­ni­sa­tion. “Im­ages are es­sen­tial tools in get­ting peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. But the world is sat­u­rated with them, so they have to be un­usual, pow­er­ful and provoca­tive to get trac­tion,” says Sin­clair. “Words are es­sen­tial, but you can’t have one with­out the other.”

The ul­ti­mate goal of the ini­tia­tive was to spur do­na­tions to Gavi, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that fa­cil­i­tates ac­cess to vac­cines for chil­dren in third-world coun­tries. At Gavi’s an­nual con­fer­ence, which took place a few weeks af­ter the launch of the cam­paign, more than US$7.5 bil­lion was raised to im­mu­nise 300 mil­lion chil­dren—a re­sound­ing suc­cess.

The lat­est form of art-driven ad­vo­cacy is un­der way in New York City. Con­cep­tu­alised by film­maker Mary Jor­dan, The Wa­ter Tank Project was in­spired by a trip she made to Ethiopia. Jor­dan was hor­ri­fied by the scarcity of clean drink­ing wa­ter. Peo­ple would trek up to eight hours to get wa­ter, and much of the time it was con­tam­i­nated. Such was her in­tro­duc­tion to an is­sue that af­fects one­fifth of the world’s pop­u­la­tion; about 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple live in ar­eas of wa­ter scarcity, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.


When Jor­dan ar­rived back in New York, she was de­ter­mined to make the world aware of the global wa­ter cri­sis. She chose art as her medium—and the thou­sands of rooftop wa­ter tanks around New York as her can­vases. She asked artis­tic lu­mi­nar­ies, in­clud­ing Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Bruce We­ber and Mark Brad­ford to cre­ate works on the sub­ject of wa­ter that would be tem­po­rar­ily wrapped around the tanks pep­per­ing the city’s sky­line. “Artists speak a lan­guage ev­ery­one un­der­stands in some ca­pac­ity,” says Jor­dan. “It changes con­scious­ness and it’s a pos­i­tive way to in­spire peo­ple.”

Not only does art have an un­par­al­leled power to af­fect peo­ple, it also im­mor­talises a mes­sage and pro­longs the life­span of a cam­paign. Fol­low­ing a grand re­cep­tion in New York, Jor­dan will take The

Wa­ter Tank Project to cities across the Mid­dle East. In ad­di­tion to its pre­sen­ta­tion in Beijing, On Sharks and

Hu­man­ity has been shown in Monaco and Moscow, and Wong hopes to take it to North Amer­ica, Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore. The nu­mer­ous works cre­ated for The Art of Saving a Life are still be­ing dis­cussed and shared a year af­ter the cam­paign’s launch, and Sin­clair’s work is be­ing con­sid­ered for in­clu­sion in the Seat­tle Art Mu­seum’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. Art, it seems, is breath­ing new life into phi­lan­thropy.

within reach works by Lau­rie Simmons (fore­ground) and Odili don­ald Odita as part of The wa­ter Tank project in new york City

heav­enly flow­ers From top: Fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy meets medicine in Ed­ward jen­ner’s Small­pox Dis­cov­ery by alexia Sin­clair; cells in­oc­u­lated with the small­pox vac­cine in Flow­ers by Vik mu­niz

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