It was a Tuesday morning when the Highways Department received a complaint that a statue of a naked man was blocking the sidewalk of Queen’s Road. A contractor rushed to the scene and fenced off the statue while the department launched an investigation. What exactly was this naked man doing in Central?

The man was Antony Gormley, of course, and the statue was one of 31 works installed around Hong Kong as part of Event Horizon, an exhibition that runs until May 18. The show had already drawn controversy because many of the statues were installed on rooftops, which led some passersby to think they were people attempting suicide. But the complaint about the ground-level statue on Queen’s Road was something new.

The Highways Department removed its barriers as soon as it realised the statue had been approved and promoted by the government itself. (“I wish Event Horizon a huge success and Sir Antony a most enjoyable stay in Hong Kong,” said none other than Chief Secretary Carrie Lam at the exhibition’s launch in November.) The incident provoked ridicule, but it also raised a thorny question: just what is Hong Kong’s problem with public art?

Ju Ming - Tai Chi in Exchange Square

Ju Ming’s Taichi Single Whip Dip in Exchange Square

Hong Kong has hosted some truly exceptional public artworks through the years. The MTR has a well-respected public art programme, while private landowners like Swire and Hongkong Land have stocked their plazas and office lobbies with sculptures by world-renowned artists like Henry Moore, who has sculptures in Connaught Place and Exchange Square, and Ju Ming, whose Taichi: Single Whip Dip (1986) is in Exchange Square. One-off shows like Tracey Emin’s My Heart is With You Always, a neon installation that graced the façade of the Peninsula Hotel in 2014, and Mobile M+: Inflation!, which turned a dusty lot in West Kowloon into a playground of giant inflatable sculptures, won over both critics and the public. When the Umbrella Revolution took over the streets of Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay in 2014, it was accompanied by an explosion of creativity as protesters made sculptures, paintings and umbrella-themed installations.

Henry Moore's sculpture by Jardine's House

Henry Moore sculpture next to Jardine House

And yet Hong Kong is also filled with gilded dragons and oversized goldfish, not to mention the golden bauhinia that draws busloads of mainland tourists and nothing but scorn from Hongkongers. Installations like a HK$1.2 million goose statue built in Sham Tseng, which is famous for its roast goose restaurants, has led to suggestions that the city’s district councils are wasting their money on frivolous decoration. Hong Kong is a city of contradictions and nowhere is this more clear than in its relationship to public art, which vacillates between thought-provoking programmes and meaningless kitsch. Even artwork by acclaimed artists is somehow mismanaged, like Happy Man, a nine-metre-tall bronze sculpture by Larry Bell that stands in front of Langham Place on Argyle Street. Though its spindly limbs seem to invite passersby to lean against them, a security guard is present to shoo away anyone who gets too close to the art.

“There’s a conceptual problem,” says Oscar Ho, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Fine Arts. “Public art means it’s an artwork that relates specifically to the space where it is located, either in terms of its environment, its usage or characteristic of the space, or the people using the space. A lot of the time I don’t see that kind of consideration. People just stick something in a public area and call it art.”

Lynn Chadwick, Sitting Couple, 1989-1990, Bronze, in Open Plaza, Exchange Square Hong Kong - Photograph of Stuart Howe Courtesy Mc Namara Art Project

Lynn Chadwick, Sitting Couple, 1989-1990, in Exchange Square. Photograph by Stuart Howe, courtesy McNamara Art Projects

This month, a slew of ambitious public art programmes will coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong, which runs from March 24 to 26. Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima will transform the city’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre, into Time Waterfall, a light installation that runs from March 21 to 26. McNamara Art Projects is bringing a collection of sculptures by the late British artist Lynn Chadwick to public spaces around Central. Portuguese artist Vhils will take over the roof of Central Ferry Pier 4 with his exhibition Debris, which also includes a tram transformed into a moving artwork.

Those works will join a collection of permanent public artworks that is more extensive than most people realise. The MTR has commissioned public art since 1998, and its newest stations are packed with art, including eight pieces in Sai Ying Pun station alone. Some of the MTR’s artworks have become neighbourhood landmarks, like Rosanna Li’s charming People Passing By, People Lazing By outside Yau Tong station. The government’s Art Promotion Office regularly commissions new work, a tradition that goes back decades; sculptures abound in green spaces like Kowloon Park. “Growing up in Kowloon, my first experience with public art was in Park Lane and Kowloon Park,” says Christina Li, the curator at Spring Workshop, who used to work for a public art organisation in the Netherlands. Just about anyone who walks down Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui will have encountered the clasped hands of Van Lau’s 1989 sculpture Please.

