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Public Art in Hong Kong: Art, People and Public Space

With its inauguration on 22 February, the first “Harbour Arts Sculpture Park” has brought a total of 22 sculptures to the Central and Western District Promenade and Wanchai of Hong Kong. Sculptures by overseas artists such as Michael Craig-Martin, Antony Gormley, Mark Wallinger and Yayoi Kusama, alongside works by four Hong Kong artists, are expecting thousands of visitors until its closing in mid-April.

Public art projects are indeed nothing new to this city. Most Hong Kong people should have encountered the different outdoor sculptures installed outside and inside commercial skyscrapers, such as Henry Moore’s huge bronze sculpture Double Oval which is the landmark of the Jardine House, and Salvador Dali’s intriguing Woman Aflame (1980) at the atrium of Landmark, both of which are renowned high-rise buildings in Hong Kong’s central business district. In the recent decade, K11, the first “art mall” in town, as they would call themselves, is where artworks appear to be even more accessible. Thomas Heatherwick’s Spun Chairs, for instance, have become a permanent facility which welcomes visitors to play with, or simply to sit on.  With their abundant existence, public art pieces are becoming part of Hong Kong city dwellers’ daily perception of our cityscape.

One of Antony Gormley’s “Event Horizon” sculptures among the pedestrians at Theatre Lane of Central, 2015. Photography: Oak Taylor-Smith

In November 2015, the British Council in Hong Kong brought Antony Gormley’s “Event Horizon” to the city. Over a period of six months, 27 life-size sculptures were placed on the skyline looking at the city while the other four literally on the pedestrian walkway in Central, the busiest district in town. The routine cityscape was intervened and disturbed by these abrupt strangers to the public. Preliminary response from people in Hong Kong was similar to people from other cities, and a number of “attempted suicide” reports were sent to the police. It, however, did not take long for the public to figure out these newcomers in the city. Not only people take visually stunning photos of the sculptures on the rooftops of buildings, the ones installed on the road at tangible distance encouraged further physical interactions with pedestrians. From touching, hugging and posing to take selfies with the sculpture, people came up with even more astonishing ideas. A Christmas party was held at the Theatre Lane, a main walkway of the district, with people gathered around the sculpture, the VIP of the night, with food and wine and best wishes. These sculptures, which Gormley described as the tiny needles of acupuncture to “release an energy (in the city) that wouldn’t otherwise arise”, opened up space for new possibilities and interactions among the city dwellers.

Though more public arts projects are introduced in Hong Kong in the recent decade, it is actually quite a luxury for the city. With a population of over 7 million, the total size of the city is just slightly over 1,100 square kilometres. Hong Kong, an ultra-densely populated cosmopolitan, has never as in lack of public space as now. Lesley Lau, the head of Art Promotion Office (APO), is convinced that the lack of space is the utmost obstacle faced by public art projects. She explains that there should be two key components in “public art” – “people” and “space”. Despite the scarcity of “space” in Hong Kong, Lau believes that “people”, as members of the general public, and their interaction with the art pieces, matters more than the “space” in which the artworks situate. APO under the Leisure & Cultural Services Department (LCSD), as a government arm, therefore has been one of the most active and enthusiastic force to support and initiate public art events in Hong Kong. Departing from the twentieth century common understanding of “public art” as standalone sculptures in public space, APO has a different take about what public art should be. “We inspire artists to explore through their imaginations of the environment, to come up with creative place-making ideas, and from that they can communicate with the people (from the community),” said Lau.