were just some of the adjectives Hongkongers used to describe Antony Gormley’s
when it landed in Central late last year. Following the erection of 31 fibreglass statues, police were inundated with calls from worried residents about naked men standing on the edges of skyscrapers. Confusion reigned at street level, too; one of the sculptures, on the Queen’s Road Central footpath, was deemed an “obstruction” and temporarily barricaded by the Highways Department after a complaint from a member of the public.
Hong Kong’s ever-cautious lawmakers must have been biting their fingernails over the drama, perhaps even questioning the merits of the controversial project they’d approved. For the city’s cultural commentators, however, the palaver did nothing more than highlight the city’s dire need for more—and, indeed, more challenging—public art.
“These wrong kinds of reactions to Event Horizon showed just how immature the citizens are in regard to public art,” says cultural commentator Kai-yin Lo. “Gormley’s Event Horizon is a path-finding public art project. More projects need to follow—and soon.”
The term public art refers to works that have been planned and executed with the intention of being exhibited in the public domain, usually outdoors and accessible to everyone. The phenomenon is as old as civilisation itself, but before the 20th century it generally took the form of majestic monuments to leaders and resplendent religious art—propagandistic works for church and state.
Public art came into its own in the mid-20th century as contemporary artists vied to create surprising, confronting and cathartic pieces after the Second World War. Since then, good public art has become a mainstay of thriving cultural centres. Projects like the Fourth Plinth commission in London, Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi Beach in Sydney, and sculpture trails in Bilbao, Spain, and Chicago’s Millennium Park draw thousands of visitors every year, spur rich dialogue within communities and elevate the profile of cities on the world stage.
Whether permanent or temporary, commissioned publicly or privately, the best public art draws on its context and resonates with the community in which it sits. Lo notes that Gormley’s Angel of the North (near Gateshead in the UK), for example, has “given a definitive lift to the area and has become a symbol of regeneration for an otherwise dull and grey district.”
Tim Marlow, director of artistic programmes at the Royal Academy of Arts, has never subscribed to the view that art is “good for you” and that it should be prescribed like medicine in a “nanny-knows- Maquette VI Walking Woman (1984) is one of 25 works by Lynn Chadwick coming to Hong Kong this month