Gallery Without Walls: The Case For Public Art in Hong Kong
Public art is the lifeblood of the world’s foremost cultural hubs, but Hong Kong has been slow to embrace it. We examine the need for culture in daily life and speak to the people making it happen
Disturbing, outrageous and frightenting were just some of the adjectives Hongkongers used to describe Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon 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-best” way. He does, however, think a good approach to public art can create a more dynamic city: “It creates space and adds focal points. This helps build civic pride and quality of life.”
Property developer Goodwin Gaw agrees. Gaw was instrumental in bringing Event Horizon to Hong Kong and believes public art, as the most accessible form of art, plays a major role in strengthening community identity—even in keeping the peace. “One way to give hope to the youth of today is to make them proud of what Hong Kong is all about. Hope will generate social stability and make a city or country stronger.”
Greg McNamara, founder of the consultancy McNamara Art Projects, sees public art as crucial in addressing a pressing need to “democratise” art. To that end, he has brought a collection of sculptures by Royal Academician Lynn Chadwick to Hong Kong to be displayed throughout Exchange Square, Jardine House, Chater House and Landmark this month. “In Hong Kong, everyone’s exposure to art is mainly through Art Basel,” says McNamara. “Public art brings art to everyone.”
Attempts to define the value of public art are inevitably lofty and abstract. Its benefits to society are not easily quantifiable, which may explain why Hong Kong—a business mecca where the bottom line is top of mind and land is at a premium—has been so reticent to embrace it.
It’s safe to say that bar a few admirable efforts, Hong Kong’s endeavours in public art have been sparse and, many would argue, woeful. “Most of it is lamentable rubbish,” says art critic John Batten, making exceptions for Elisabeth Frink’s Water Buffalo outside Exchange Square and a light sculpture by Xu Bing behind New Town Plaza in Sha Tin. “Where public art does exist in this city, it has been designed by a committee and, worse, often approved through layers of bureaucracy. This means a homogenised, non-controversial artwork is selected; it’s boring and—often unintentionally—kitsch. Art with no relevance is the worst kind of public art. It is art to be mocked or ignored.” Many of the city’s creative visionaries see the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s (LCSD) process for commissioning public art as laughable. “Hong Kong does not have a public art policy,” says Kai-yin Lo. “The LCSD has a piecemeal attitude, putting works here and there, usually in a locale outside the Museum of Art.”
In many ways it has become the prerogative of private institutions and individuals to fill the void—a mission not without its challenges. When Rainy Chan, general manager of The Peninsula Hong Kong, appealed to the government to approve plans to exhibit Richard Wilson’s bus sculpture Hang on a Minute Lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea on the facade of her hotel last year, she was met with mass confusion. “Our project did not fit into any government department category. We would send the application to one government department and they would say, ‘Oh, no, this is not us.’ So we’d go to the next one and they would say the same thing. So we had to knock on literally every door to figure out where we had to go exactly. That took a long time. The government had never seen anything like it.”
No one understands the hurdles better than art consultants Levina Li-Cadman and Sarah Pringle. After helping Rainy Chan in her mission, they were called upon by Antony Gormley and the British Council as fixers for Event Horizon. “It took a lot of people to make something that has never happened in this city happen,” says Pringle of the Gormley project.
Event Horizon was three years in the planning and was stymied numerous times—first by the withdrawal of major sponsor Hongkong Land, which got cold feet following the suicide of a banker who jumped from a building in Central, then by an incredibly drawn-out government approval process. “Most major cities have a public art planning policy in place. Here, we had to consult all government departments and seek written permission from eight of them,” says Li-Cadman. “If any department had disapproved, the project wouldn’t have happened.” In the end, the British Council made an appeal directly to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who saw value in the project. “She is very supportive of creativity,” says Pringle. “If it wasn’t for her pushing, Event Horizon wouldn’t have happened.”