People lazing by while watching MTR passengers zooming by

Rosanna Li’s People Passing By, People Lazing By at Yau Tong MTR

The problem is that much of Hong Kong’s public art is terrible. “You can’t quite get your head around why it’s so bad,” says art critic John Batten. “There’s obviously an intent to do something but it all comes out as this kind of blob.” Historically, much of the art that has been installed in Hong Kong’s public spaces has been conceptually timid – more decoration than art. Edgy works have been softened, like the César Baldaccini’s 1990 sculpture outside the Cultural Centre, which was originally named The Freedom Fighter as a tribute to the victims of the Tiananmen Square carckdow, but which was renamed to The Flying Frenchman to avoid controversy. “They’re very paranoid about safety, about being offensive to people, so nothing can be too critical,” says Batten.

(University campuses seem to be an exception: Jens Galschiot’s Pillar of Shame (1997) stands tall at the University of Hong Kong, while students at Chinese University are greeted by Chen Weiming’s Goddess of Democracy (2008), both tributes to the students who perished in Tiananmen Square.)

Li says this aversion to controversy might stem from the general public’s aversion to dealing with thorny social and political issues. “That snap judgement [about Event Horizon] really said a lot about how people are thinking about the city now – they don’t want to talk about deep issues,” she says. If Gormley’s rooftop statues raised questions about suicide, maybe it was a good thing, considering it is a major social problem in Hong Kong. “Art is the idea of the encounter,” says Li. “Is it about a statue or something more meaningful and reflective?”

There are a number of ways to encourage more meaningful art. Many cities fund art through a so-called “one percent” programme, which requires every new development to devote one percent of its budget to new art. Li also says there needs to be a more unified approach to commissioning art, rather than the hodgepodge approach that Hong Kong now takes. “Commissioning processes need to change to be more participatory and connected to the local community,” says Li. “It’s important to rally everyone together to talk about what they’re trying to achieve with their public art spending. Otherwise, it’s easy in Hong Kong to work in your own little nook forever without talking to anyone else.”

For Vancouver-born artist Erika Wong, it’s a question that goes beyond spending: her public artworks are intimately tied to the places that host them. “I’m an advocate that what you see isn’t what you get,” she says. “For me, public art is essential for caring about where you live and why you live there. It’s your identity. And if you don’t have that, you’re lost.”

Giant Washing clothes

Erika Wong’s installation on Bonham Strand

Wong’s projects touch on intangible themes like community and what she describes as “the loss of understanding history” in Hong Kong. “It’s easy to take for granted the things you see without wondering why she exists,” she says. Her past projects have included a tree of giant clothespins on Bonham Strand that evokes the street’s projecting signboards and the dried seafood shops they advertise. She is now working on a land art-style floor installation on Po Yan Street that will draw inspiration from the ancestral tablets in Pak Sing Temple, the history of Tung Wah Hospital and the patchwork of concrete slabs that define the texture of Hong Kong’s streets. “You have to make people care about things they would otherwise ignore,” says Wong.

Last December, Italian-born, Hong Kong-based architect Francesco Rossini launched a series of installations that were designed to help the public think critically about public space. Rossini went to privately-managed public spaces like Grand Millennium Plaza in Sheung Wan and left illuminated cubes for people to use. Bit by bit, they took the cubes and used them as seats, rearranging them to suit their needs. It was half art project, half urban design initiative – one that highlighted how Hongkongers can take a more active role in managing their urban space.

In some ways, these kinds of ephemeral interventions can have a more lasting impact than a permanent sculpture or statue. “When we walk the same routes every day, things inevitably fade into the background,” says Greg McNamara, who curated the Lynn Chadwick exhibition in Central. He partnered with property owner Hongkong Land for the show. “Working with the government was not on the radar,” he says, because it would have been such a long, slow and bureaucratic process. (Event Horizon took several years to gain approval from the authorities.) At the same time, he was wary of Chadwick’s works becoming “shopping mall decoration,” which is why he is organising a series of daily guided tours for the public.

Vhil's tram waddling on line 170

Vhils’ tram installation

For Debris, Portuguese artist Vhils worked with Hongkong Tramways to transform one tram into a roving artwork. “It’s not only a public art piece, it’s subverting the idea of advertising space and linking together different neighbourhoods,” says curator Lauren Every-Wortman. The tram’s round-trip journey from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan and back will take about three hours, meaning that it will pass by any given spot about five or six times a day. In many parts of town, it will be the only public art around.

For all its controversy, Every-Wortman credits Event Horizon with changing the discourse around public art in Hong Kong. “When it runs its course, people will be expecting new things to happen,” she says. “People are a lot more empowered by it. That’s why it’s important to make any sort of public art more visible – like on the sidewalk instead of tucked into Hong Kong Park,” she says. Even if it means confusing the Highways Department.

Debris runs from 22 March to 4 April, 2016, at Central Ferry Pier 4. For more information click here.

Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon runs until 18 May 2016 in Central and Admiralty. For more information click here.

Lynn Chadwick’s public sculptures can be seen around Central until 15 April 2016.
For more information click here.

Time Waterfall by Tatsuo Miyajimaon will run on the ICC from 21 March to 26 March 2016. For more information click here.