One of the major problems, continues Pringle, is that the Buildings Department, which must assess and approve all construction in and around private buildings, doesn’t have a category for public art. This makes it incredibly difficult for private institutions to erect art in public spaces. “When you apply to the Buildings Department, you will find there is a category for billboards, one for temporary works, one for signage, but there is no box to tick for public art. If we had been trying to erect a neon sign or an advertisement, it would have been much easier.”
A reason often cited for the lack of public art is the lack of space. Kai-yin Lo thinks that’s a cop-out. “Congested living conditions mean there is all the more reason to install art and design to create ‘stopping’ moments to rouse reactions,” she says. Lo calls for an “enlightened treatment of the Hong Kong waterfront as a showplace and an engaging, participatory creative area for the people of Hong Kong.” While the West Kowloon Cultural District park will serve as a small hub for public art (the 2013 pop-up exhibition Inflation! gave citizens a taste of the big things to come), Lo believes many more small pockets throughout the city need to be devised. Tim Marlow agrees: “Public art can’t just be put in a small enclave; it has to be part of the planning or the thinking. A more integrated conversation between artists and architects in devising public spaces needs to take place.”
Urban planning has never been Hong Kong’s strong suit. The city’s priority, first and foremost, is business efficiency. Pedestrians are secondary to motor vehicles, and developers are quick to maximise their indoor space. Implementing a more comprehensive creative policy that involves architects and artists in the creation of public spaces is critical in the long term, says Marlow. This, he thinks, would be more effective than implementing “per-cent-for-art schemes,” like that of New York City, where a percentage of the budget for city-funded construction projects must be spent on public artwork.
But space need not be a requisite for good public art. While immense works like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park or Gormley’s Angel of the North may be visually arresting, one of the most powerful works Marlow can remember was Tracey Emin’s Baby Things, which appeared at the Folkestone Triennial in 2008. Emin had scattered tiny baby clothes, cast in bronze but painted to imitate the real things, throughout the English seaside town. “They were sited very discreetly and you hardly noticed them, but the local population really engaged,” says Marlow, noting that Folkestone has one of the highest instances of teenage pregnancy in the UK. “This was a powerful anti-monument.”
Furthermore, temporary artworks and the use of temporary sites can often be more potent than permanent public art. “It’s critical that artists are given opportunities to have interesting conversations with urban environments,” says Marlow. “People don’t mind risky or ambitious works when they’re temporary, and these kind of works can often engage with people in ways that permanent monuments can’t. Consider Event Horizon. What is there to lose by doing a major sculptural project like that? If the people love it, then that’s fantastic; if it doesn’t resonate with them, then it’s removed after however many months. Far better to take a chance on daring work like that than to erect more of those bronze turds you find all over the world in plazas that mean nothing to anyone and provide nothing more than a decorative backdrop.”
One of the best exhibitions that Cassius Taylor-Smith can remember seeing in this city was a 2012 M+ pop-up in disused commercial and industrial spaces in Yau Ma Tei. “It curated diverse work and it was impressively executed,” says Taylor-Smith, who has tried to ignite a conversation about public space for years in this city through Very Hong Kong, the not-for-profit foundation he co-founded. “Its ambition was excellent, but it was too early to drive the crowd it deserved.”
The question is: Do Hongkongers now have a greater appetite for vibrant public art initiatives, particularly considering the degree of investment they entail? “I don’t think there is an appetite per se, purely because people have had so little exposure to it,” says McNamara. “In Florence, for example, people are surrounded by beautiful things and art is constantly impacting people’s lives. Here it’s a case of people not knowing what they’re missing.”
Just because the people aren’t demanding more doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort, says Rainy Chan. “We are so busy in Hong Kong. If art isn’t around you and part of your daily life, then you don’t think about it. My godchildren are busier working on the weekends than I am, so how, I ask, are we to fit art and culture into their busy little lives? It’s all about having art readily available, so people can’t miss it. Public art serves that purpose. We need to do this for the good of our next generation and to ensure Hong Kong is a culturally rich destination.”
This story was originally published in Hong Kong Tatler's March 2016 issue